“Yes, but what exactly is the dress code?”. This cry for help is becoming more common, as it becomes the norm for a stated dress code to be left off event invitations. Event planners or hosts, carelessly leave it up to the invitees to decipher the dress code based on good judgement and clues such as time, venue and type of event. This approach tends to result in a standard default position of cocktail or smart casual making an appearance, often leaving many people feeling uncomfortably under or overdressed, and whilst this may be manageable in a personal situation, at work place functions it can cause embarrasment and impact your personal brand.

Whilst researching this issue, I stumbled upon 2 great articles discussing the issue, one from the glorious Glynis Traill-Nash fashion writer for The Australian newspaper and the other from Perrie Samotin of StyleCaster, but even they had conflicting opinions.

So the question is do we call the organiser to ask what the dress code is or do we just play it safe? And, what is playing it safe anyway? To help with understanding the dress code, I have come up with the following glossary:


The absolute fanciest dress code, black tie is often requested for fundraiser balls, awards nights and gala dinners, they are also sit down functions. When picking out an outfit for a black tie work function be guided by length first, and look for either floor, ankle, mid-calf gowns or just below the knee length dresses, then be guided by fabric – think anything but cotton. Accessories are also vital, so match your dress with the appropriate jewellry (good quality costume is fine), clutches and of course, don’t forget the shoes. Think the Oscars red carpet (with a little less flesh on show) and you get the drift.


A cocktail party is a stand up affair and more often than not will  commence a little earlier than a black tie event i.e. late afternoon or dusk.  Work function cocktail parties are often held straight after work, so in those cases the dress code is more likely to lean towards high end business attire than a shiny cocktail dresses. So, think shift dresses, tailored dresses, a skirt & blouse or pants suits. The finish and finesse can come via the accessories, so trade your black pumps for some peep toes, your handbag for a clutch and slip on a cocktail ring.


Lounge suit is often the ‘fall back’ dress code when it is not stated on the invitation and is generally the “right” thing to wear for formal daytime functions. From experience this dress code tends to be a cue for people to wear the best thing in their wardrobe, but to get it right you should opt for tasteful colour matching, floral dresses or skirt & top ensembles. Shoes tend to be sensible and use your best work handbag as opposed to your multi-functional, fits my laptop and baby wipes handbag.


The lazy event hosts dress code, smart casual is the one that causes the most angst as it tends to hold a different meaning for everyone. Smart casual in the Hamptons tends to be different to smart casual in Tamworth. A good way to think about smart casual is to think about how you would dress if you are going to a work conference and attending the welcome dinner. Collared shirts, blouses, pants, skirts, floral dresses are all acceptable, as is cotton, linen and floaty fabrics teamed with wedges, sandals or ballet flats. Denim is risky unless it’s particularly “smart” and on trend (not the jeans you wear to the kids football games) as are shorts and mini skirts. If you wouldn’t look out of place in a nightclub, go back inside and get changed.

From experience there is more likelihood of hilarious dance floor antics to terrible music the more formal the event so if you’re prone to the call of the Macarena you might want to make sure your shoes can cope. No shoes on the dance floor is the ultimate fashion fail.