A gentleman’s guide to dress codes

Deciphering dress codes not your strong suit? Read on...

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There’s no point in dressing it up – dress codes can be bloody infuriating.

As you slip your invitation to an event or party out of the envelope, initially a dress code can seem like a gift from God – an indicator that you won’t have to spend hours fretting over fashion and levels of formality. But you’ll soon learn that those few simple words present one of the most daunting social challenges imaginable.

There’s a right way and wrong way to do everything, so your interpretation of whichever dress code you are lumbered with is basically a test of your sartorial skills.

But what do these codes and conventions of couture actually mean? ‘Lounge Suit’ and ‘Cocktail’ are disconcertingly vague and, whilst ‘Black Tie’ and ‘White Tie’ sound simple enough, the number of exceptions and variations that complicate them are so infuriatingly numerous that there are now tens of ways to get dressed to the nines.

So, if you don’t know your wing collars from your double cuffs, bookmark this page and keep it close to hand to avoid your foray into formal regalia ending in failure.

"Smart Casual"

Eddie Williams by Greg Williams for Gentleman's Journal Feb 2017
Photo by Greg Williams for Gentleman's Journal

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up – and smart casual really is the bottom. Writing these two conflicting words on an invitation is the sartorial equivalent of playing Russian Roulette. As, for every five guests who turn up dressed appropriately, there will be one unapologetically laid-back attendee who will have latched onto the ‘casual’ for dear life and will turn up wearing jeans and trainers.

In short, ‘Smart Casual’ should be more formal than you think. Whilst still a far cry from ties and tailoring, you should leave your trainers in the gym (where they belong). Instead, try a pair of Chelsea or desert boots, or loafers paired with chinos and a shirt or simple polo. This also applies to the office, where ‘Smart Casual’ is often used as a way for your boss to gauge just how serious you are about your job.

"Lounge Suit"

Model wears double-breasted suit Photo by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal Sep Oct 2016
Photo by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal

Ironically, the oddest sounding entry on this list is perhaps the simplest. Your ‘Lounge Suit’ should be a dark suit with a tie – an uncomplicated outfit you could wear every day to look proper and presentable.


Of course, you could mix things up with a double-breasted jacket or three-piece suit, but remember to exercise some restraint. Overall, however, this code shouldn’t present too many complications – unless, of course, you overthink it, in which case you’ll inevitably begin questioning your entire understanding of what is construed to be ‘normal’ and turn up ridiculously over- or under-dressed.


Oliver Cheshire shot by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal 2016
Photo by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal

A sufficiently glamorous sounding dress code, ‘Cocktail’ bridges the gap between everyday and occasionwear, mixing the normal with the formal. We’re talking tailored, but not a tuxedo.

Concocted at cocktail parties in the early 20th century, this code is the socially acceptable way to show off some of your more statement threads. If you’ve got a crocodile-skin belt itching to be worn, or a fetching cravat hoping to make its debut, now is the time. Swap Oxfords for monkstrap shoes, plains for patterns, and muted shades for bolder colours. And, other than keeping everything formal, there is only one rule: don’t upstage the host. Bar that, feel free to dress – and this is a word little used in a gentleman’s vocabulary – as ‘jazzily’ as you wish.

"Black Tie"

Ah, the humble tuxedo. Despite its image having been somewhat  hijacked by the opera and cruise ships of late, this dress suit consists of a white dress shirt, black bow tie, evening waistcoat or cummerbund and dinner jacket. Trousers should have satin-striped sides and you should slip a pair of highly-polished black Oxfords on your feet.

But, although aspiring culture vultures and short-term seafarers have appropriated this suave outfit,  a bigger threat to black tie comes from prefixes and suffixes. From ‘Black Tie Optional’ to ‘Velvet Black Tie’, unnecessary variations are tainting the tuxedo – and none more so than the truly abhorrent ’Creative Black Tie’. Any man who unsarcastically wears a polka dot bow tie or colourful cummerbund to a social event deserves to be either expelled immediately, made to change or – as is an option in many of these circumstances – thrown overboard.

"White Tie"

Safe in the upper echelons of society, ‘White Tie’ has remained relatively untouched by the modern world. And, although the more traditional accessories of a top hat, white gloves and silver-topped cane have been jettisoned in the name of sartorial progress, the outfit as a whole remains the same as it was when introduced almost two centuries ago.

So what do you need to get white right? Firstly, take a deep breath – it’s a long list. Start with a white cotton pique shirt, with detachable wing collar and double cuffs and cufflinks, a white Marcella bow tie and low cut Marcella evening waistcoat, tailcoat in either barathea wool or ultra fine herringbone – featuring silk peak lapels and double braiding down the trousers – and patent black dress shoes. A white dress scarf is also acceptable – if it is winter, the event is being held outdoors, or you are an character in an Oscar Wilde novel.

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