Many people have the impression that dressing as a man is simple and easy—that it’s paint-by-numbers. But if you don’t know what different occasions call for, you could easily find yourself lost. That’s why we’ve created this ultimate guide to men’s dress codes so you know what you need for every occasion. Let’s take a look!
Formal Dress Codes
There are many types of formal dress codes, and each has a completely different set of rules:
Of the different types of formal attire, cocktail attire may be the most difficult to pin down. Should you go full James Bond and dress up in a tux? Or do you simply need a sport coat to look appropriate for cocktails?
Generally, cocktail attire requires a suit or jacket, a crisp white button-up dress shirt (button-down tends to be too casual), a tie (or a bow tie), and dress shoes. Since cocktail attire is only roughly defined, here are some additional ideas you’ll want to keep in mind:
- As a rule of thumb, cocktail attire means that you’re going to have to suit up, head-to-toe. That means no jeans, but instead something like Performance Dress Khaki.
- Go dark. A dark suit tends to be more appropriate for cocktail hour, with some obvious limitations. If you’re at cocktail hour during a wedding, you don’t want to wear black and dress up like the groom. In that case, dark navy would work just fine.
A “semi-formal” dress code can be among the most vexing for men. If it’s semi-formal, does that mean casual? Will jeans work? Do you need a casual suit? A formal suit? What’s going on here?
In practice, semi-formal is somewhat similar to cocktail attire: wear a dark suit, dress shoes, and a button-up dress shirt. You don’t necessarily have to wear a tie, but depending on the context, you may want to opt for one just in case.
Again, context matters: a dark suit and tie might look too formal for your role as a wedding guest, stealing the thunder of the groom and his wedding party. In cases like this, opt for a dark navy or charcoal suit instead.
For shoes, stick to dress shoes. Dress shoes are the foundation for almost any type of formal dress code you’ll encounter—even when the invitation says “Semi-formal” on it.
Black Tie dress may be the strictest dress code there is, and it always requires the below items:
- Black Tie
- Tuxedo jacket and suiting
- Crisp button-up dress shirt
- Minimal accessories
As you can see by the combination of these elements, Black Tie means you have to wear a tuxedo. There’s some wiggle room in the style of tuxedo you can choose, but not very much. In essence, Black Tie is a strict type of formal wear where you don’t want to deviate too far from the norm.
Black Tie Creative
You’ve heard of Black Tie attire. But what does it mean when you add “creative”?
It means that the dress code is Black Tie, but that the host wants to leave you some room to get creative. You don’t have to stick to rigid rules, but you still must abide by the Black Tie standard of wearing a tuxedo jacket, a black tie, dress shoes, and suit-appropriate pants.
However, rather than being expected to wear a strict tuxedo, Black Tie Creative allows you to showcase your unique style. For example, you can experiment with a tuxedo jacket that contains a pattern. You could also change the color of the shirt underneath your jacket, so long as it remains a formal dress shirt. With Black Tie Creative, you can add accessories that “pop,” whereas Black Tie requires stricter adherence to the tuxedo formality.
White Tie is the epitome of formal wear—it’s a step above and beyond even Black Tie. Traditionally, the ensemble includes:
- A black dress coat with tails
- A white starched shirt
- A pique waistcoat with a white bow tie
- A wingtip collar
- High-waisted black trousers
- Black leather oxford shoes
In short, a White Tie affair usually means that you’re going to have to buy something entirely new—unless you have the wardrobe of a wealthy man in the 1920s.
White Tie is rare these days, as most events will only go up to “Black Tie” when it comes to strict formality. For example, attending an awards event might mean you’re dressing in “Black Tie,” while there are few occasions that most men will ever have to acquire a full White Tie ensemble. However, keep in mind that if you are invited to a White Tie event, it’s coming with a lot of specific rules, and you don’t want to be caught off guard by the formality of the attire.
Thus far, the formal styles have only “flirted” with dressing down. But in each of the examples above, there is always an element of suiting required.
For casual styles, those lines will blur. You may still wear casual suiting elements, but you’ll have far more leeway when it comes to casual dress codes. Keep in mind that the word “casual” here can be misleading. What you might interpret as “casual” may still require an element of dressing for others, rather than the comfortable casual wear you’d prefer to wear around the house. Here are the styles that you need to know:
The phrase “business casual” tends to throw some men off. It seems like two completely opposite styles of dress—business and casual.
As with most cases on this list, it’s usually good to err on the side of formality to ensure that you’re a little overdressed and not underdressed. However, there are some rules for Business Casual that will make dressing this way at your place of business much more intuitive:
- Wear closed-toes shoes, but avoid going as casual as sneakers. Oxford shoes, for example, would be entirely appropriate.
- Wear suit pants or khakis, such as Charleston Khakis. If you do wear jeans, make sure that you pair it with more formal elements such as a blazer and a tie. A tie is otherwise not a required element of Business Casual.
- Wear a collared shirt. That includes either a button-up or a button-down. Button-down will usually be your choice for Business Casual, white a button-up is more suited for Business.
As long as you meet the essential requirements here—a smart shirt, a good pair of formal pants, and Oxford shoes—you can experiment with other layers. For example, a cardigan over that kind of ensemble might not look out of place in a Business Casual environment.
Smart Casual is another dress code that has a wide berth for men. Generally, if you follow the rules of Business Casual, you’ll likely get away with most of the elements listed above. But there are a few key differences you’ll want to keep in mind:
- A blazer. In this look, the blazer is an essential element, which allows you to go even more casual for what you wear underneath. While a T-shirt under a blazer might not be accepted in a Business Casual setting, it will work with “Smart Casual.”
- Go sockless. Going sockless in a Business Casual environment is a risk you don’t want to take. But, it will work for Smart Casual, provided that you’re meeting the other elements listed here.
- Avoid athletic wear. Athletic wear tends to clash with the formal elements of the “Smart Casual” look, like a tailored blazer. You might be able to get away with a smart pair of sneakers, but that’s the closest to “athletic wear” you’ll want to go.
If you’ve been waiting for a dress code where you can “be yourself,” this is likely the one you want. But keep in mind that Ultra Casual is still a dress code designed with other people in mind, so you won’t exactly be wearing your pajamas, either.
An Ultra Casual look can include some of the following elements:
- Shorts. Khaki shorts are popular here, and pair perfectly well with a T-shirt for a casual look.
- A T-shirt. No collars required here. You can wear a T-shirt, even with prints and bold colors or patterns.
- Relaxed shoes. For shoes, you can likely wear sneakers based on the context, but you should also consider simple loafers or slip-ons as well.
Feel free to experiment with accessories like belts, bracelets, and watches with this look, as they won’t detract from the overall formality—or lack thereof—of the outfit.
Shop All Styles at Berle
Although there’s always wiggle room depending on the context in which a dress code appears, it helps to stick to some basic rules in each of these instances. Now that you’ve mastered the ultimate guide to men's dress codes, consider purchasing the perfect trousers that will give you versatility across different dress codes. Opt for Berle’s tailored trousers that fit your unique specifications to ensure that you can get away with your look in both formal and casual environments!