Few outfits are as fun to assemble as party attire, but navigating various dress codes can sometimes be a tricky little dance. While cocktail and dinner parties may be routine on your social calendar, how often are you flexing your black and white-tie muscles? There are also those difficult-to-decipher invites that request "festive," "come as you are," or "outdoor elegant" looks. It’s not rocket science to assume a sophisticated look is ideal for all three scenarios, but what the differentiating particulars? Then, there are themed events—exactly how far does one lean into such a prompt, if at all?
Ahead, we’ve answered all your questions with an expert-guided breakdown of every special occasion dress code. Keep reading to uncover all the fanciful intel and shop the edit if you’re in the market for a party-perfect look. But keep in mind: You’ve got to do you. The info ahead is merely a guide. Most importantly is opting for elegant pieces to feel your most confident.
Meet the Expert
Caroline Maguire is the fashion director at Shopbop. She partners with the creative, buying, PR, and marketing teams and utilizes her signature eye and trend expertise to guide the company’s fashion direction.
Lindsey Love is a senior brand stylist at BHLDN. With a deep understanding of formalwear, she styles BHLDN shoppers head to toe and provides thoughtful insight to internal teams to ensure the customer’s voice is heard to achieve best-in-class service.
According to Maguire, black tie is all about formal wear. "Specifically, gowns and tuxedos," Maguire says. "In a traditional sense, black-tie has meant you must wear something black. However, through the years, it has evolved to allow for more festive colors in dresses and separates."
Love says, "This event is typically an evening wedding or gala where you should dress to impress. Floor-length hemlines, luxurious fabrics, and special touches like lace and beading are all perfect options."
With simpler formal dresses, Maguire suggests going all-out with bold shoes or a bag. Not into dresses? Love says an elegantly tailored pantsuit also fits the bill, recommending a statement earring to up the glam factor.
According to Love, white tie calls for the fanciest of attire, so be prepared to pull out all the stops. "This dress code is the most formal," she explains. "This is a world-class event where you will see and be seen. Picture yourself on the red carpet and get ready for your close-up."
The stylist says full-length evening gowns are a must for white tie, suggesting pared-back and elegant designs, but noting applique and beading as welcome flourishes. A crucial tip from Love: "Be sure your gown is fitted by a tailor, and splurge on hair and make-up for a flawless finish."
Formal Or Black-Tie Optional
To tie, or not to tie? That is the question with formal and black-tie optional dress codes. Love tells Byrdie, "While you can still opt for black-tie formality, guests have a bit more flexibility with this dress code. The look should be elegant and tailored, but feel free to express a bit of your personality." Among her favorite looks: Prints and textures in luxe fabrics for bigger statements and sophisticated solids, which provide the perfect backdrop for accessories.
Cocktail or Semi-Formal
"Cocktail or semi-formal attire can allow for more silhouettes and colors," Maguire tells Byrdie. Think shorter-length dresses, easy separates, and maxi dresses for these affairs. "My suggestion is always to opt for the dressier side and make a statement," the Shopbop fashion director says. "Lately, I love cocktail dresses with a high-volume puff sleeve for a bold and playful look."
Echoing Magruie, Love says, cocktail and semi-formal attire is less about what to wear and more about an attitude. "I like to think of it as polished with panache," the stylist explains. "Look for unique silhouettes and festive details. A shorter hemline is the perfect opportunity to show off a statement shoe."
Dressy Casual Or Smart Casual
This dress code has more of a laid-back tone, often applying to professional settings, networking events, or parties at someone’s home. "A floor-length gown would be too much, so reach for shorter dresses or separates," Love advises. Accessories are key with this dress code, too—classic styles like pumps, elegant flats, or simple sandals work well with almost any dressy casual look.
Come As You Are
Perhaps the most confusing dress code, "come as you are," opens guests up to much interpretation. "The definition for ‘come as you are’ is casual but not too casual," Maguire explains. "Don’t show up in sweats, but rather in a put-together, casual, and cool look." A fail-safe formula Maguire suggests is an easy poplin dress with simple sandals.
"Confidence is the best accessory, and if you feel great, you will look great," Love adds. "Wear whatever makes you feel your best."
Parties celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and engagements are just a few occasions that might call for festive attire, which, according to Love, equates to fun. "Wear what makes you feel fabulous," she says. An event’s details, such as location and season, will help guide you on the best colors and fabrics to wear, but silhouettes can range from flirty minis to minimalist maxis and in-between midis.
"Opt for lighter colors and fabrics like pastel and chiffon for spring and summer soirees and jewel-toned velvets and crepes in the cooler months," Love advises. "Whimsical accessories are also welcome."
Holiday festive is essentially a level-up from standard festive. "Holiday festive suggests sequins and sparkle," Love tells Byrdie. "To keep the look fun, not formal, I love a high-low combination. Think cozy knit sweaters with taffeta skirts or a sequined top with wide-leg trousers. A fun shoe and statement earrings set the festive tone."
Special Occasion Dinner Dates
It’s easy to default to the same few date-night outfit formulas for one-on-one celebrations with loved ones. Instead, why not dial up your look with an occasion-worthy outfit to make a celebratory night out feel extra special?
"The idea of going out for a dinner date or anniversary means you want to show up and show off to your partner," Maguire explains. "As we enter spring, I’m opting for an elevated and easy dress with flat slides and an under-the-arm pouch for an effortless, sexy, and chic look."
Love says a special occasion date night is an excellent opportunity to incorporate meaningful elements. "Anniversary dinner? Pull out your wedding earrings and work them into your outfit. For romantic occasions, feel free to show a bit of skin. Less is more, so choose one body part to highlight, like your shoulders, neck, or legs," she says.
Elegant Outdoor Occasions
Dressing up for an indoor soirée is one thing, but when it’s an alfresco situation, things can get a bit harrier. For tropical destinations, garden parties, and water-front locations, Love says fabric choice is key. "Flowy silhouettes in lightweight fabrics are perfect," the stylist shares. "Let nature be your inspiration and opt for floral prints and botanical accents."
There are usually two camps when it comes to theme parties: Love or loathe. If you tend toward the latter, kindly sending your regrets could be the best course of action. But there are ways to still feel like yourself and get in on the fun. A general rule of thumb: Put in at least little effort to show your respect for the theme, even if your look skews subtle. "When it comes to theme parties, it’s all about the details, so focus on the specifics," Love says. "When in doubt, ask the host for guidance."