How to: Party Attire and Dress Codes For Special Occasions

The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by Baz Luhrmann
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How To Dress For Any Type of Party or Wedding

The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by Baz Luhrmann

Banish pre-party jitters about attire with our quick reference to party definitions and dress codes for social events in the slideshow ahead. Whether you're trying to pick the right dress to wear to a wedding or even a class reunion, this handy guide will give you plenty of helpful tips and ideas.

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When the Dress Code Is: Black Tie, White Tie or "Formal"

Getty Images, Chris Jackson

Black Tie invitation calls for formal attire. Men wear tuxedos, women wear cocktail, long formal dresses or dressy evening separates. A little black dress is completely appropriate for black tie functions.

Do note that "formal" usually means the same as Black Tie, but in some trendier cities like New York or Los Angeles, it could mean a black shirt and no tie with a tuxedo. Women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.

White Tie or Ultra-formal invitation requires men wear full dress, with white tie, vest, shirt. Women wear long gowns, sometimes with a full ball skirt. (Read more about ball gowns.)

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When the Dress Code Says: Black Tie Optional

Newly engaged Kate Middleton and Prince William
Newly engaged Kate Middleton and Prince William. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Black Tie Optional or Black Tie Invited gives you the option of wearing a tuxedo or formal dress, but it should clue you into the formality of the event, meaning a dark suit and tie would be your other option. Women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.

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When the Dress Code Says: Creative Black Tie

Sarah Jessica Parker's outfits for the Met Gala over the years are the perfect example of "creative black tie.". Getty Images: Stephen Lovekin, Sylvain Gaboury

Creative Black Tie leaves room for trendy interpretations of formal wear. He can go more modern with a tux -- maybe a black shirt, no tie. She wears long or short dresses or evening separates.

Sometimes, themed parties call for dress codes like Texas Black Tie, or other variations of Creative Black Tie. In that situation, you can have more fun with it, choosing a dressy look with a theme (for him, it could be a tux with boots and for her it could be a long dress paired with Southwestern style silver belt and jewelry).

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When the Dress Code Says: Resort Formal

Getty Images: Vanni Bassetti

This is one dress code you probably won't see too often, unless you get an invitation to a big, fancy wedding in an exotic location like the Caribbean or the Riviera. Resort formal is a designation for warm weather locales (like a beach wedding) where the women can wear something bright and lightweight (floral sundress for example, or a maxi dress).

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When the Dress Code Says: Semi-Formal

Getty Images / David M. Benett, Michael Tran, Anthony Harvey

Semi-Formal or After Six Attire means that tuxes are not required, nor are long, formal dresses. An evening wedding (after 6 p.m.) would still dictate dark suits for him, and a cocktail dress for her. Daytime semi-formal events mean a suit for him and an appropriate short dress or dressy suit for her.

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When the Dress Code Says: Business Formal

Once again, Michelle Obama is a sterling example of dress code perfection—here her look could be classified as "business formal.". Getty Images, Mark Wilson

Business Formal is the same as Semi-Formal for him, but for women it suggests that women opt for more tailored dressy suits and dresses. The idea is to still be business appropriate -- which means nothing too sexy or slinky -- but still dressed up.

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When the Dress Code Says: Cocktail Attire

Getty Images

When the dress code on an invitation reads, "cocktail attire," it suggests a dark suit worn with a tie (a navy or charcoal grey suit is best) for men, and a shorter, party-ready dress for women, such as a little black dress or even dressy separates like a skirt and blouse. Cocktail attire is less dressy than "formal" attire, and much more casual than "black tie."

There is a playfulness and festive attitude implied with cocktail attire, which is why you'll often see it on invitations for holiday parties, weddings, receptions, class reunions and anniversary celebrations.

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When the Dress Code Says: Festive Attire

Eva Herzigova attends Claridge's Christmas Tree By Dolce & Gabbana launch party at Claridge's Hotel on November 26, 2013
Eva Herzigova attends Claridge's Christmas Tree By Dolce & Gabbana launch party at Claridge's Hotel on November 26, 2013. Getty Images / David M. Benett

Festive Attire is usually seen around the holidays, with the mood of the party being Informal or Semi-Formal. For her, it means to choose looks with a bit of sparkle or holiday bent (i.e. a beaded sweater with black pants, a red silk blouse with a black skirt).

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When the Dress Code Says: Informal

Wedding guest in red dress
Maja Topcagic/Stocksy United

Informal, Daytime: For her, an informal daytime or morning wedding means a sundress, skirt and top or even pants (but no jeans), and no high heels required. For men, slacks or chinos and a shirt (tucked in) works great. Avoid sneakers and opt for oxfords or loafers.

Informal, Evening: For her, an informal evening wedding suggests a dress, and allows for a lot of flexibility. You could wear a maxi dress and flat shoes, or a little black dress and heels. For men, the dress requirements are the same as informal daytime, but you may want to add a jacket; no tie needed.

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When the Dress Code Says: Casual or Dressy Casual

Getty Images / Kirstin Sinclair

Dressy Casual calls for dressed-up versions of casual looks. For him, it could be trousers and a sportcoat, for her a dressy pants look. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts and other casual looks are not appropriate for Dressy Casual.

Casual generally means anything goes (including jeans, sneakers, etc.) If the host or hostess wants a more dressed-up approach, it would be dictated on the invite.

More Special Occasion Dressing Tips:

What To Wear To a Wedding
6 Types of Cocktail Dresses
15 Ways to Wear a Little Black Dress
What is Cocktail Attire?