Decoding Dress Codes From Casual To Black Tie (Plus Where And What To Shop)
Are you feeling confused by all the different dress codes out there? We've got you covered...literally. From casual to black tie, we've broken down the most common dress codes for women and what each one means and found options for you to shop. So, whether you're heading to a job interview or a fancy wedding, you'll know exactly what to wear.
What is casual dress code?
This is probably the easiest dress code to figure out. It's all about comfort, so you can wear jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers — just make sure your clothes are clean and presentable. For casual wear, you can find great options at stores like Madewell, J.Crew, and Anthropologie. These stores offer comfortable and stylish clothing options, such as soft t-shirts, cozy sweaters, and relaxed jeans.
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Gingham goes with any casual summer soiree, and this dress is no exception. The tiered skirt and square neck add some visual interest without overpowering the pattern, and the overall flowiness to the dress will keep you cool all summer long.
Madewell Modular Sleeveless Romper in 100% Linen ($83, was $118)
This romper is casual, chic, and completely versatile. You can wear each piece together as a full, connected set, or you can separate them to get multiple mix-and-match outfits with the top and bottoms!
J.Crew Relaxed-fit short-sleeve Baird McNutt Irish linen shirtdress ($104, was $148)
A shirt dress is perfect for any backyard barbecue, lounging lake-side, or any other casual gathering. Plus, this comes is so many different colors, giving you a ready-made outfit that doesn't look like you're wearing the same thing over and over again.
This may be a T-shirt dress, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring. With cheeky cutouts and a boxy neckline, this casual dress gives your look a lot for less (hello, under $30!).
What is smart casual dress code?
Women's attire for a smart casual dress code strikes the delicate balance between polished business wear and everyday, more relaxed casual clothes. Button-down shirts in neutral tones, smart midi skirts or tailored wide leg pants can all work great at this type of event. If your blouse features embellishment or patterns, pair it with more casual bottoms such as dark denim jeans or pleated midi skirts as these will avoid an overdressed appearance. Wide-legged culottes make a great choice as well! A well-tailored blazer can add instant sophistication and is the ideal piece for layering over dresses if your partner or friends wear something less formal. Block heels, flats or loafers tend to be appropriate shoes for this kind of event. Sneakers in classic colors such as black or white may also work. With party season in full swing, it's a good idea to keep some smart casual outfit ideas handy for unexpected invitations.
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J. Crew Stretch linen-blend midi pencil skirt ($90, was $138) + Perfect-fit shelf-bra tank top ($17, was $35)
This isn't the "gaudy orange" Sandra Bullock was so against in The Blind Side — it's totally trendier. Pair this structured skirt with this low key white tank, and you'll look casual, cool, and collected.
A jumpsuit is a great way to look like you put way more effort into your outfit, while remaining totally relaxed. The flared pants and cutouts are just lax enough to keep this outfit from being too buttoned up for a smart casual look.
The scalloped details sold us the moment we saw them with this Anthro option! The Maeve Scalloped Buttondown Dress is dolled up, but not too dressy — the perfect combo for smart casual.
Without the pleats, this dress from Madewell would likely be too downplayed. However, the extra structure adds just enough for this to feel fun and elegant.
What is business casual dress code?
This dress code is a little more formal than casual, but not as strict as business professional. Think dress pants or a skirt paired with a blouse or a sweater. You can still wear comfortable shoes, but make sure they look polished. Stores like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and Loft offer great options for workwear, such as blouses, skirts, and dress pants.
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A shirt dress can certainly be casual, but this Serenade Silk Shirtdress from Banana Republic takes the classic silhouette up a notch. This dress is great for hopping from the office to your Thursday happy hours!
A sheath dress is a great style for offices in the summer — it has nice structure, but still has a room to breathe. You can easily dress up this versatile option with statement jewelry and some heels, or you can go for a more toned down look with a chunky flat sandal and a simple satchel.
Loft Floral Ruffle Wrap Skirt ($36, was $70) + Ribbed Twist Open Back Top ($40)
Loft is a longtime staple for women in the workplace. This combination of the dainty skirt and straightforward shirt is perfectly polished for your summer Fridays, allowing you to feel cute and comfortable.
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This laid back look is sophisticated, with all the vibes of slacks and a blouse and none of the hassle. And if you're not headed into the office? Toss some Birkenstocks on with this the next time you head to the farmer's market.
What is business professional dress code?
If you're going to a job interview or a business meeting, this is the dress code you'll likely encounter. You'll need to wear a tailored suit or dress, heels, and conservative accessories. The goal is to look polished and professional.
