Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
If you want to dress appropriately for any occasion, it’s crucial that you understand the formality of attire. After all, you don’t want to be the idiot that shows up to a classy bachelor party wearing a “Female Body Inspector” t-shirt, or rely on your wife to interpret the dress code on an invitation. With this ridiculous trend of casualisation in society, most men have no idea how to dress up. I’m going to remedy that.
I would typically divide fashion into five levels of formality; practical attire, street clothes, casual, informal, semi-formal, and formal. Practical attire is the simplest, if you choose what to wear based on comfort or safety rather than fashion then it’s practical attire. The others are more complicated.
Street clothes are when fashion enters into your decision. Street clothes are what you wear when there’s no need to consider formality, and safety and comfort are minor concerns. Shorts, sweatshirts, and t-shirts as top layers should be reserved for street clothes. This low level of formality should be reserved for running errands, staying home, and the absolute most casual of gatherings.
Casual is the point where formality becomes important and fashion takes priority over comfort. This is where you get into sport coats, blazers, slacks, and nice sweaters. It’s also the most formal you can dress and still really play with it. Casual should be your default, if you have no real reason for dressing up or down, dress casual. Smart casual, or something to that effect, is often used to describe a more formal type of casual, where jeans and t-shirts are completely unacceptable.
Informal or business attire, or even semi-formal in the more casual of circles, is the point at which clothing starts to become formal. The easiest way to identify when you’re crossing the line from casual to informal is the addition of a tie, as long as you wear it correctly. Removing a sweater or adding a waistcoat, jacket, or pocket square makes it more formal. Sweaters as top layers and blazers are only acceptable at the extreme casual end of informal. Also, darker suits and ties, and lighter shirts and pocket squares are more formal, so the most formal informal outfit is a black suit, waistcoat, and tie with a white shirt and pocket square.
Semi-Formal & Formal
Also known as black-tie and white-tie, respectively, are very subtly distinguished from each other. The other unique characteristic of the most formal style categories is the distinct daytime and evening attire, which now is only observed by the most traditional. The two differences between men’s semi-formal and formal attire is that the latter has a white tie and waistcoat in the evening and a tailcoat, while the former has a grey evening waistcoat and black tie and a jacket cut more like a suit jacket.
In both cases the daytime variant is traditionally the same as the evening but with grey, usually striped, pants and a four-in-hand necktie.
Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, there is always a dress code for every event. It may be dictated by social etiquette or it may be explicitly stated. If it’s dictated by social etiquette then you just need to know it, but if it’s explicitly stated then I can give you some guidance.
A stated dress code is usually separated into two parts; the standard and the tolerance. The standard is simply how formal the hosts, or whoever set the dress code, would prefer. The tolerance is how they feel about people deviating from the standard. The most commonly stated tolerances are optional, meaning you can feel free to deviate from the standard, and prefered, meaning it’s only appropriate to deviate for good reason like not owning appropriate clothes. If no tolerance is given then the dress code is strict, and deviation is unacceptable.
If you do decide to deviate from the dress code you need to know what would be acceptable. Never go above the standard and never go more than one full level below. Also, when there’s an “optional” tolerance given most people will dress below the standard, so you may want to as well. The most common “optional” is “black-tie optional” so you should be aware, the most appropriate step down from black-tie is a dark suit.
Sometimes people will state unclear dress codes or use the terminology incorrectly. When this seems to be the case, feel free to ask for clarification.