Another invite and another attempt to decipher the sometimes daunting dress code. With categories like White Tie, Black Tie, and Lounge, it can be overwhelming and confusing at times. Whether it’s charity gala, or a formal wedding, dressing the part doesn’t have to be a cryptic task. Take a good look at our thorough infographic and rule guide below for your edification.

Cracking the Dress Code: Formal Edition

White Tie

Also known as “full dress,” the White Tie dress code is the rarest and most formal of them all. Even the White House only has a couple White Tie events in a year. Though for most people, an invitation to an event that has a White Tie dress code is a pretty unlikely one, it is great to know the rules if you ever given the honor. First, you should know that this dress code the most strict. The required parts of a White Tie ensemble include a white waistcoat (style of vest) worn over top of a white full-dress stiff bosom shirt with a detachable white pique wing collar. This shirt is secured white shirt studs and white cufflinks. A matching white bow tie is an absolute essential, hence the name of this dress code. On the bottom half is worn black pleated trousers with a black satin strip that covers the outer seams (known as the tuxedo stripe). These formal trousers can either be tightened with adjustable side tabs or held up by white suspenders that are worn under the waistcoat.

We should note that proportions are very important when it comes to full dress. The trousers are high-waisted (by today’s standards) and the waistcoat must cover the waistband of the trousers but cannot extend below the front of the tailcoat. Although this is this strictest code, you can add a subtle touch of your personal style with your choice of formal cufflinks (silver, mother of pearl, etc.), adding a boutonniere, or maybe integrating a white pocket square.  Proper footwear is either the more traditional black patent court pump with grosgrain ribbon or black patent leather oxfords. The most common events that call for White Tie attire are charity galas, official ceremonies, government ceremonies, and the opera.

Downton Abbey, Full-dress, full dress, white tie

Lord Grantham wearing White Tie/Full Dress in Downton Abbey

Black Tie

The words “Black Tie” may conjure up memories of high school dances, but now that you are all grown up, this type of affair is a bit more involved than renting the generic polyester tux set from your local suit emporium (gross). When you attend the company awards nights, your sister’s formal wedding, or charity event that calls for Black Tie, it’s important  abide by the rules to look your best. You don’t want your peers to get the impression that you’re as clueless as a pimply teenager. A classic black tuxedo is still the standard at these events. The typical tuxedo jacket has a single button and is single breasted with a satin peak lapel and no vent. A black bow tie and black patent leather oxfords are a must. Optional additions to the basic tuxedo include a simple (usually white) pocket square or an elegant opera scarf if you’re feeling a bit spry.

Black Tie is the most commonly used dress code for any polished event and knowing how to dress for it is a great weapon to have in your arsenal. A variation on the traditional Black Tie dress code is Warm Weather Black Tie which features a white jacket instead of black and is sometimes called upon for summer formal events. Formal or evening weddings, company awards dinners, and some private dinners are all occasions that may require you to don a tuxedo.

Cast of AMC's Mad Men wearing Black Tie

Cast of AMC’s Mad Men wearing Black Tie

Black Tie Optional

The fact that the word “optional” is in the title is only begging for confusion. A host may choose this dress code if they want to be considerate of the fact that not all guests may have a tuxedo. At these events, it is acceptable to forgo the tuxedo (if you absolutely must) and opt for a polished black suit. However, if you have the means, we still encouraged you to wear a tuxedo of some sort. Because of the precarious nature of the word “optional,” we suggest you to contact the host if you need clarification.

A Black Tie Optional event is still formal in nature but it has a slightly more relaxed rules for attire. A tie is still necessary and so are your polished black shoes. Accessories can be used to express personal style. Instead of a bow tie, you can opt for a necktie with a handsome tie bar or a classy lapel flower. Tie bar placement is key, so if you are a tie bar rookie, check out our ultimate guide to tie bars. You’re most likely to run into this category at weddings, stylish events, formal dinners, and galas.

Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Spacey sporting Black Tie Optional at the 2013 Emmy Awards

Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Spacey sporting Black Tie Optional at the 2013 Emmy Awards

Black Tie Creative

This variation on the standard Black Tie category allows the party to get started with a little festivity. Black Tie Creative is an opportunity to showcase your personal style in terms of color, accessories, and collar and lapel style. You may opt for the uncommon shawl lapel or a slim cut tuxedo in a dark saturated color like midnight blue or maroon. A colored jacket, colored wingtips shoes, or a brightly colored bow tie are all fair game in this category. Even going with a black shirt instead of white can add subtle creative flair. Although this dress code offers flexibility, it is important to keep in mind that if the event is “Black Tie” at all, no matter how festive or creative it is, it is a formal event and your sartorial modifications should still honor a the formal atmosphere of the event. Keep in mind that wearing a standard tux or an ensemble with “black tie optional” qualities is also perfectly acceptable.

A variant of the Black Tie Creative dress code is Festive Black Tie. How you should dress to this occasion depends on the given situation or theme of the party. The most common example of a Festive Black Tie event is a company Christmas party, but there are infinite ways to twist it and that depends on the host. Fun themes like “Black Tie and Boots” call for wearing a bolo tie with a tuxedo or sporting a Western themed tie or cufflinks.

Black Tie Creative on the Red Carpet,

Ryan Gosling, Neil Patrick Harris and Chris Pine wearing Black Tie Creative

Lounge

A Lounge dress code event maintains formality while allowing for integration of more color and options into your look. Tuxedos are totally out of the picture for this dress code. A suit in a dark, neutral color such as classic black, navy, or gray is recommended. Take a little liberty with your lapel and collar style as Lounge attire is less strict than the other formal dress codes. Polished shoes are not necessary and both black and brown shoes work. If you are feeling adventurous, mix in a pastel colored shirt or a subtly patterned tie to give your suit character. Pairing a skinny tie with a nice tie bar can give your Lounge outfit a modern edge. This category can be worn to daytime formal parties or business dinners.

Lounge Dress Code

Hugh Jackman, John Krasinski and Joseph Gordon-Levitt wearing Lounge attire on the red carpet

Gone is the dread of another invitation with a dress code! Now that you are seasoned in formal dress codes, take a little liberty when you can and remember when you shouldn’t. The age-old rule of thumb has not changed, it’s better to be overdressed than under-dressed.

dress code, white tie, black tie, creative, lounge, tuxedo

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