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A Complete Guide to Every Dress Code You Need to Know


Better to be overdressed than underdressed as the saying goes, right? Maybe, but sometimes we’d like to know that we’re dressed exactly right for the occasion. That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive style guide to help you turn heads no matter where you go this summer. 

Casual Chic 

Casual chic (or dressy casual) is all the rage right now, especially in the warmer months. This is the kind of outfit you’d wear to an outdoor barbecue with friends, at Sunday brunch or on a spontaneous shopping trip. 

Fashion blogger Kristen Conahan tells us, “When dressing for weekend errands, I think comfortable but still put-together. A striped body-con dress is great for that and it’s flattering in any size. Because of its revealing nature, I always feel more comfortable with a jacket on top to add a little complexity.” You can complete this look with your favorite pair of flats. Conahan chose espadrilles because, she says, “they go with everything and will last for years.”

If dresses aren’t your thing (and we totally get that, too), Conahan has the perfect alternative for you—a pant look that you can dress up or down! “A [light] sweater and pair of jeans look great for the day time with sneakers, but if you want to make it a tad dressier, simply add a heel,” she says. “​It's amazing how a stiletto will change a look instantly!”

Business Casual 

Typically, business casual is slightly less formal than traditional office or professional wear. Brandi Britton, district president of Office Team (a leading administrative staffing company), explains, “While suits aren’t normally required, that doesn’t mean jeans and sneakers will do. Dress pants, khakis or a skirt along with a collared shirt or dressy top are appropriate.”

Supermodel Kate Moss makes a statement in this trendy business casual outfit with a pair of pink dress pants, folded to just above the ankles. She completes the effortless yet chic look with a plain black collared shirt, tucked loosely into her pants. For accessories, Moss adds a wide belt, a large black clutch and, every dressy girl’s staple, a pair of black pumps. Perfect!

Smart Casual

Smart casual is a lot like business casual, but more modern and arguably more personalized. If you’re working for a tech start-up in Silicon Valley or taking on your first editorial job in the Big Apple, this is probably ideal for you.

Britton explains, “A smart casual dress code can be confusing for many. Along with some of the relaxed flexibility of casual, you need to dress it up a bit and pull your outfit together to look ‘smart.’ You may be able to mix and match elements from other dress codes and add certain accessories to show your personality and style.”

For criminal defense attorney Heather Trick, smart casual means, “dark trousers, khaki pants or fun patterned skirts with tailored shirts and a blazer.” Take this adorable Lauren Conrad look for example:

Trick points out that in the legal world (and in other more formal or conservative workplaces), smart casual doesn’t really exist. She’s more likely to stick to business casual or business formal instead.

Business Formal

Business formal, also known as business professional, is most applicable for a more traditional office; think jobs in finance or legislative affairs. Usually, this dress code calls for a professional suit and conservative footwear, which, for the most part, means closed-toe shoes. 

Related: 5 All-Black Power Outfits for Your Summer Internship

For added clarification, Britton explains that business formal “may be compared to what you’d wear to a job interview.” 

Try a slim-fitting pantsuit like this one Emma Watson rocked in New York. Suits should be dark (black, charcoal or navy) and inner shirts should be a neutral or pastel color; bold patterns may be acceptable depending on the office culture. For consistency, keep your jewelry and other accessories simple but classy. 

Lucky for us, we’ve got a real-life princess to turn to for tons of business formal inspo. Kate Middleton gives us major outfit envy in this classic number, proving that you can also accomplish a sleek, business formal outfit with a structured dress as an alternative to a suit. 

Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire is one of those in-between dress codes, like smart casual. Generally, it falls somewhere between casual and formal on the fashion spectrum but tends to be on the dressier side. For women, cocktail attire traditionally has meant the obvious—a cocktail dress. This is a flirty dress with a hemline just above the knee or slightly higher.

But, if you’re looking to stand out, Conahan says, “You'll need to find something to wear other than an LBD.” Try a flattering silk blouse paired with dressy pants or a cute pencil skirt, or feel free to opt for a classy two-piece coordinate set. Complete the look with your favorite pair of heels, or boots if it’s a cooler night out. 

Conahan says, “I'm so into this look because you don't have to put much thought into getting dressed. Don it with a jacket over your shoulders, a heeled bootie or sandal and a simple clutch—you’re out the door in no time.”

If you’ve been to any networking events (hosted by professional fraternities, alumni associations or sometimes even social media groups), you’ll notice that they’re usually in the form of a cocktail party or cocktail reception. That’s because this is an ideal setting for social and professional networking—it’s not too formal and not too casual, and usually the idea of after-work drinks and appetizers is pretty enticing. 

Keep in mind that if you’re heading to one of these immediately after work, your office attire will usually suffice, provided your office environment isn’t overly relaxed.

Black Tie or Formal

These two dress codes are a little confusing for women simply because they can mean a lot of different things, whereas the male alternatives would be pretty clear-cut (tuxedo or dark suit and tie). As a general rule, black tie means that you should wear a gown or long formal dress, like Blake Lively’s stunning wine-colored dress from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Sometimes, dressy separates or a formal cocktail dress may work too.

It’s best to tailor your outfit to suit both the host and location. For example, a Cinderella-esque wedding may call for a glamorous ball gown whereas a formal work dinner may call for an elegant evening dress; long enough that it covers your knees but not necessarily floor-length.

Related: 8 Met Gala Ensembles That Should Inspire Your Graduation Party Look

Dressing appropriately and fashionably for any occasion can be complicated—there are so many rules!

Of course, the rules we’ve gathered here aren’t set in stone. There are bound to be countless variations of these depending on the occasion, location, job industry, office culture and even climate that you’re dressing for! Trick notes about her professional attire, for example, “I am a lawyer, so the dress code is much more conservative than what I see for other professions, but I also live in Florida where it’s hot and where people take some artistic license with styling, so it really can be a spectrum.”

It’s also important to remember that, regardless of where you’re going and what you’re wearing, you’re not going to be comfortable if you’re not being yourself. Confidence is your best accessory. Be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to personalize any of these outfit suggestions!

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