Confused what you should wear to a wedding, funeral, or other special event? This guide will help you to navigate any sartorial situation!
There’s always a dress code.
Don’t believe me? Try going to school or work naked. (Don’t be surprised when you get arrested).
A few decades ago, dress codes were pretty clear. For instance, “business” meant you’re expected to wear a full suit in a dark conservative color, a dress shirt, and a tie. For business casual, a man might wear a patterned dress shirt and a sport coat.
In today’s increasingly casual culture that emphasizes individual expression over almost all else, the lines separating dress code categories have become blurred. Thus, it can be difficult to understand what you’re supposed to wear in any given situation.
In fact, these days people pretty much just make up their own dress codes. It’s not unheard of to get an invitation that says “aloha formal,” “come-as-you-are,” or “festive.” These kinds of poorly-defined dress codes can be frustrating.
Not to worry, in this guide I’ll help you to divine what dress codes actually mean.
Dress Codes for Men
Below, I’ll explain the current, updated dress code guidelines for men starting with some of the more common ones — spanning from the most relaxed to the most formal categories.
You’re unlikely to find “ultra-casual” on a formal invitation. Think of ultra-casual as what you might wear to a Superbowl party with a couple of your buds.
Or, if football’s not your thing, an ultra-casual outfit is the kind of comfort-first clothing for relaxing at home with loved ones. Dressed this way, you’re not trying to impress anyone and value comfort over all else.
In ultra-casual scenarios, you can still look more or less presentable. The trick is to buy comfortable clothing that fits well.
Not only will you look better, but quite honestly, you’ll probably feel even more comfortable wearing fitted sweatpants or joggers than in oversized monstrosities.
The same goes for hoodies and other cozy sweaters or shirts. You don’t have to go super fitted, but try to choose garments that fit in key areas like the shoulders and sleeves, and that are the right length for you.
Again, ultra-casual isn’t really codified, but basically, feel free to wear your coziest outfit but still try to look like you put in a modicum of effort into your appearance if you’re going out.
Drop the “ultra” and now you have a dress code you’ll see much more often. “Casual,” it seems, means something different to everyone.
When most guys see casual, they think “t-shirt, jeans, and
That’s especially the case if you’ve received a written invitation (on paper or otherwise).
If the host has gone through the trouble to formalize invitations, that’s a good sign to wear something just a little more presentable. Consider wearing something with a collar.
I’m not talking about dress shirts here, even just a fitted polo will look better than a tee. Even floppy informal collars frame your face enhancing your appearance ever so slightly.
Casual button-ups are another great option. You can even wear them untucked (assuming they’re made for that). (If you’re confused about the difference between casual button-ups and dress shirts, check out this video).
You could also wear a sweater (though avoid hoodies) or a nice henley.
You might wear a cool casual jacket as well. Leather jackets, denim jackets, and field jackets are all great options.
Down below, you could wear jeans (avoid heavily distressed jeans), chinos, cords, or even quality joggers in some cases.
If it’s hot out, you could maybe wear shorts, but long pants are always going to be a safer choice. When in doubt, ask beforehand if shorts are ok.
If they are, opt for well-fitting chino shorts, or something similar. Also, don’t wear high socks and for goodness’ sake, don’t wear boots or hightops.
Sneakers are an option, but running shoes aren’t a good choice. Instead, get yourself some leather
Personally, I often gravitate towards casual leather boots. There are a lot of different boot styles to choose from. Experiment and find what works for you.
Loafers, driving shoes, and even dress shoes can also work with casual attire, depending on the outfit and the specific shoe features.
Smart casual is becoming an increasingly popular dress code for weddings and other events that used to be strictly formal affairs.
Since this is a newer distinction on the dress code spectrum, don’t be afraid to ask beforehand what exactly the host has in mind.
Generally, smart casual is a step below business casual. This means that things are a bit more relaxed and tucked-in shirts, sports coats, and leather shoes aren’t necessarily expected.
For smart casual, I’d definitely choose a shirt with a collar. In warmer months, solid-colored polos may be appropriate.
You could wear a dress shirt here, but you’re more likely to see casual button-ups. If you wear a tie with a dress shirt, choose a casual tie, such as a silk knit.
A nice wool sweater is a good option. If you wear a v-neck sweater be sure to wear a collared shirt underneath — a crew neck sweater, and you can get away with a non-collared top. Cardigans and turtlenecks are great too.
You can still wear jeans at smart-casual events, but you’ll want a pair in solid black or dark blue in a slim (but not skinny) cut. Chinos are star players when it comes to this level of formality. Navy, khaki, and olive are the most versatile color options, in my opinion.
Wool dress pants are also doable, but it’s kind of a more advanced style move to pull off as they won’t pair well with all smart-casual jackets, footwear, and tops.
At this level,
A nice pair of leather boots — such as Chelseas, chukkas, or dress boots — is a fantastic choice for smart-casual outfits.
Once again, loafers, driving mocs, and dress shoes may work.
