Decode the dress code: what do dress codes actually mean?

decode the dress code what do dress codes mean

These gents are sporting lounge suit attire and the bride is wearing a gown befitting a formal and black tie dress code. Image: Ferrari Formalwear & Bridal via Facebook

Received a wedding invitation and don’t quite understand the dress code? Perhaps you’re planning your wedding and aren’t quite sure what to write on your invitations? Here’s our dress code dictionary, aimed at helping you decode the dress code.

Why should I include a dress code on my wedding invitation?

Including a dress code on your invitation is a great way to enhance the tone, theme or mood you want on your big day. It helps guests decide what to wear by providing guidance as to how formal – or informal – your wedding is going to be.

what does jacket and tie mean

An invitation expressing a dress code of ‘jacket and tie’. Image: Alannah Rose Invitations | Stationery

What are the various dress code categories and what do they mean?

Smart casual

Olivia Palermo and her husband demonstrate smart casual attire. Image: Getty via Elle

Olivia Palermo and her husband Johannes Huebl demonstrate smart casual attire. Image: Getty via Elle

A smart casual dress code is usually applicable to a relatively informal wedding and provides guests with a wide scope of garment choices.  Men can wear casual trousers such as chinos or suit pants, but not jeans, with a long sleeved shirt, and an optional jacket and tie. Women can wear trousers, a dress, or a skirt.


An example of cocktail attire for men and women. Image: Jessa Kae

Cocktail attire for men does not require a tie, however one can be worn. Cocktail attire for women requires a dressy cocktail length dress. Image: Jessa Kae

Cocktail is essentially the evening version of lounge suit and should be applied to a wedding that begins after 5pm. Men are required to wear suits and women should wear a cocktail dress. A cocktail dress can be shorter in length than an evening dress, however they it is dressier than a smart casual or day time dress.

Traditionally, cocktail attire for women was restricted to dresses that were only knee-length, however, nowadays any length shorter than an evening dress is acceptable. Moreover, women nowadays can wear garments such as a chic pantsuit or top and skirt to a cocktail event.

Jacket and tie

Tom Ford and Elaine Irwin wearing correct jacket and tie attire. Image: Tom Ford via Facebook

Tom Ford and Elaine Irwin wearing correct jacket and tie attire. Elaine is wearing a pantsuit which is a contemporary option instead of a traditional cocktail dress. Image: Tom Ford via Facebook

Jacket and tie is a fairly modern form of dress code which has arisen from the ambiguous world of dress code’s transitioning from traditional to contemporary contexts. The jacket and tie dress code is more formal than cocktail and is very similar to lounge suit as it requires men to wear a suit jacket with a tie, (whereas cocktail infers a tie is optional). Women can wear a cocktail dress that is shorter than floor-length, a pantsuit or dressy separates.

Lounge suit

lounge suit attire dress code

A lounge suit is a standard suit which is worn with a waistcoat and tie. Image: Getty Images via Esquire

Whitney Port in a day dress Image FilmMagic via Daily Mail

Whitney Port is wearing a day dress which would be applicable to a lounge suit dress code. Image: FilmMagic via Daily Mail

Now known as simply a ‘suit’, the lounge suit is reserved for a semi-formal daytime wedding, which would generally commence before 5pm. Men are expected to wear a classic suit, waistcoat, smart shirt and tie, and women are required to wear a dress that is suitable for the daytime. The lounge suit is a contemporary option for those who would prefer to avoid a more traditional form of dress, such as the morning suit.

Morning suit

Kate and Will's show us how it's done: morning attire for women and men. Image: PA via Daily Mail

Kate and Will’s show us how it’s done: traditional morning suit attire for women and men. Image: PA via Daily Mail

Morning suits tend to be more directed towards male members of the bridal party rather than the guests, however very formal daytime weddings may require a morning suit dress code. For example a Royal wedding would require such attire; despite what British Prime Minister David Cameron may think, (Mr Cameron famously snubbed morning suit attire and instead opted for a lounge suit at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding).

