You come home from a long day at work and find an envelope nestled between the junk mail. You tear it open, amused and charmed by the thought that “snail mail” is still a thing, and there it is, an invitation to your cousin’s wedding, your executive Christmas party, or, terrifyingly, your fifteen-year high school reunion. You scan the page for details, dates and venues and your eyes lock onto one of the most frightening two-word phrases in the English language – “dress code” – followed by a frustratingly vague description, “black tie”, “cocktail”, or, scarier still, “smart casual”.
Cringing, you mentally catalogue every outfit you own and hope that you come up with something quickly so you can stop thinking about it. You consider the black dress, the plain one you wore to that work thing, with the nude heels but maybe it’s too much? Maybe it’s not enough? You RSVP yes and resign yourself to several fruitless shopping trips before giving up and wearing the black dress anyway – then you arrive and every other woman in the room is wearing an embellished ball gown.
We’ve all been there, arriving to an event, whether it’s a family wedding or your partner’s colleague’s birthday dinner, heart sinking under the realisation that we are not at all dressed for the occasion. Even the most fabulous of fashionistas turn cold at the prospect. The trick is knowing your dress codes, but where do you even start?
White & Black Tie
White and Black Tie are the highest standards of formal dress and we’re likely to encounter a Black Tie dress code etched upon invitations to the ballet or certain weddings. A shorter hem isn’t necessarily frowned upon, but a full-length dress is generally expected. An on-trend colour like Marsala, Pantone’s 2015 Colour of the Year, favoured by brands like Gucci and Shona Joy, will give you instant style points. Look to events like the Cannes Film Festival for inspiration, or go for something seasonal – florals for spring and summer may be a little predictable but it’s a classic combination for a reason, or with Christmas coming up, consider a little festive flavour with sequins and sparkly embellishments.
The unwritten rule for Cocktail is that dresses should hover somewhere around or above the knee. You can really exhibit some fashion flair with cocktail dresses, so don’t be afraid to play with colour and experiment with trends. Earthy tones, platform sandals and a fringed clutch for a take on this year’s huge 70s revival, or try an off-the-shoulder dress with statement earrings to nail two runway trends with one look.
Smart Casual is possibly the most difficult to decode, because it is an absolute oxymoron – how can you be both smart and casual simultaneously? While it seems impossible, two simple tricks will help you glide through any event that dictates this confounding dress code with ease. Firstly, you want to look more “smart” than “casual”, so no denim, no runners or thongs and no leggings. Secondly, consider the location or theme. A garden party, for example, calls for something fun, like a classic A-Line silhouette in a bright hue, or pops of colour from the accessories. A floaty, printed maxi-dress or playsuit, à la Australian brand Camilla, would be perfect options for a beach wedding.
Each dress code comes with its own offshoots and variables, but the key to navigating their nuances is confidence, as cliché that may sound. If you are ever in serious doubt, it pays to remember another of fashion’s great clichés – “you can never be overdressed or over educated”.