Lawrence Laundry: Dress codes decoded



For a black tie occasion, men should wear a tuxedo and women should wear a floor-length gown.


Banana Republic photo

A cocktail-length dress (just above the knees) is appropriate for occasions calling for semi-formal/informal or cocktail attire.



Festive wear is the most open-ended category. It can mean a colorful frock or a tacky sweater, depending on the party.

Sparkles aren’t really my thing, but something about the holidays makes me want to transform my daily outfits into shimmering, twinkling bundles of Christmas joy.

So far this season I’ve resisted the sparkling urge, but with so many great holiday parties coming up, I can’t help but think a glittering garment is in my future.

However exciting the holiday season is, holiday parties tend to create a bit of anxiety for partygoers. Undoubtedly, a root of this anxiety — at least for women — is not knowing what to wear.

I plan events through my job at Heartland Community Health Center, and it never fails that about one week before the event, I get numerous emails that usually begin with, “I know the dress code says _, but my wife is wondering what she should wear.”

Master those pesky dress codes by following this guide.

Black Tie/Creative Black Tie

Think red carpet. When a black tie invitation is sent out, men should don tuxedos and women are most appropriately dressed in long evening gowns. Depending on the event and venue, a cocktail-length dress may work, as long as it is made out of a luxury fabric like silk, satin, chiffon. No cotton dresses for black tie events! Hair and makeup should also reflect the formal occasion.

Creative black tie allows guests freedom to put personal touches on their party wear. Be cautious of getting too creative with creative black tie, but stylish details like patterned or colored socks or a skinny tie are encouraged for men.

Women can go even a little funkier than men. Interesting formal wear or modern jewelry and shoes are completely acceptable.


While they seem like somewhat dichotomous terms, semi-formal and informal typically call for the same type of outfit. Men should wear a suit (dark-colored in the evening, light- or dark-colored during the day).

Ladies, again, we get to choose from a few different styles. Cocktail-length dresses are great, but dressy separates work well, too.

Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire means dark suits for men and cocktail-length or other short dresses for women. Other outfits fit into this category as well, such as dressy pantsuits or shirt/skirt combination.

Business Formal/Business Casual

In the workplace, business formal and business casual have two different meanings, but they may refer to the same type of dress outside workplace.

Business formal/business casual, for men, can mean trousers with a nice button-down shirt with or without a jacket, with or without a tie.

Women should opt for modest, tailored clothing, such as a suit or a shirt/skirt combination or a conservative dress. Ladies, no excessive skin should show.

Festive Attire

Festive attire is exciting and frightening at the same time. On one hand, I love getting into the holiday spirit. On the other hand, I never know when someone’s wearing a Christmas sweater to be ironic, or when they’re being serious.

Be careful with festive wear. Show your spirit with some sparkle or color, but be careful to not go over the top (unless that’s what the host wants!).


Casual means everyday wear. Wearing something you’d normally wear out to dinner will work well.

— Ali Edwards can be reached at


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