Human beings have been holding each other to a certain standard of dress since Adam and Eve first left paradise sporting leafy bandeaus and loin cloths. Later in history, kings and queens would host lavish balls, where one was expected to dress in elaborate costumes with towering hairstyles and powdered faces. Nowadays, dress codes exist all over the world, from temples in Thailand where one must remove their shoes and have their shoulders covered before entering inside, to weddings in India where bedazzled, traditional dresses are flourished with a myriad of colors that often contain their own symbolism.
Nowadays, in the United States at least, expectations around how people dress have become much more lax. However, certain events or institutions require dress codes that may at times be confusing, especially for those of us who grew up being allowed to wear pretty much whatever. Whether you’ve just received a wedding invitation, or are starting your first job in an office, this guide should help clear up any questions you have, as well as provide some outfit ideas just for the occasion at hand.
Business casual, believe it or not, is a relatively new invention. It used to be that business dress really wasn’t casual at all. Think Don Draper in Mad Men wearing his full pressed suits, or Peggy Olsen in her corduroy dresses and tights.
But, as workplaces have evolved, so have the dress codes. Business casual walks that line between professional and comfortable, where one is supposed to look put together and meeting-ready, but also approachable.
It’s also important to feel relaxed when you’re in an office all day, so comfort is key. A business casual look for men is usually a pair of trousers or khakis with a button down shirt and a t-shirt underneath (tucked, of course, but top button optional).
A suit jacket is nice, but optional, and there’s no need to wear a tie. Loafers, dress boots, or even clean sneakers can work for business casual. Jeans are a no-go, unless it’s casual Friday.
Now, here’s where we start to get Don Draper vibes. Business formal is the quintessential white-collar ensemble. Opt for a full suit with a neck tie and well-shined shoes.
There is room for some play here with color and patterns, but you shouldn’t be caught in khakis or sneakers. Instead of a simple button-down, you’re going to want to go for a dress shirt, preferably white, with a suit jacket on top (either well-fitted off the rack, or tailored to your frame. A suit should not be frumpy).
Unfortunately, business formal should not be outlandish, so leave behind anything with too-bright colors. If you’d like to go the extra mile, you can invest in some nice cufflinks and a pocket square. When you think of business formal, picture a partner at a law firm. You should always look clean, pressed, and expensive (even if the suit itself is cheap. Don’t worry, we won’t tell).
Finally, we get to have a little fun! Smart casual allows a lot more room for creativity and expression than the other dress codes we’ve listed so far. The idea is that it’s basically casual, but better. You should look polished and stylish, ready for a fun day out, but if you happened to run into a shareholder in the elevator, it wouldn’t throw you too much for a loop.
Jeans here are allowed, but opt for a darker wash, and no rips or tears. If you’re very careful, a high-quality pair of joggers could work as well. You can pair this with a plain t-shirt or polo and a jacket (leather or suede are perfect for smart casual!).
Shoes-wise, you can have a bit more fun. Consider those more colorful sneakers in the back of your closet, or fringy boots you couldn’t wear into the office. Play around with textures, patterns, and fabrics to create visual interest and make it fun. A suede shoe or an ombre washed t-shirt are great eye-catchers.
However, the key here is to be tasteful. Don’t go overboard, and employ plenty of neutrals to off-set your statement pieces. You could also accessorize with watches, scarves, or sunglasses.
Casual attire is basically how you would dress on your day off (outside the house, of course. Pajamas are different). What “casual” looks like is going to be different for everybody, because there are really no hard and fast rules, and it depends on your personal style. Here, pretty much anything goes.
Typical casual staples for men tend to be t-shirts, jeans, shorts, denim or leather jackets, sneakers or tennis shoes, or sandals in the summer. For a classic, casual look, try pairing But you can also venture outside this realm to be more creative. More and more often, men are breaking out of their typical gender norms to try skirts, heels, jewelry and more.
This is your chance to break out some accessories. Experiment with scarves, sunglasses, rings, hats, or whatever else catches your fancy. It’s great we live in a world now where many people get to dress exactly how they like. Don’t be afraid to get a bit weird!
Have fun with your look, but remember, casual shouldn’t take hours of effort, and you shouldn’t look like you’re attending an important event. A casual dress-code means you don’t want to upstage the other folks there! Keep it low-key, and you should be fine.
