Decoding the dress codes: every party situation and what you should wear

Leonie Hanne and Tamara Kalinic
Influencers Leonie Hanne and Tamara Kalinic mastered party dressing during the Paris couture shows Credit:  Getty Images

Dress codes can be frustratingly vague. So vague, that one wonders whether the host even has a clue when they write something like ‘smart-casual’ on an invitation.

Worse still are the made-up dress codes, usually a host’s attempt to set themselves apart, but only serves to confuse partygoers who have no idea where to begin with a diktat like ‘winter chic’.

As a result, the “what are you wearing?” text is almost inevitable before any important do - because by dressing as formally (or informally) as our friends, at least we won’t be alone in misinterpreting a theme.

For the more commonly used dress codes, we can at least offer some guidelines. Here, we reveal what to wear for every conceivable festive occasion. 

Smart-casual 

Camila Coelho nailed smart-casual at New York Fashion Week Credit: Getty Images 

This is the dress code we'll all see at least once over the next month. It's also the most annoying. An oxymoron in itself, it always leaves a guest questioning exactly how smart or casual you should be. The answer is: smart, but not too smart. Leave your party dress and skyscraper heels at home. It's fine to come straight from work - and you can even wear jeans or (fashion) trainers, as long as they're balanced out with smarter elements, like a pair of chandelier earrings or a silk top.

Credit: Boden

Satin top, £45, velvet trousers, £110, and jewelled flats, £110, all boden.co.uk

Cocktail

Stylist Anna Rosa Vitiello at Paris Fashion Week Credit: Getty Images

This is the next rung up in the formality stakes. Wear that silk midi dress or velvet suit you've been saving for the right occasion, but don't go too OTT unless you really want to stand out. This is not the right place for head-to-toe sequins. Add heels or some statement jewellery to take your look to the next level. 

Credit: & Other Stories

Satin midi dress, £95, stories.com

Festive

A festive dress code calls for colour and sparkle Credit:  Getty Images

This can go in many different directions, which is reassuring to a certain extent, because there's no right or wrong. The key ingredient is festive spirit: whether that's a cheesy Christmas jumper or a cocktail dress is up to you. Even if your personality is more 'bah humbug' than 'Deck the Halls', show your host you're happy to be there by wearing some colour or sparkle. Velvet will always tick the box, too.

Credit: Ghost

Averie dress, £245, ghost.co.uk

Black tie

Cara Delevingne wore a top hat and tails to Princess Eugenie's wedding Credit: Getty Images

A black tie event is the most formal affair most of us will attend, and a great excuse to pull out all the stops. Dresses can be long or short, and don't have to be black, but they do need to be something special. Go for a standout piece in silk, velvet or chiffon, and carry an evening bag like a clutch or miniaudière. A chic alternative would be a tuxedo or evening trouser suit - take inspiration from Cara Delevingne at Princess Eugenie's wedding.

Credit: Self-Portrait

Floral sequinned midi dress, £380, selfridges.com

White tie

Influencer Caroline Daur at the Paris Fashion Week AMFAR dinner Credit:  Getty Images

White tie is rare, but if you are lucky enough to attend such an event, a long, formal dress is the way to go. Look to the new wave of fashion rental companies for high-octane, glamorous eveningwear that won't do too much damage to your bank balance. National costume is also considered appropriate.

Etiquette bible Debrett's says white gloves are traditionally worn at white tie occasions, but are no longer essential. If you do want to go all-out, wear a sleeveless dress, as white tie gloves typically cover the whole forearm.

Credit: Needle & Thread

Wild Rose ruffle gown, £425, needleandthread.com