Nothing spoils a fun, fancy event like a cryptic dress code. “Creative Black Tie,” “Artsy Cocktail,” “Semiformal,” these are all categories that can leave you stumped in front of your closet. According to personal stylist and branding consultant Nicole Otchy, there is light, and clarity, at the end of the sartorial tunnel.
When it comes to formal dress codes, Otchy says it has a lot to do with color and length. For example, cocktail and semiformal occasions are safe bets for a shorter dress. You also have more room here to play with color. Black tie and formal affairs call for a long dress, and a darker color makes the look even more upscale.
“You can never go wrong with a little black dress,” says Otchy. “That’s an annoying thing that everyone says, but a sheath dress that’s simple. Even if it’s a relatively casual event, it’s not obtrusive.”
Unfortunately, the same rules don’t apply everywhere. For example, a gala in New York is not the same as a gala in Boston and that’s not the same as a gala in Vermont. Boston area stylist Gilda Miranda says, “I would suggest letting the time and location be your guide. Is it a day or evening event? What does the location and space tell you about how fancy or how casual the occasion will be?”
But if you don’t have time to research what people are wearing in a specific place (and let’s be real we know you don’t), it’s always better to be overdressed rather than underdressed.
“People worry about looking like they tried too hard, but I think the ramifications of looking like you tried are far less on people’s perception of us than if it looks like we tried not at all,” says Otchy.
Miranda agrees, advising event goers to wear dressy layers and accessories that they can peel off if the event turns out to be more casual than anticipated.
“It also never hurts to bring a backup if the situation allows for you to do so,” Miranda says. “This could help at a wedding, for example, where you are someone’s plus one and may not have been filled in on the details of the wedding. Wear the simple dress and bring a really dressy back up that you can easily slip into once you’ve scoped out the guests from a distance and realize it’s a more formal affair.”
Dressing well for an event, a date or even a meeting is a sign of respect. Putting in the effort shows that you care enough about this activity to look your best. Otchy says, “It signals a relationship to yourself, and it signals a relationship to the world. You want to be sure that that message is appropriate and cohesive in both senses.”
It sounds cliché, but the reality is that you’ll look best in what you feel good in. Confidence is key in pulling off a look no matter the dress code. Otchy recommends finding a baseline of colors and silhouettes that you feel comfortable in so you can select from those when a tricky event comes along.
“I think that having confidence and a general point of view in your style can get you pretty far in these things,” she says. “If you’re comfortable with the dress it’s always a safe thing.”
“It’s a quintessential little black dress occasion. Think shorter, fun dresses or even a polished sundress in the summer.” –Ochty
“Fun, bold, flirty attire — dresses can be knee-length or slightly shorter.” – Miranda
“Dressier than a cocktail dress and less dressy than a formal event where you would wear a long dress or a tux. A shorter dress would work here to be safe.” –Ochty
“Dressier and more conservative than cocktail attire.” –Miranda
“The dressiest of all the dress codes. This is the dress code where a gown or a longer cocktail dress is appropriate. When in doubt, go with darker colors for formal attire.” –Ochty
“An occasion where a gown or tuxedo isn’t required but still appropriate.” –Miranda
Creative Black Tie
“Creative black tie means there’s room for interpretation and self-expression when it comes to interpreting the black tie dress code. You still want to stay with a gown or long dress for your silhouette, but you can add color, play with texture and feel free to pick a more fashion-forward look.” –Ochty
“A formal occasion that calls for a floor length gown and tuxedos along with unique or whimsical details and accessories.” –Miranda