In a world where we’re spending an increasing amount of time working from home in our PJs or wearing our most comfortable attire for socialising, it can be difficult to know just what to do when you’re faced with a dress code. Although the concept behind a dress code is simple, translating the complex ciphers of ‘business casual’ or ‘cocktail attire’ can be a minefield.

If you’re flummoxed by the unspoken de rigueur of dress codes, keep reading to get the lowdown on the most common rules you’ll likely come across and what they actually mean.

How Relevant Are Dress Codes in 2023?

Before we dive in, you’re probably wondering why dress codes are still relevant here in the digital age. Social norms have indeed changed radically in recent years, and fashion has become much more accessible. Now that our individuality and diverse creative expression are celebrated, why do we still need dress codes in specific social and professional situations?

To answer this, it’s helpful to reframe a dress code as a set of guidelines to dress at your best — however that translates to your wardrobe. Much like an office party guide will help you stay on the side of professionalism as you let your hair down, a dress code can help you confidently navigate both social and professional settings. It’s effectively a framework that can guide you to making the most informed fashion choices while still ensuring you express your sartorial personality.

Decoding Dress Codes

Whether it’s nailing the subtle differences between smart casual and business casual or knowing how to be more Vogue than vague for black tie events, understanding the unspoken rules before each dress code below will empower you to make confident style choices.

Smart Casual

When you see ‘smart casual’ on an invite or email, it’s an opportunity to add a modern twist to effortless style. This is arguably the single dress code where you can be really creative and versatile with what you’re wearing, and you’ll have the freedom to wear more casual items such as a pair of jeans or flat shoes.

You really can’t go wrong if you opt for dark-washed denim or tailored pants paired with stylish tops, blouses or sweaters. Statement pieces can influence personality into your outfit, while the only ‘rule’ for footwear is that it complements your ensemble.

What to Wear:

  • Dark skinny jeans paired with a flowy blouse or top in a bold print
  • Complete the look with ankle boots, a leather jacket and layered, delicate necklaces
  • Opt for a natural make-up look and style your hair in loose waves for an effortless yet put-together vibe.

Business Casual

While a business casual dress code still offers room for a more relaxed vibe, the emphasis is on keeping a balance between professional and relaxed. An easy way to nail business casual is to think of what you would wear to a job interview or a meeting with your dream client/mentor. Tailored separates should be your go-to, which will also give you the freedom to experiment with colour and prints.

What to Wear:

  • High-waisted wide-leg trousers in a bold hue paired with a fitted blouse in luxe fabrics.
  • Add a tailored blazer, structured handbag and ankle boots or brogues to complete the look.
  • Make-up should be business appropriate, while jewellery should be functional and understated.

Semi Formal

Dressing with poise is the name of the game when it comes to adhering to the semi-formal dress code; think polished and professional. A tailored suit, whether a pantsuit or skirt suit, is usually expected in classic colours that exude authority. Above all, ensure your garments fit impeccably and flatter your body shape.

What to Wear:

  • A tailored black, dark blue or grey pantsuit with fitted blazer and straight-leg trousers.
  • Finish with a white or cream silk blouse and classic black pumps.
  • Opt for a structured tote in a neutral colour and add a touch of sophistication with gold or silver jewellery.

Cocktail Attire

Sophisticated yet playful, cocktail dress codes can often be the most difficult to decipher. If an event is marked as ‘cocktail attire’, you’ll be expected to be in a put-together outfit that exudes refinement and individuality. Opt for silk, velvet, chiffon or lace and feel free to take advantage of the rule that hem lengths can be anything shorter than an evening gown.

What to Wear:

  • The classic, little black dress with a fitted silhouette and lace or tulle accents
  • Elongate your legs with nude pumps or strappy heels. Grab a metallic clutch and pair it with complimentary jewellery.
  • Make-up should be done, emphasising either your eyes or your lips, while hair should be blow-dried and styled.

Black Tie

When an invitation reads ‘black tie’, you can safely interpret that as ‘dress to impress’. For women, black tie attire generally means a floor-length gown in the most opulent fabrics you can get your hands on. Jewel tones like deep emerald, vibrant ruby or royal blue make a refreshing change from neutral shades. Make a statement by finishing your outfit with statement jewellery and heels.

What to Wear

  • A form-fitting jewel-toned velvet or silk gown. Opt for either a plunging neckline or thigh-high slit, but never both together.
  • Adorn with a dazzling diamond necklace, chandelier earrings and a crystallised clutch.
  • Unless you’re deliberately going make-up-free, a full beat is required, along with a tasteful up-do.
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