Dress Codes

Friday, December 18, 2009
It's the season when everyone ends up going to a whole string of Christmas and New Year parties. Casual team lunches, client dinners, business drinks, family parties, New Year cocktails; we're faced with a bewildering array of different dress codes, many of which won't be made entirely clear, leaving us no option but to make a few educated guesses.

Dress codes used to be easier, and there was a time when the only two options for an evening event were Black Tie or White Tie. The code was clearly stated on an invitation, and no room for confusion remained. This is certainly no longer the case, and a modern list of dress codes includes a bewildering range of possibilities.

I don't have space in this post to try and explain all the options out there, and there are many places that do this better (I reccomend a good men's style book from Debrett's or Esquire). Instead, what I would like to do is to provide a few tips to people who might find themselves needing to set a dress code, in the hope that by they can avoid some of the pitfalls that make dressing for an event more difficult than it really needs to be.

Be Bold
It's your party, you get to set the dress code. If you want people to wear Black Tie then make that the dress code, but don't qualify it with 'Black Tie Optional' or 'Black Tie Preferred'. This just creates confusion and guaruntees that at least a few people at your party will feel incorrectly dressed. Have the confidence to set a dress code and stick to it.

Be Specific
The classic dress codes of White Tie, Black Tie, Morning Dress and Lounge Suit are clear and unambiguous, everyone knows (or ought to know) what is expected of them.
Things get more complicated, however, with dress codes like 'smart-casual', 'business informal' or just 'smart'. I recently received an invitation with a dress code of 'smart' and this means nothing to me, since I consider both White Tie and a blazer and chinos to be pretty smart in different contexts. Instead of going down this route, say something specific like 'Jacket and tie'. This makes it clear what is expected, and also gives people clues as to the rest of the outfit. Faced with a 'jacket and tie' dress code, most men will know without being told that jeans are out, but a suit is not neccesary.

Consider the time of day
There's a move in some quarters towards seeing black tie as a catch-all formal outfit, which may explain why it is sometimes seen at day-time weddings. Unfortunately, black tie does not look its best in daytime, which is why it has traditionally been worn only after 6pm.
When setting your dress code it is best to bear this in mind and pick a dress code appropriate to the time of day. The daytime equivalent of Black Tie is generally a lounge suit, while the daytime equivalent of White Tie is Morning Dress.
Enjoy the Christmas parties.