Semi-formal is a dress code similar to business formal, but with more room for creative expression and bold color choices. This is the typical dress code nowadays for most weddings, especially outdoor ones. You want to look nicer than you would on the regular, but we’re not at tuxedo level yet (don’t worry, we’ll get there). Such as the picture above, you’re going to be looking mostly at suits (ties optional, and you could even unbutton the top if you like), in whatever colors you like, as long as it looks elegant. Pocket squares of a mismatched, but complimenting color would be a great touch. Try going for an interesting shape to make it a mischievous.
Stick with dress shoes. No visible socks is a safe option; however, depending on the event, you may want to wear a pair of high-rise dress socks to match the occasion, or part of your outfit. In this case, pair with black or dark brown shoes. Depending on the venue, you may be able to accessorize with hats or watches. Since this is semi-formal, opt for a fancier cufflink, perhaps with glass diamonds. This is the chance to play with colors, so go for that lavender suit jacket you’ve always been wanting to try. Of course, make sure to respect the color palette of whatever event you’re attending. When in doubt, ask the host. Also, make sure everything fits you well. Nothing says bad semi-formal like an ill-fitting suit. Though, you can play a bit with the silhouette. There are several different styles of suits: Italian, English, American, etc. Some are a little more square, others more streamlined, some single-breasted, others double. Figure out what “suits” you (haha, get it?), then buy one that fits.
Remember prom? Yeah, now we’re talking about tuxedos. This is where things start to get pretty fancy. A black-tie event can be a wedding, a corporate event, or a fundraiser. Basically, any important, evening-time occasion. For a black-tie dress code, typically you will be required to wear a tuxedo, which is typically a dark-wash suit with a contrasting lapel and trim. They usually come in black, navy-blue, or dark grays. They can vary in texture, though are usually made of wool, and are usually solid in color, though some may have subtle pin-stripes. A tuxedo can technically be single or double-breasted, but single-breasted is more formal, so this is a safer option.
Tuxbe rented for whatever event you’re attending, as they can be very expensive to buy. You should wear a wing-collared white English dress shirt with sleeves that extend past the sleeves of your suit jacket, and a black or navy bow tie (no clip-ons, please!).Optionally, you can wear a silk cumberbund around the waist (a wide, belted sash) in a contrasting jewel tone to add some visual interest. And quick note, the pleats of the cumberbund should face up. As well, a waistcoat can be employed, but shouldn’t be too vibrantly colored.
Pair this ensemble with the right shoes. You’ll want rounded, black dress shoes with black socks to create a sleek, polished look. For formal black-tie, it’s important the shoes don’t look scuffed, so consider giving them a buff before the event at hand.
Now, this is as formal as it gets, unless you go back in time. White tie dress is required for only the most prestigious of events, those attended by royalty, or high government officials. Picture ballrooms and crystal chandeliers. There are no cut corners here, so strap in, and we mean that quite literally.
A white tie ensemble is about layers. You’ll have an undershirt, followed by a stiff, white dress shirt with a winged collar, a white waistcoat, and a black suit jacket. The jacket, however, will be longer than what you think of when you picture a typical suit. White tie events require that your jacket have coattails, which is now quite a vintage look, but who would pass up on the chance to look so prestigious? The jacket must remain unbuttoned to show your white tie garb.
Finally, as the name implies, your suit must be finished with a white bow tie. White gloves and a black top hat are optional (but highly recommended, because why not?) accessories.
Okay, so this is a bit less fun than the last category, but nonetheless quite important. It can be hard to know how to dress for a funeral. Typically, you’ll want to reach for a plain black suit, avoiding pinstripes or contrasting lapels.
However, a black sport coat would also be acceptable. A white, gray, or navy-blue dress shirt underneath is fine, but avoid other colors as much as possible. It can be disrespectful to wear any reds, blues, greens, or basically any color outside the black to white spectrum.
Avoid any eye-catching accessories (no diamond cufflinks here, boys), as well as shiny fabrics such as satin or polished silk, which are often associated with celebration. Black dress shoes are a must, paired with black socks. It would be much harder to get away with navy blue here.
And, we’ve arrived at the end. If you came here hoping to get some guidance on what to wear for your sister’s wedding next week, or are simply fascinated by dress codes throughout the world (us too!), then hopefully this article left you feeling a bit more informed. When in doubt, walk into a menswear store and ask whoever is working. Chances are, they may have some insight for you, and there’s nothing wrong with asking for a bit of help! Cheers, and good luck at your next soiree!