Our smart casual guide has even more smart casual outfit ideas to explore.
Back in the day, “business casual” meant wearing a sport coat instead of a full suit to work. Similarly, “stuffy” black Oxfords could be replaced by more relaxed brown leather loafers.
Slowly, over the course of the past several decades, business casual has increasingly informal.
For many men, “business casual” translates to “wear a shirt with buttons.”
However, that’s not really an accurate definition most of the time.
While you certainly still can wear traditional business casual attire, a sport coat, dress shirt, tie, creased pants, and dress shoes, depending on the occasion, this ensemble can often be a little bit too buttoned up.
Take a look at this outfit:
Do you notice what’s different?
It’s actually pretty similar to the traditional business casual outfit I showed you a minute ago.
Brock swapped out the tailored jacket for a more relaxed zip-up cardigan. Creased trousers were replaced with slim chinos and a solid-colored dress shirt with a more casual Gingham check button-down. Finally, black Oxfords were exchanged for a pair of sleek brown dress boots.
The trick to a modern approach to the business casual aesthetic is to “soften” the formality a bit to appear more relaxed and approachable.
Again, both the traditional tailored look and the modern look are business casual. Which you choose depends on the occasion and your personal style preferences.
As a general rule of thumb, for business casual make sure to wear leather footwear, a button-up shirt with a collar, and long pants (shorts are never ok for business casual settings).
For even more info, check out our complete business casual guide.
When you see a “business” dress code, it’s time to pull your trusty suit out of the closet.
Your suit should be a dark, conservative color, such as navy or charcoal grey.
Wear a dress shirt with a substantial collar. You don’t want a button-down collar as this look is less formal.
If you’re not sure what color of dress shirt to choose, pick a solid white or light blue shirt as these are the safest and most traditional options.
Depending on the situation, you can wear a patterned shirt, but it’s more of an advanced move as matching patterns can be tricky.
During colder months, you might be able to get away with swapping out the dress shirt for a thin wool turtleneck in a dark color that complements your suit.
However, you want to be sure that this look isn’t too bold for the occasion. In some traditional board rooms, such a sartorial move would be seen as out of line.
Unless you’re in a field that has totally eschewed neckwear as useless relics of days past (looking at you tech bros), you’re going to need a quality tie.
Choose a silk tie in a solid color or with small repeating patterns. Dark red and navy are good color choices for your first tie. Your tie should be about as wide as the lapel of your suit coat at its widest point.
Tie your tie so that it reaches to about the middle of your belt buckle. There’s not much leeway as too long and too short ties look ridiculous.
Choose dark brown, oxblood, or black dress shoes, being sure to match the color to your belt. Before heading out, be certain your shoes are decently polished.
Your socks shouldn’t stand out in business settings. That means leave the novelty Snoopy socks at home. And no, this isn’t a time to go sockless.
Choose socks that match your pants’ color or are a shade darker.
Black Tie Optional
Black tie optional is a modern concession. While tuxedos are encouraged, at this day and age when most men don’t own a tuxedo, men can also choose to wear a dark suit.
The same rules as I explained in “business” apply, except that you should definitely wear a white dress shirt and black Oxfords if you have them.
Also especially important here is wearing a dark, conservative tie. A crisp white pocket square would be another great addition.
If a host desires guests to dress formally, usually the dress code will be black tie optional. Hence, if you see “black tie” on an invitation and don’t have a tux, don’t immediately go out and buy one.
Instead, I strongly encourage you to contact the host beforehand to see if you can get away with a dark suit.
The same advices applies for when you see “formal” on an invite. These days, “formal” can mean everything from “wear a collared shirt” to “you’re expected to wear a tuxedo.” It all depends on the host’s interpretation of the word “formal.”
If an event is truly black tie, you want to be sure to show up in a tuxedo. You don’t want to be “that guy” who ruins the ambiance by flouting expectations and wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
Black tie is all about simplicity, clean lines, and nailing the details.
A tuxedo jacket should typically either be black or midnight blue with satin lapels. Lapels should be either a shawl or peaked style.
A cumberband is worn around the waist, although a vest that matches your jacket is also appropriate.
Your dress shirt should be white and have shirt studs instead of buttons. You’ll need a pair of classic cufflinks as well.
You’ll also need to get a black bow tie. You don’t want a clip-on or pre-tied tie here — you need the real deal. Take a few minutes to learn how to tie a bow tie well before the day of the event.
Your shoes must be black or midnight blue and be appropriately formal. Here’s our compilation of some of the best shoes to wear with a tuxedo.
If you have the time to prepare and some extra money, I’d highly recommend buying a tux instead of renting one. A rented tux probably won’t fit you perfectly, the details may not be to your liking, and honestly, renting is quite expensive.
If you think you’ll wear wear a tux more than three to four times, purchasing one is probably going to be cheaper than if you kept renting.
For a deep dive into black tie, check out this comprehensive guide from our friends at Gentleman’s Gazette.
