Decoding Holiday Dress Codes

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At one time or another you’ve probably gotten an invitation to a wedding or party with a dress code such as Black Tie, Black Tie Optional, Formal, etc. Those are hard enough to remember, but what about when the invitation says Black Tie Creative, Festive or Casual Chic?

As a Denver wardrobe consultant, I help my client figure out all of their party needs. Here’s a run down of what each traditional dress code means and also what to wear when the invitation leaves you scratching your head.

Black Tie (a.k.a. Formal)

This is your time to don a floor length gown. Think glamorous, not hot. Choose elegant fabrics in solid colors and more traditional accessories. (A cocktail dress can be acceptable, but it should be very formal.)

By no means does this mean boring or stuffy. Consider it a chance to channel your inner Pretty Woman (after her make-over, of course.)

This navy blue lace dress looks elegant and comfy!

While I’ve not had experience with it, Rent the Runway  seems like a possible course of action for formal gowns. On the plus side, you’re allowed to order 2 sizes for the rental price. The downfall is that alterations aren’t a possibility.

Cocktail (a.k.a.Semi-formal, After-Five)

Now we’re talking about an elegant party dress. It can absolutely be tea length or above the knee; however, not too terribly short is best. The Little Black Dress all dressed up is your safest bet.

Of course, black is just one option, a colorful cocktail dress can be just as versatile. I love how this teal is a spin on traditional holiday green.

Since your dress may be simple, go all out with fab heels and accessories! Can’t wear heels? Follow these guidelines and still feel glamorous.

Business Attire (a.k.a. Office Appropriate, Dress Your Best)

More than likely this is your holiday office party or a networking event. While you want to look sharp, dressing like it’s any other normal work day isn’t what you’re after. More than anything, keeping things conservative is high priority. (Not the time to show your hot boss how hot your legs are!)

If you’re truly not up for buying something new for this party, wear your very best suit and replace your normal shell with a beautiful satin blouse or swap your black pumps for party pumps. OR choose your best sheath dress and uplevel the accessories.

Another way to go is with dressy suit separates in festive colors. I always love the idea of a winter white suit or all black with an ivory jacket…perhaps in more of an “out of the box style” for you.

Festive (a.k.a. Holiday Attire, Creative Cocktail, Dress to Impress)

Time to sparkle and shine! This invitation is inviting you to fun, fun, fun! Go ahead…go full on sequin, feathers, or thigh high hems. You will be noticed when you walk in the door!

Metallics are fabulous for a creative cocktail dress code.

Prefer to be appropriate but not the center of attention? Call up your favorite cocktail dress and add an outrageous accessory or two. Try sequined pumps or an unexpected colored faux fur wrap.

Casual Chic (a.k.a. Dressy Casual, Smart Casual)

Like business casual, a good rule of thumb is to concentrate on the word paired with “casual.” So think chic, dressy or smart. Pants are perfectly acceptable and even a nice dark, (non-distressed) jean can work in many circumstances.

Consider a basic pair of pants with a beautiful silk top or dressy sweater. During the holidays look to special fabrics like crepe, velvet, satin or brocade.

Want to wear jeans? Pair them with a sexy camisole, sassy blazer and heels or embellished flats.


Feel free to wear jeans, but it’s still a party, so add a pretty blouse or festive sweater. Red and green tops are great, but your favorite color dressed up with a few accessories can be just as special. For the most part, the hostess won’t really care all that much what you’re wearing. She wants you to be comfortable, but out of respect for her and the holidays, save your sweats and leggings for Sunday morning.

These cover the most common attire suggestions you’ll see indicated during the holidays; however, I’ve heard of all kinds of other zany suggestions on invitations. Should you get one of those or are just simply not sure what to wear, call the hostess or organizer. And you can always call on other party goers to see what they’re wearing.

Lastly, no matter what…always remember that it’s far better to be over dressed than under dressed!






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