Men should wear a tailcoat, waistcoat and striped trousers, and women should wear a very formal daytime dress with a hat. Morning suit should only be the dress code for weddings beginning before 4:30pm.


Matt Damon and Luciana Barroso exemplify black tie optional. Matt has opted to not wear black tie attire as he's not wearing a tuxedo or bow tie. Luciana fits the brief of both black tie and black tie optional in her fitted floor length gown. Image: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP via Today Show

Matt Damon and Luciana Barroso exemplify formal attire. Matt has opted to not wear a tuxedo and his wife Luciana is wearing a floor length formal dress. Image: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP via Today Show

The formal dress code is located somewhere between cocktail and black tie. For the ladies this dress code requires a short or long formal dress, a pantsuit, or dressy separates, and for men a dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie is appropriate. Men can opt to wear a tuxedo if they wish, as the formal dress code is really another way to describe black tie optional.

Black tie optional

Image: Getty Images via Daily Mail

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Jason Statham are wearing attire which would suit both black tie optional and black tie dress codes. Image: Getty Images via Daily Mail

Black tie optional means that guests are encouraged to wear attire that suits a black tie dress code, but do not have to. Men should wear a dark suit with a shirt and tie if they don’t wish to wear a tuxedo. Women may wear a floor-length gown, or a knee-length cocktail dress, a pant suit or dressy separates.

Black tie

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds pose for photographs in appropriate blackt tie attire at the Cannes Film Festival. Image: AP via Daily Mail

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds pose for photographs in appropriate black tie attire at the Cannes Film Festival. Image: AP via Daily Mail

Many people wonder what black tie really means, as there are many variations such as black tie optional and creative black tie, (creative black tie is simply black tie with the allowance of splashes of colour and unique accessories).

Black tie is the second most formal dress code and is typically reserved for evening weddings. Despite what its title may suggest, black tie does not mean you must wear black, although traditionally men should wear a black tuxedo and a bow tie. Black tie appropriate attire for women can be an evening gown of any colour.

White tie

Tom Ford White Tie attire

Dressed to the nines: designer Tom Ford in traditional white tie attire at the 2014 Met Ball. Image: Tom Ford via Facebook

Karolina Kurkova in white tie attire. Image Getty via Vogue

White tie for women: Model Karolina Kurkova in a ball gown which exposes her decolletage. Karolina has opted to not wear opera length gloves, which are optional under the white tie dress code. Image: Getty via Vogue

White tie, also known as full evening dress, is the most formal dress code and is suited to an evening wedding beginning after 6pm. Men should wear patent shoes, trousers with a stripe of satin on either side, a double breasted evening tailcoat with a white shirt, a white waistcoat and white bow tie.

Traditionally, white tie attire for women stipulates that a ball gown which exposes decolletage must be worn.  Evening length gloves are also required depending on the event, and tiaras may be worn by married women only. In a modern context, white tie for women requires a ball gown.

Clothing optional

This is the most least used of all the dress codes and is reserved for nudist weddings, and as the name would suggest guests have the friendly option of not wearing clothes at all! Suffice to say a photo example probably isn’t necessary…

Can I be less specific about the dress code?

You don’t have to stipulate a dress code if you would prefer not to, and this just means that your guests can wear whatever they see fit to your wedding. If you want to soften a specific dress code you can make it voluntary, for example by writing ‘black tie optional’. This lets your guests know that black tie would be appropriate, but something equally smart would be acceptable.

What do I do if people ignore the dress code?

Ultimately it is up to your guests what they wear, and having invited them to your wedding, you are unlikely to send them home just because they chose to wear something inappropriate.

The only exception is if your venue has a very strict dress code. If the venue requires jackets and ties for men, ask your father or the best man to gather a couple of spares in various sizes in case male guests turn up in their shirt sleeves. If the venue does have a very specific policy it’s fine to state that on your invitation.

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