Explanation of formal dress codes

While hosts today tend to be fairly lenient about guests’ party attire, you’re still likely to run into traditional dress code terms on wedding invitations that leave you puzzling over what you’re meant to wear (what is “morning dress,” exactly?). As with most traditions, standards of dress have morphed dramatically over time—there was once an age when all women were expected to wear gloves to events and all men hats, an age when business suits were considered so casual they fell into a class of fashion called undress. Even today, people have different notions of how best to meet formal dress codes, but there are some basic ground rules that are good to know for the next time you get a fancy cocktail party invitation or a save the date to a formal wedding.

White Tie

White tie is the most formal dress code in Western fashion. Men are expected to wear a black tailcoat, trousers, shoes, and socks; white wing-collared shirt, vest, and bow tie; studs, cufflinks, suspenders, and, if you really want to go wild, a boutonniere. There are no color requirements for women, any old floor-length evening or ball gown will do—long gloves optional. Morning dress is a variation of white tie for events before 6 p.m.; men wear a modified tailcoat called a morning coat, and striped trousers in a muted color, while women may venture slightly shorter with their dresses. (Oh là là!)

Black Tie

Black tie is slightly less rigid, yet amply swanky. For men, black tie calls for a tuxedo jacket (rather than a tailcoat), black bow tie (rather than white), and the option of black vest or cummerbund. Women may opt for a dressy cocktail dress over a full-length gown. The pre-evening variant for black tie is called stroller and replaces the man’s tux jacket with a lounge coat and the bow tie with a necktie. If an invitation references creative black tie, don’t let your mind run away with you; men can choose an unconventional color for their shirt or accessories.


At the lower end of the fancy scale is semiformal dress (considered informal in traditional parlance). Men need only wear a business suit, dress shirt, and tie; women can wear a short afternoon or cocktail dress or dressy separates.

Whatever the occasion or time of day, it’s always best to respect the dress code requests of the host who sent the invitation. You wouldn’t want to be caught at a formal dinner party in a purple cummerbund when everyone else is in hats and tails.