A man’s life is full of moments that will require him to dress a certain way. From his high school graduation to walking his daughter down the aisle, a man needs to understand the basics of formal, semi-formal, and casual dressing so that he knows when to wear what and how. Because a gentleman understands his clothing is not just about him; his personal presentation is a reflection of the respect he shows to those around him.
By default, I am conservative in this article. My advice is the same that you would receive from your grandfather. But that’s its strength – this timeless wisdom is battle tested and proven. By following it you can rest assured you’ll be well dressed at any event anywhere.
Deciphering the Invitation
The first rule in dressing for an event is to read and understand the invitation. Many times the choice of what to wear has been made for you, and your options are limited to the colors and styles within the confines of a set garment type. But what exactly is “Black Tie,” and how should you dress for a business casual event?
(Note these terms are only for North America, as the English and Europeans have their own terminology and the same word does not always have the same meaning.)
Black Tie – sometimes referred to as evening dress, means that a tuxedo is expected. Weddings, operas, receptions at embassies, balls, and charity dinners are just a few places you’ll see this dress code.
Black Tie Optional – a tuxedo or dark suit are both equally acceptable. This dress code evolved as dress standards relaxed and more men found themselves without a tuxedo. Instead of excluding them from events, black tie optional was created to include all. If you have both a tuxedo and solid dark suit, wear the garment that fits and compliments you best. Do not rent a tuxedo if you own a perfectly fine suit, but instead consider purchasing a quality tuxedo if you expect to attend more than one of these events every couple years.
Semi-formal – a dark suit, crisp dress shirt with non-obtrusive pattern, and a conservative tie. No tuxedos are expected, and none should be worn.
Business Casual – a tie is optional, but a dress shirt & nice trousers are required. A sports jacket or blazer should also be worn (this last one is my opinion, but alas is actually optional).
Casual – Jeans, cotton trousers, & shorts are acceptable; they should fit well and be free of holes and wrinkles. A simple collared polo shirt that fits will suffice in warm weather, but in cooler weather the smart dresser will choose a button down shirt with a casual style, color, and/or pattern.
Not sure? Then ask.
If what you should wear is not spelled-out on the invitation, or if the invitation was simply relayed over the telephone or email, another method of determining what to wear is to ask your host directly. The only danger here is that the dress may change. Often the dress code at a less than organized event changes as the event draws nearer; make sure to double-check at least a couple of days before the event if you feel this may be the case.
If you can’t reach the host, try to talk with someone participating in the event. When a groomsman tells you he’s wearing a suit with tennis shoes, it’s safe to assume you’ll be perfectly fine in a dark sports jacket and trousers with dress shoes.
Be Prepared to Adapt
Not sure what to expect and have to be there in the next hour? Consider wearing clothing that can be dressed up or dressed down. If you show up over-dressed in your suit and tie, you can always excuse yourself for a minute and slip off your jacket, slide off your tie, and unbutton your top button before rejoining the celebration.
Dressing for Life’s Events
A male wedding guest should seek to contribute to the happiness and love being celebrated. His attire should be smart and within the requested boundaries of the host, and if he chooses to be fashionable, it should be limited to his accessories. Remember that you are not there to attract attention to yourself but rather to help frame an important event in the history of two families.
As to what to wear, most wedding invitations clearly state what the dress code will be. Expect it to fall between black tie and business casual, although 95% of the time if you show up in a dark suit, white shirt, and muted tie with proper dress shoes you’ll be perfectly dressed. If the invitation does not cover what guests should wear, there are a number of clues you can pay attention to that will help you figure out the expected attire:
- First, take into account the location; an outdoor wedding in rural Wisconsin is going to be by its very nature less formal than a wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
- Second, the time of day; day weddings are often less formal than evening ceremonies. In fact, the wearing of a tuxedo before 5PM is considered a faux pas by many traditionalists, although in the US this rule is often ignored.
- Third, examine the invitation itself. If it looks like they’ve spent a fortune on the invites, you might want to spend a little time dressing the part of a considerate guest.
A low key wedding in which the couple specifically asks for guests to dress casual should be heeded, but with caution. One person’s definition of casual is not another’s, and the prepared man carries in his car or travel kit an upscale casual outfit in case he arrives underdressed.
Many graduates think the event surrounding the culmination of their education is about them. I know I did. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realize a graduation is really a family celebration, a time to reflect on the sacrifices made by others so that one can achieve a common goal. With this in mind, you should dress smartly not for yourself but in respect to those who went without so you wouldn’t have to.
