Navigating dress codes can be tricky. What separates white tie from black tie? Are pencil skirts business professional or business casual? What does one wear to a cocktail party? With this guide, you won't have to be standing in your closet and scratching your head any longer. Here is a breakdown of common dress codes and what they mean:

White Tie

man and woman dressed up, toasting with champagne
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For a white tie event, you need to bring your A game. White tie is the most formal dress code there is, and it's important that you try to look your fanciest. For women, break out for most beautiful, floor-length ball gown -- bonus points if you accessorize with long, classy gloves.

This dress code requires work from the men, too -- don't just throw on a tux. A good bet for the men is to wear a dressy tailcoat with matching pants, a collared white shirt and accessorize with a bow tie and cufflinks.

Black Tie

man in tuxedo
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If you're a guy, this is an easy one -- for black tie events, just turn to a black tuxedo, and you're good to go. However, for the ladies, attending a black tie event can require some complicated decoding to ensure you meet the standard. Though black tie is not as formal as white tie, you still might want to opt for wearing a long, formal ball gown. However, a short, classy cocktail dress will also fit the dress code criteria for black tie events.

Black Tie Optional

black tie couple holding invitation on yellow background

Let's be real here, "black tie optional" kind of sounds like it was purposely made to be confusing. Is it black tie? Is it more casual? What will everyone else be wearing? For once, it's the men who have to do more of the guessing. For black-tie optional events, women should follow the same guidelines of black-tie -- a long, formal gown or a classy cocktail dress.

Men, on the other hand, have the option to wear a tuxedo like they would for black tie events, or they can choose to wear a suit, tie and shoe outfit. The safest bet when choosing to go the suit route is to stick to dark colors such as black or dark blues.


woman wearing blue patterned cocktail dress
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The "cocktail party" concept typically refers to a dressy-but-fun event in which the primary purpose is to celebrate and socialize, rather than to conduct more formal affairs. For men, this is yet another event in which a suit and tie is always a safe bet, and while a black color scheme is always safe, you can go a lighter route with your outfit at a cocktail party. You can also have a bit more fun and choose more funky colors and even wear fun, but not distracting, patterns.

Women attending a cocktail event should wear a short, typically above-the-knee, semi-formal party dress. Always keep it classy, but cocktail parties are also a place to explore some fun dress options as well. Don't be afraid of frill.

Business Formal

business men and women around a computer
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Business formal is the dress code of corporate America. Most frequently found at daytime events such as conferences and work lunches, a business formal dress code typically means a serious, well-tailored professional look. For men, this is easy; a suit and tie with coordinating dress shoes will suffice.

For women, there is more room for varied interpretation. Women attending an event with this dress code should opt for neutral colors, sharp structures and minimalistic accessorizing. Conservative dresses, pencil skirts or pantsuits are all great options for business professional dress. Accessorize with a watch and small necklace and you've got the perfect outfit.

Business Casual

woman wearing blouse and blazer
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Business casual is perhaps the most common dress code in corporate workplaces and intended to be functional yet formal. For both men and women, it is more defined by what is not allowed than what is: no sandals, sneakers, jeans, tank tops, graphic t-shirts, etc. For men, a typical business casual outfit might mean slacks and a collared shirt. For women, it's neutral-colored pants and blouses. Both men and women can complete their business casual looks with a blazer.

Smart Casual

men and women wearing smart casual clothes

Also known as "casual dressy" or "dressy casual," this dress code is a more dressed-up version of common casual looks. For men, this can mean trousers or nice, dark jeans with a button-up shirt. For women, wear dark jeans or a knee-length skirt with a nice top. Common items to avoid when dressing smart casual include shorts, short skirts, T-shirts and old jeans.


woman in shorts and black T-shirt against brick wall

Anything goes with a casual dress code, so feel free to dress comfortably. Unlike other dress codes, you might want to consciously avoid over-dressing lest you risk standing out. That said, it is still wise to make sure your clothes are clean, functional, matching and fit properly.

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