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Carolina Slim Cotton-Linen Blazer ($250) + Straight Cotton Linen Pant ($130)
Linen will be your BFF for your summer office style. This linen suit still gives off "business professional," but isn't suffocating given the lighter fabric. You can easily take this look from day to night by losing the jacket and putting on a bold lip color.
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Everlane The Linen Oversized Blazer ($178) + Way-High Drape Pant ($128)
If you don't wanna go the pants and jacket route, a solidly structured dress at an appropriate length will work just fine for business professional dress code! We'd pair this dress from COS with some pointy-toed heels and chunky gold jewelry.
This dress from Ann Taylor gives off all the suit vibes without any of the suit sweatiness. A nice pair of heels and an ascot-style scarf are a go-to for this lovely look!
What is cocktail attire dress code?
This dress code is often seen at weddings, parties, and other formal events. You'll need to wear a dress or a skirt with a dressy blouse, paired with heels and tasteful accessories. Think sophisticated and glamorous. When it comes to cocktail attire, you'll want to look for dresses or dressy separates that are appropriate for a night out. Check out stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and Revolve for chic and stylish options.
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The hater neckline and midi length are an excellent pair for this Lulu's dress. The draping is elegant, but the slit and slightly shorter length add that level of cocktail playfulness.
Floral embellishments are all over right now, from twisted rosettes to embroidered wildflowers like these. While we love all the colors in this Helsi option from Anthropologie, there's also a black and nude option.
Much like the Lulu's dress, this one-shouldered mini dress from Revolve is simple and stunning. We'd add some statement earrings and a simple up-do to this dress.
Free People Remi Mini Dress ($329)
Want sleeves that are actually breathable? This Free People dress gives just that, plus some added Stevie Nicks vibes. Yes, please!
What is black tie dress code?
This is the most formal dress code, often seen at galas or fancy weddings. You'll need to wear a long floor-length gown, a dressy jumpsuit, or a formal cocktail dress, paired with dressy accessories such as fine jewelry and heels. Think red carpet glamour. You can find beautiful options at stores like BHLDN, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus.
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Anyone else getting Taylor Swift circa the 2016 Grammy Awards? We'd copy any look of hers, especially when it comes to formal events.
Mac Duggal is a master at formalwear. This fluttery favorite from Nordstrom is on the more expensive side, but that's par for the course with most formal dresses.
Lulu's Amelia Plunge Neck Trumpet Gown ($55-$88, was $88)
Luckily, brands like Lulu's offer more affordable options you can don confidently at your next wedding or special occasion! The deep v-neckline on this takes this simple black dress and makes is more of a statement.
Mac Duggal strikes again. We love how whimsical this dress is with all the ruffles, tiers, and pastel color.
What is beach formal dress code?
Beach formal attire should be comfortable and lightweight, yet still elegant. Look for flowy maxi dresses or linen separates at stores like Free People, Anthropologie, and H&M.
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Currently manifesting a beach wedding invitation so we can have an excuse to wear this Free People dress! It's fun and flowy, without feeling like a bathing suit cover up.
There's something about a square neck that just screams summer, IMO! (And yes, maybe it has everything to do with Daisy Edgar-Jones' wardrobe in Normal People).
I mean, this dress was literally photographed on a beach. 'Nuff said, right? Really though, the maxi length and asymmetrical neckline is gorgeous for a sunset beach wedding.
This pop of color is perfect for your next beachy event. The halter top is summer personified, and the flowy shape allows you to move through the sun and the sand with ease.
What is white tie dress code?
White tie events are the most formal dress code and typically call for full-length ball gowns. Check out stores like Moda Operandi, Bergdorf Goodman, and Net-a-Porter for stunning options.
The full skirt on this a-line Alfred Sung is a classic, formal look. It gives all the high style of a ballgown without the heft.
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Marchesa Ruffled Organza Ball Gown ($5,995)
Ruffles are really, really in if you haven't noticed. This gown from Marchesa may be almost $6k, but the draping of the delicate organza, the pinched rosettes on the gown, and the pastel periwinkle are a work of art in their own right.
MARKARIAN Magnolia Off-the-Shoulder Corset Gown ($2,457, was $4,095)
The corseted bodice is still very trendy right now, especially when paired with off-the-shoulder sleeves and delicate draping. This dress by MARKARIAN is what I imagine ancient Greek royalty would wear (if they had fuchsia dyes at their disposal).
Are you surprised to find more appliqué embellishments at the end of this guide? Didn't think so. This other Marchesa gown is formal, but edgy enough to bring your personality into the look.
Now that you know the most common dress codes for women, you can confidently dress for any occasion. Just remember to always consider the setting and dress appropriately. With these tips in mind, you'll be the best-dressed in the room!
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Header images via Banana Republic, Free People, Anthropologie