Even when wearing a ceremonial robe, you’ll want to dress smartly as your shoes, socks, and trouser legs will be seen. Consider timeless oxfords as footwear, but any dress shoe that is made from quality leather and properly shined will do. For most, a simple suit & tie or sports jacket, dark trousers, and tie is perfect. Leave the jacket off when robed, but have it handy to wear to the reception and multiple picture taking sessions.
If a guest of the graduate, take the ceremony’s location into consideration. A ceremony at Columbia University in New York can be attended in a suit; a graduation at Oceanside High School in California will more likely call for a sports jacket and light-wool trousers.
There are a lot of things you can’t control on the first date; whether or not she’ll like the restaurant, what she’ll think of your opinions, and if she laughs at any of your jokes. But one thing you can control is your appearance, and it’s to your advantage to make the most out of what you have.
On a first date, always try to stack the cards in your favor. You want to look your best, and unless you have the body of Adonis “your best look” is a comfortable well fitting suit or sports jacket. If built right, it will accentuate your shoulders, trim your waist, and give you the appearance of added height. To match the jacket, wear a pair of dark wool trousers. Roomier than jeans, they’ll also hide small stains better whether you spill food or forget to shake. And always pay close attention to your shoes’ shine and style; you can bet your date will. Lastly, make sure to subtly let her know what you’ll be wearing well before the appointed time. She may be under the impression the date is a more casual situation, and may be uncomfortable if her outfit doesn’t match your clothing’s level of formality.
First Week on the Job
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and during your first week at a new job you’ll be making a lot of first impressions. So it’s important that you pay very close attention to the unstated dress code and carefully adapt your clothing to it. Now don’t give up your individuality, but be sensitive to what others are wearing and the reactions your clothing will draw. Because even though the interview is over, the game of office politics and perception has just begun.
My advice is start off slightly over-dressed your first week. This may not be possible at a law firm where everyone is wearing a suit and tie, but in a business casual environment you may want to opt for a sports jacket, shirt, and tie vs. a shirt and tie only. When shaking hands for the first time you want to project a professional image, as most of our sensory input is visual, and numerous communication studies have demonstrated appearances far outweigh what we actually say in a first encounter. With people making a decision about you in the first few seconds, it’s easier to start at the top than to start low and try to work yourself up.
Receptions and Parties
There are get-togethers, there are cocktail parties, and then there are receptions. In that order do we generally see these congregations increase in their level of formality; however, it’s not uncommon to attend a casual reception or a more formal get-together. Again, like most things, its situation dependent.
Get-togethers are typically more relaxed and comfortable social events, often loosely planned where most of the attendants know each other already or share a common bond. The dress code here ranges from casual to business casual. Cocktail parties on the other hand are planned events where many of the guests do not know each other; hence we have a higher level of formality as people feel each other out. Judgments are passed, business deals started, and business cards are liberally distributed here. Expect the dress code to be business casual to black tie optional. Finally, we have receptions. Although they can be very informal events, many times they are not, as the event’s purpose is to “receive” a new couple, a new company president, or a new child. For this, we show respect by elevating our appearance. Expect semiformal to black tie optional.
Whether you are attending as a believer or as a guest, a man who visits a place of worship or religious importance should always show respect, if not for himself, then for others and their beliefs. He does this by following the unstated dress code and never dressing below it. Because no church is the same, and no temple has the exact requirements as another, this varies not only from religion to religion but also from country to country. A safe guide is to always wear clothing that covers the body, is respectful in nature, and that is culturally acceptable. Think business casual to semi-formal wear.
A man’s purpose when attending a funeral is to comfort the bereaved; by attending and dressing appropriately he shows his support and pays his respects to the deceased and their family. Funeral invitations are rare, but the prescribed outfit is universal across the English speaking world; a dark suit, a simple shirt, a somber tie, and polished shoes.
Your suit does not have to be black; a navy pinstripe will work if that’s what you have. As for the dress shirt, white is the most formal color, but other non-attention drawing shades are fine. When putting together what to wear remember your appearance should allow you to arrive without show, to grieve without drawing attention, and say your final goodbye with respect.
We’ve all heard it’s better to be over-dressed than under-dressed; my advice though is to simply dress perfectly for the occasion. It’s not that hard if you pay attention, do your homework, and prepare accordingly.
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Last updated: October 6, 2015