Most men will go their entire lives without attending a white tie event. White tie is the most formal dress code for civilians.
White tie events call for clothing pieces that you’d not normally see in everyday life such as top hats, silk socks, and tail coats.
White tie is still de riguer for state dinners at Buckingham Palace, at Met Galas, at Nobel Prize banquets in Stockholm, Sweden, and at some other highly formal events.
Attending a white tie event will be an investment. In my opinion, you should just bite the bullet and buy what you need instead of renting.
Typically, you’re going to receive an invitation well in advance so you’ll have plenty of time to prepare. Tred carefully, as most men get white tie wrong.
Since white tie is so rare, I won’t even get into the details here, but instead will once again will recommend Gentleman’s Gazette for an in-depth look at white tie.
Event + Area Specific Dress Codes
Many events have a specific dress code to which attendees are expected to adhere.
For example, at a Halloween party, you might be expected to wear a costume. Going to a bar mitzvah and you’ll probably be asked to wear a kippah.
Do you’re best to adhere to the hosts wishes and don’t be afraid to ask what to wear or what you should expect.
Dress Codes Basic Guidelines
There is a seemingly infinite amount of dress codes out there. Besides more traditional ones such as “cocktail,” “creative black tie,” and “morning dress,” you might also see things like “aloha formal,” “holiday festive,” or “fancy ranch.”
Rule #1: When in Doubt, Ask the Host
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, just ask.
It’s much better to spend five extra minutes clarifying with the host what you should wear to their event than it is to show up to party with a “beach formal” dress code in white tux just to realize that everyone else just wore a Hawaiian shirt instead of a t-shirt with their swim trunks.
If you have any doubt at all what you should wear, ask the host.
Rule #2: Consider the Event, Local Customs, the Weather/Temperature, and the Location
Most of the time when you go out of the house, you won’t be subject to a formal written dress code.
However, like I said at the beginning, there’s always a dress code.
Take clues from your surroundings, including the physical environment and what others are likely to be wearing.
For example, going on a second date with a girl to a upscale modern art museum in a big city and you’ll probably want to wear something a bit more formal.
If you were to swap the location for, say, a rural county’s historical society museum, and that double-breasted suit would probably be out of place. Instead, a waxed cotton jacket over a flannel shirt, dark wash jeans, and chukka boots would be more appropriate.
Let’s try another scenario out. What if you were invited to an acquaintance’s wedding at a cathedral in the center of an old European city.
The date is set for the end of November. You didn’t see a dress code on the invitation. Without asking the host, what would you wear?
I’d wear “bussiness” attire. Why? Generally, people in Europe dress a bit more formally than the US. Also, a grand location, like a cathedral, suggests formality.
However, unless indicated in the invite, morning dress or black tie probably won’t be appropriate. Thus, I’d wear a dark suit, silk tie, dress shoes or dress boots, and a wool overcoat.
Believe it or not, most people (well-dressed people, at least) go through this thought process every day before they leave the house (even if almost unconsciously).
You should be asking yourself: “What am I going to be doing today? Where will I be? What’s the weather like? Who will I be with?”
This type of mental calculation becomes easier with practice. Eventually, you’ll be able to figure out what to wear in seconds, if not a few minutes.
Rule #3: Match Formality Between Pieces
The third and final rule for following dress codes is to “match formality between pieces.”
Don’t wear black Oxford dress shoes with jeans. Likewise, a top hat with a sport coat is going to look out of place. The problem in both these scenarios is that you’ve mismatched clothing items by formality.
Black Oxfords look great with a sharp navy suit. A top hat can totally make sense if you’re wearing white tie. However, move some pieces of clothing out of their formality level very much and you’ll ridiculous.
Mixing and matching clothing from different formality levels can be done, but it can be difficult to pull off. For the sartorial novice, don’t try out this kind of advanced style move at an important event.
Frequently Asked Questions
Dress codes can be confusing. Here’s what people are asking about them on the web:
Do you have to wear black to a funeral?
No, you don’t typically have to wear black to a funeral.
Dress code for a funeral?
Men should normally wear a dark, conservative suit, a white or light blue dress shirt, dark-colored leather dress shoes, and a conservative dark-colored tie to a funeral. Black neckties may be appropriate, but it depends on the culture.
What to wear to an interview?
As a rule of thumb, wear clothing one formality level above what you’d wear on the job.
That means if you’re applying for a job as an HVAC, consider wearing a business casual attire such as a sport coat, button-down shirt, and slim chinos.
Going to a professional white collar interview and you should wear business attire (i.e. a conservative suit and tie).
What to wear to a wedding?
What you wear to a wedding will depend on the dress code you received on the invitation. If you have any questions about what you should wear, contact the host directly well before the day of the event.
Dress codes don’t have to be complicated. With a little bit of knowledge, you can be sure that your dressing for the occasion and looking your best!
What’s the most formal event you’ve ever attended? Let me know in the comments!