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ATTIRE ETIQUETTE - THE NEW NORMAL

What appears to be a simple description, a rudimentary explanation of the appropriate apparel to don, far too often strikes fear and confusion in your guests.
 
At its worst, an unclear phrase sets off a chain reaction of texts and calls, peppering the social scene with insecurity and frustration as guests debate and guess on what might be appropriate for the event.

While today certainly allows for a break with the sober formality of the past, the responsibility of the host remains immutable. If you choose to add an attire suggestion, which is certainly not required, clarity is key. Remember the primary mission of the hosts: make guests comfortable.

Use this guide to diffuse wardrobe anxieties. Ensure that your guests start out without stress over attending your event. Attire etiquette today is about clarity, and putting guests at ease from the get-go.

DO I NEED TO INCLUDE ATTIRE ON MY INVITATIONS?

In a word, no. Traditional etiquette frowns on this practice, especially for a formal party. Today, however, given the diverse landscape of lifestyles, cultures, and social education within your guest list, experts agree a subtle nudge in the right direction is acceptable, even kind. There is still one commonly missed point of attire etiquette that experts agree stands true. Never direct guests to wear formal attire to a sanctuary or place of worship. This is why attire wording on a wedding invitation is placed in connection with the reception, and not the ceremony in cases where the ceremony is held in a place of worship.

WHAT YOU'RE REALLY SAYING

Clever wording on invitation is exciting and fun both for the host to create with a designer and for the guests to receive. There certainly is a place for creativity at all levels of formality today. That said, the attire line is rarely—rarely the place to flex your creative muscle. The reason is simple: guests don’t know what you actually mean. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a term that sounds adorable—even obvious—to the collective group of creators, however the vast majority of guests would opt for no directive rather than a confusing one.

In contrast, there is grace in letting guests know what kind of attire is acceptable for your particular theme, location, or climate. For instance, what if the country club doesn’t allow jeans, or stilettos may cause damage to the lawn—or the ladies wearing them for that matter?

Below are tried-and-true attire suggestions, what they mean, and a fun system of stars to rate where the term falls on our scale of NAILED-IT-to-RETHINK-IT. In a nutshell, use this guide to keep your attire etiquette on-point.

An etiquette point for the hosts: attire notes are written as phrases, not titles. This means black tie is written, “Black tie” as opposed to “Black Tie” with both words capitalized.

An etiquette tip for the guests: if stepping into a place of worship is a stop on your list, it is still most respectful for a woman’s shoulders (and bosom) to be covered with a jacket, shawl or wrap.

 

attire etiquette for invitations

 

WHITE TIE

five star attire etiquette for wording invitations correctly
Most formal form of evening dress. When this attire is suggested, hosts are letting you know the event is traditional and formal as opposed to creatively formal or simply fancy.

 

LADIES

 formal, floor length evening gown

optionally, long gloves

small evening clutch or no handbag

formal jewelry

if a coat is needed, a dress coat or stole

polished or buffed nude nails

evening sandals or pumps

GENTS

black dress coat (tailcoat)

matching trousers with a single stripe of
satin or braid (US), or two stripes (EU/UK)

white piqué wing-collared shirt with stiff front

braces, to ensure a tailored fit

shirt studs and cuff links

white vest & white bow tie

white or gray gloves

feel free to sport a top hat

black patent shoes and black dress socks

 

BLACK TIE

5 star attire etiquette wording
This is the most common form of evening dress. Your host is telling you this event is formal as opposed to simply dressy. Ladies, kick your stylings up a notch and feel free to wear those fascinators and elegant evening makeup. Gentlemen, this is the time to look your most dapper.

