How to Decipher Dress Codes


The invitation arrives in the mail. It states that the dress code is formal, or cocktail, or smart casual. Not to mention those that request lounge suit or morning suit. What do they mean? What do you wear? Never fear, Style Unearthed is here! Read on, and learn how to decipher dress codes.


Formal Wear Collage

Dress: George Kylie Evening Gown from Swish Clothing – $509.99 | Shoes: Lola2 from Betts – $74.99 (on sale) |                                   Clutch: Oroton Society Clutch – $495.00

A formal or black tie dress code means a long dress, or maxi dress (as long as it looks formal). I would err on the side of conservative, especially if it’s a very sophisticated event. It is best to wear heels if you are comfortable in them. If not, choose a dress that is long enough to hide a pair of ballet flats, but not too long to be stepped on. Sourcing a dress that doesn’t look too ‘bridesmaidy’ can be tricky at times, but choosing something in a neutral or dark colour will suit most occasions. Choosing something with a different neckline (such as a halter neck) to set it apart from others at the event. Your outfit can be accessorised with a wrap, pashmina or bolero if the weather is cool. Attending a formal event is the perfect time to have your hair and makeup done. A sleek up-do, beautiful blow dry or some GHD curls will complete the outfit. Keep accessories to a minimum, with one statement piece if you wish. Most makeup counters will give you a makeover for a reasonable fee, which can then be claimed back in product. A perfect win-win situation!


Cocktail Party

Dress: Leona Edminston Genevieve Dress – $172 (on sale) | Bag: Olga Berg Ladylike Handbag – $89.95 | Heel: Nine West Gee – $139.95

A cocktail party calls for a shorter dress – around knee length. You can afford to wear something a little more fun and flirty. The outfit I chose was a little more on the lady like side, and would suit a wedding or work function. You could also swap the black heels for a pair of patterned, colourful pumps, or add a bright bag. Consider your shoe choice if you know you’re going to be standing for the majority of the event – you don’t want sore feet! Some statement jewellery would also add some extra colour to the outfit and allow you to have some fun accessorising. Stores like Lovisa and Magnolia sell gorgeous costume jewellery at an affordable price. Their pieces are often colour coded, making it super easy to find something to match your outfit.

Smart Casual

Smart Casual

Dress: Diana Ferrari Zelma Dress – $139.95 (on sale) | Bag: Colette by Colette Hayman Plain Diagonal Envelope Clutch – $34.95 | Wedges: Dallas wedges by Betts – $99.99

Smart casual is the dress code you’re having, when you’re not having a dress code. It can suit so many occasions, and is perfect to pull out of your wardrobe at a moment’s notice. A smart casual outfit is ideal for this time of year as the ‘silly season’ approaches and parties and functions are in abundance. The outfit above would work for the races, a smart dinner, or an award ceremony (especially for end of year school events!). The floral print of the dress adds to it’s casual feel, and it can be accessorised with a variety of colours. Choosing a wedge shoe is a smart idea, as they are easier on your feet and knees. A neutral shoe can be a very useful addition to your wardrobe, being able to be worn with lots of different outfits. This dress would also work with coloured or neutral ballet flats or sandals, if you prefer a flatter shoe. The envelope clutch adds an extra pop of colour, but you could also choose something playing up to the blue accents in the dress.

Having a few dresses in your wardrobe that you can mix and match with will help you not get bored with your outfits, especially if they’re on high rotation during busy party seasons. You can change up accessories, hair and make up styles and jewellery to make them look different, but not blowing your budget.

What do you wear to formal, cocktail and smart casual events? Do you have a stock pile of outfits, or do you purchase a new one for each occasion? 



20 thoughts on “How to Decipher Dress Codes

  1. A very timely post with the Christmas party invites flooding in. Does black tie imply the colour of the outfit should also be black?

    • No, I wouldn’t say that. Men should wear a tuxedo to a black tie event, but women can wear any colour they like. Traditionally, you’d wear a long evening dress but you can get away with a cocktail dress to a black tie event, so long as it is pretty special.

    • Not at all! If it’s very formal I would probably stick with a more conservative colour and style of dress, but that is just me. The best thing to do would be to check with the host if long dresses are expected, and then go from there 🙂

  2. Great post! I’ve got a high tea baby shower to attend this Saturday. It’s at the Crown nod looks to be a place where I might need to dress up a little. The only problem? It’s a pink theme! I only have ONE pink v-neck sweater top and if the weather is warm this Saturday. I’m out of options! I prefer an event where they tell you straight up if it’s formal, cocktail or smart casual. Much easier to decipher. But I’m going to have to be creative and maybe accessorise in pink 😉

    • You could wear your Rubi Popbasic dress as a great canvas and then add pops of pink like nails, lips and a bright pink belt. Even just a length of pretty pink ribbon tied around your waist and in your hair would do the trick! Grey and pink is pretty together xx

  3. I have just received an invitation to a wedding with the dress code as “lounge suit”. From what I can tell – it is basically cocktail. I am sure in high society there is a clear difference but I don’t really run in those circles! ;-)!! When I see something classic I really like and it is on sale or a good price, I buy it. Sometimes you just have to hold onto things and their turn will come. The dress I am wearing to this wedding I have had for probably 6-8 years, never worn it before and now I have a new dress to wear without spending a cent!

  4. I have become the Queen of Deciphering Dress Codes thanks to the number of invitations my boss receives! I am a dress girl through and through, so any event I attend you will usually catch me in a dress. I try to wear what I already own, which is easy to do if you are mixing in different circles but sometimes you just NEED a new dress and it’s just the thing to make you feel fabulous!

  5. Excellent timing on this post, Sarah! For smart casual, I interpret that a little differently and would opt for separates usually – as they can look more casual than a dress. I’ve worn things like patterned jeans, heels and a silk tee for smart casual, or a full cotton skirt, striped detailed tank and a little fitted cardigan with wedge sandals.

  6. Pingback: The Smart-Casual Dress Code for Men Explained | Paint the Silence

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