Deciphering Holiday Dress Codes

‘Tis the season for endless invitations. There are formal balls, office parties, neighborhood gatherings, church socials, family get-togethers, and more happening during the holidays, and with each invitation comes a specific dress code. Invitations may state “cocktail attire,” “black tie only,” or “business casual.” Or a new trend is “festive attire,” a holiday dress code so vague that guests aren’t sure what to wear!

Here is a handy guide to help you decipher holiday dress codes and find the perfect outfit to wear to all of your holiday gatherings.

Black Tie – This is code for a formal event. Men should wear tuxedos and women should dress in full-length, elegant gowns or shorter formal dresses, but stay away from mini-dresses. If the invitation specifies “Holiday Black Tie,” women might want to wear a great red dress with a beautiful wrap, a beaded bag, and dressy pumps.

Creative Black Tie – This still requires formal dress, but attire can be a little trendier and more fun. Some creative suggestions for women might be dressy black pants with a silky or sequined halter top and fancy heels, a satin ball-gown skirt paired with a bejeweled sweater set, or a modern cocktail dress. Men can go with a more modern tuxedo or a dark suit and a fun tie.

Cocktail Attire/Cocktail Attire Festive – Women can show off their knee-length party dresses paired with sexy sandals or even tailored pants with a silky or beaded top. A little black dress is always a good choice, and then you can add interest with accessories such as heels in a festive color, a faux-fur wrap, or statement jewelry. Men can wear dark-colored pants with a dress shirt and tie.

Festive Attire – Dress for the holidays! Add a bit of holiday color with reds, greens, silver, or gold. Dresses or silk or satin tops with beading or sparkle are perfect for this occasion. Men can add some holiday color with their shirts or even festive ties and dark pants.

Business Casual – Your outfit should communicate professionalism, especially if the event is a workplace function. Women can wear khakis, pants, or a skirt with a dressy T-shirt or sweater. Stay away from anything too revealing such as spaghetti straps or tank tops or super-short mini-skirts. Men should wear slacks or khakis with a collared shirt; ties are optional.

Casual – This typically means anything goes, but still dress with some sense of decorum in mind. Pull out that nice pair of jeans and pair them with a nice shirt or sweater. Make sure shoes for both women and men are nice and clean—leave the sneakers and flip flops at home.

Whatever the dress code, remember you are still going to a holiday party, so dressing festively is completely acceptable and even expected.

Social Graces: Solving the Dress Code Guessing Game

Who, what, when—wear? Deciphering an event’s dress code from the invitation can be quite the puzzler. Luckily, most leave clues as to the event’s appropriate attire. Here are a few tips for debunking your invite:
First, look to the bottom right corner of the invitation. Sometimes the host is very helpful and will leave a note announcing the dress code directly. The only hitch with this clue is knowing the lingo. Here’s a cheat sheet:

Black Tie – Ladies: Evening gown (preferred) or fancy cocktail dress. Men: Tuxedo (preferred) or dark-colored suit and tie.
Black Tie Optional – Ladies: Evening gown, cocktail dress or fancy suit. Men: Tuxedo or dark suit and tie.
Formal – Ladies: Fancy cocktail dress or suit. Men: Dark suit and tie.
Semi-Formal – Ladies: Cocktail dress or skirt and blouse. Men: Suit and tie or khakis and blazer with tie, light or dark.
Beach Formal – Ladies: A more formal sundress and flat sandals. Men: Light summer suit and sandals. Tie optional.
Casual – Ladies: Sundress, skirt or pants and blouse. Men: Dress pants and button-down shirt or polo.

No dress code listed? No worries! Invitation style, font, and details will help you avoid a fashion faux pas. First, take a look at the invitation as a whole. Is it on heavy cardstock? Is there filigree around the edges? Are the colors and design formal? If the invitation seems fancy, it’s almost guaranteed the event will be fancy, so lean to the Semi-Formal or Formal options. If the invitation is more relaxed, has a lot of color and a picture or art in the background, it will usually be less formal so lean towards Semi-Formal or Casual.
decoding wedding dress codes
Next, look to the font and verbiage of the invitation. Elegant cursive fonts have a fancier flair compared to a basic print.  Another indicator is the language used. If it says, “request the honor of your presence,” that is much more formal than “invite you to.” If you’re not sure about the sophistication of language, judge  by
whether you would say the phrase in normal conversation. If not, it’s likely a Semi-Formal or above event.

Finally, the details included offer informative clues. What time of day is the event? Daytime events (before 5p.m.) are less formal and, depending on the season, warmer, so lighter, more casual attire is appropriate. If the event takes place after 5 p.m., it likely falls in the Semi-Formal or above category. Another great clue is the location. A country club offers much fancier surroundings than a barn, and thus, guests’ attire will follow suit.

Still unsure? Ask someone closely involved with the event, so long as it’s not the bride, and, as a final rule of thumb: It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Photo: Invite from SincerelyJackie shop

What is the Difference Between Black-tie Optional and Formal?

Wedding guests have it tough. Sometimes it’s difficult to decipher exactly what to wear based on the time of day, especially these days as more and more weddings move away from the traditional noon and 5 pm, and instead walk the fine hours between 3-5 pm. Luckily we have the attire to accommodate even the most ambivalent wedding invitation. the difference between black tie and formalFrom semi-formal cocktail dresses to more formal social dresses, we’ll dress you to the nines, even if your wedding ends way before it. If you can’t figure out your ensemble based on the invitation’s hour, take note from the terminology and style instead:


If it says “Formal or Black-tie Optional,” a tuxedo is not required but is still appropriate, as is a dark suit. Ladies should opt for long dresses or cocktail-length in neutral hues. If it says “Semi-formal or Dressy Casual,” a light suit or dark is appropriate, and men should choose their suit color and type based on the ceremony time—before 3 pm, light, after 4pm, dark. Ladies should follow the same judgment: brighter colors earlier in the day, formal shades later.


Invitation style sets the stage for the couple and the wedding day more than you think. A plain invite with formal script and an ambiguous ceremony time of 4 pm, and we’d lean more toward floor length with neutral hues. A bright invite with not-so-formal typography and a late ceremony time, say 6 pm, and we’d lean more toward cocktail length and relaxed hues. While the wedding time and description are important, don’t forget to take stock in the style of the invitation and the couple in general. Both of these are key factors in choosing the best guest attire.