 

LADIES

  formal, floor length evening gown (best choice)

cocktail dress (acceptable)

  small evening clutch or no handbag

  formal jewelry

  if a coat is needed, a dress coat or stole

  polished or buffed nude nails

  evening sandals or pumps

 

GENTS

black tuxedo jacket and matching trousers 
(even hem, not tails)

formal white shirt—this means a
pleated front or piqué

shirt studs and cuff links

braces, to ensure a tailored fit

shirt studs and cuff links

black bow tie of a traditional fabric

matching black cummerbund or vest,
dressy braces • optional

no gloves or top hat

black patent shoes and black dress socks

 

CREATIVE BLACK TIE

5 star attire etiquette wording
Be fancy. If you wear tennis shoes with your tux—that’s completely appropriate—given they are relatively clean. While this opens the door for all kinds of elegant creativity, it still excludes a casual over-all look. Jeans are out, but good news—done well, t-shirts are in! When you really want to add flair to your ensemble, check out this year’s Met Gala—out favorite place for a creative all-out evening masterpieces.

 

LADIES

formal, floor length evening gown

optionally, long gloves

small, interesting evening clutch
or no handbag

unique, statement piece jewelry

if a coat is needed, a dressy,
creative look is perfect

any finished look on your nails

creative soles welcome—less traditional
foot-fashion is in vogue

GENTS

 tuxedo jacket of any sort

matching or creative trousers of a dressy
fabric such as satin, velvet, etc.

stylish shirt of any color or pattern

braces optional, dressy if worn

conversation-piece cuff links are a good choice

bow tie, cummerbund, and vest are optional

fashion-forward shoes, clean tennis shoes,
velvet loafers, are all a welcome choice

 

BLACK TIE OPTIONAL

 

attire etiquette tips to make attire wording clear
Here’s the skinny on this term—by the experts, it's seen as a term of indecision and confusion. Due to its vagueness, it has always been frowned upon by the etiquette-educated class. While it is common, our best advice is to realize that attire is always a suggestion, so a simple “Black tie” is perfectly acceptable. There is no gracious host that will deny entrance to a party based on a dark suit rather than a tuxedo. Alternatively, the less common term, “Formal attire” tells guests that their best version of formal attire is acceptable. Guests can rest assured they are welcome and encouraged to don their best formal attire, even if a tuxedo or long gown isn’t in reach. 

FORMAL ATTIRE

 

attire etiquette tips to make attire wording clear
This is slightly less strict than black tie, in that some men who don’t own a tux and prefer not to rent one, are perfectly accepted in a dark suit. The look is still traditional—in that his shirt is white, collars are not button down. New to this? Guys, a dress shirt with collar stays (not buttoned down) and french cuffs is best, and a neck tie finishes off the look. When “Creative formal” is used, proceed with flair! (See Black tie formal for suggestions.)

 

LADIES

formal, floor length evening gown
is the best choice

mid-length cocktail dress is acceptable,
as is a dressy pant suit or 2-piece ensemble

small evening clutch or no handbag

if a coat is needed, a dress coat or stole

polished or buffed nude nails

evening sandals or pumps

GENTS

 best option,
black tie attire (from above)

 alternatively,
dark suit, crisp white dress shirt, and dark tie

 leather shoes, belt,
and dark dress socks

tasteful cufflinks
are always perfect

BLACK TIE PREFERRED

 

attire etiquette tips to make attire wording clear
There isn’t an instance where it is polite to prefer, insist, or otherwise offer your strong recommendations on an invitation of any nature. Attire etiquette is simple, suggest what guests should wear to blend in and be appropriate. Etiquette experts agree this term is one to re-think. If it happens to be on your invitation, the show goes on! Determine how to dress from the Formal attire etiquette list immediately above. (Hint: yes your host is saying, if you can afford it, go rent that tux or gown.)
   

 

SEMI FORMAL

attire etiquette tips to make attire wording clear
This term encompasses cocktail attire, which is reserved for evenings. It is great for gatherings, like a bar or bat mitzvah, where the term “cocktail” seems inappropriately placed as it relates to under-age party-goers. Semi-formal attire, however, is more broad and can be worn at a day-time events as well. The primary difference in day and night are color the gentlemen wear. We’ll explain below. Attire etiquette for dressing when this term is typically fun, festive and youthful.
 
LADIES DAYTIME

dressy dresses
or evening pant suits

lighter colors,
especially during
Spring and Summer

clutch or “lady bag”,
avoid your
tote-all daytime handbag

pearls, enameled pieces,
and creative baubles
are a great choice
for jewelry—
or maybe a
downplayed sparkly
statement piece

dress coat if needed

manicured nails

stylsh shoes

LADIES EVENING

cocktail dresses or
evening pant suits

lighter colors can be fine
year-round, but fabrics
should be seasonally
on-point, and
that little black dress is
always perfect

clutch or wristlet
handbag

break out the
sparkly jewelry

dress coat if needed,
usually darker in color

manicured nails

stylish shoes:
seasonally, pumps
or evening sandals
are typical

GENTS DAYTIME

in the summer,
lighter suits are appropriate;
in Autumn and Winter
wear a dark suit

a pressed white shirt
is still the best option

ascot, necktie, or bowtie
in a seasonal color

belt that coordinates well
in color and material
with your choice of shoes

trench or dress overcoat,
if needed

dress (typically leather)
shoes and smart socks

GENTS EVENING

dark suit, typically navy,
brown, or grey

pressed white shirt

necktie or bowtie
dark or seasonal color

belt that coordinates well
in color and material
with your choice of shoes

trench or dress overcoat,
if needed

dress (typically leather)
shoes and smart socks

cuff links and
pocket square are
a stylish touch

COCKTAIL ATTIRE

When writing this term, it is written “Cocktail dress” or Cocktail attire” as opposed to the term standing alone. If your invite indicates this dress—or doesn’t but you think the event is somewhere between business dress and formal, this is the perfect pick. When “Creative” starts the attire suggestion, feel free to break out some interesting pieces—from clean, stylish tennis shoes to an Elton John-worthy smoking jacket. Take cues from the invitation style itself. 

 

LADIES

party dress, mid to short length,
dressy pants suits are also fine

small evening clutch or no handbag

if a coat is needed, a dress coat or stole

polished or buffed nude nails

evening sandals or pumps

GENTS

dark suit with a silk pocket square

 white button down, collared shirt

neck tie

 leather shoes, belt,
and dark dress socks

cufflinks are always a nice touch

SMART CASUAL

The term “Smart” in styling terms tends to reflect a traditionally stylish, maybe even preppy style. This look is individualized—meaning, it’s about expressing your personal style, while still dressing for the mood of the event. 

 

LADIES

party dress, mid to short length,
casual pants suits or jumpers can be
a good option

small, intentional handbag
(coordinate it with your look)

polished or buffed nude nails

shoes that complete the look

scarves and on-trend jewelry
to round out the statement

GENTS

clean, typically somewhat pressed,
less casual denim or chinos—
dress pants are over-doing it

 a stylish t-shirt with a blazer could work,
so could a fashion-forward button down shirt
with or without a blazer

no tie, although on-trend neck-ware,
like a scarf can be great to dress up a casual look

 stylish shoes—lace ups or loafers
to complete the look

DRESSY CASUAL

Although somewhat popular, this is confusing terminology and considered among the etiquette experts a bit a less sophisticated choice. If the invite you received states this, we say go for a the above smart casual look. Most likely, your host is telling you, “please, something nicer than grubby jeans and shorts.”

   

BUSINESS CASUAL

The term “Business” rules out jeans, by rule of attire etiquette. Tone down the flash, but don’t lose the style. Muted colors and relatively solid patterns are more accepted than bright tones and flashy patterns. Given the choices in your closet, pick the solid blazer over the leopard cocktail dress. 

 

LADIES

casual but not-too-revealing
dress, jumper, or pant suit

coordinate in a tote or daytime hand bag

shoes that complete the look
typically closed-toe is a better choice for business

scarves or subtle jewelry are fine

GENTS

chinos or casual linen pants

 a stylish t-shirt with a blazer could work,
as could a solid color button down shirt

a solid blazer, no tie

footwear that’s clean and crisp
(skip the dirty sneakers)