Dressing for the Occasion: Your 60 Second Visual Guide

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 15, 2011 · 59 Comments

in A Man's Life, Dress & Grooming, On Etiquette, Visual Guides

Black Tie Optional | Semi-Formal | Business Casual | Casual

This illustrated guide made possible by Life Khaki by Haggar – Talking Men’s style. What’s this?

We’ve been talking a lot about hosting a holiday party lately, but what if you’re invited to one as a guest? It can be confusing trying to decipher the stated dress code. “Black tie” is easy: wear a tux. But what about those other categories? Well, last week we brought you a quick visual guide to dressing for an interview, and this week we offer some general guidelines for how to dress for an event at a glance. (We didn’t do “Cocktail” because the expected dress for that designation can vary so widely depending on time of day and level of formality of the event.)

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Charles December 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm

“Black Tie Optional” also seems to involve striking a more heroic pose.

2 Josh December 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I really dig these visual guides you folks are putting together these days.

Informative and they look great.


3 Tim December 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

excelent. very helpful. I agree, the Black Tie optional pose is very heroic and would work in the semi formal but not the Bussines casual or casual

4 Titus December 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Hmm, a few nits:

1. Don’t wear a long tie with a tuxedo if you wear a tuxedo to a black-tie-optional event.

2. Be careful about “semi-formal”: that traditionally means “black tie.” If the person sending the invitation is old or known to be old fashioned, it’s distinctly possible that he could be using the traditional meaning of the phrase. This is why one shouldn’t write an invitation using a phrase whose meaning is ambiguous or in transition.

5 Matty December 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Titus – Why not wear a long with a tuxedo? Even if has a vest vs. cummerbund?

6 Michael December 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm

“Black tie optional” is an oxymoron. Either it’s black tie or it’s not. For gentlemen, there is no in-bertween. Unfortunately, this is the sad state of our “Casual dress Friday” society.

7 Martin Wagoner December 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I understand the need to dress up on occasion but is it bad when my casual appearance is jeans or cargo pants, a shirt( t-shirt or plaid) and boots?

8 Mike December 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm

@Martin, you’re version of casual is more, “chopping wood in the yard”.

9 Patty December 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I’m with you, Michael! If it says Black Tie Optional — Just wear Black Tie.

10 k2000k December 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Well saying black tie optional could also be done in consideration for those who might not own/be able to afford a tuxedo. Most every man should at least be able to have some nice dark suit.

11 Levi December 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm

nothing wrong with wearing a simple, long neck-tie for a black tie occasion, however you should try for one made out of satin or silk.

12 Joseph Sanchez December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm

In all of these, with maybe the exception of the tuxedo. A pair of high polish boots, like a pair of Luchesse boots, work just as well as a pair of dress shoes. I have a pair of Luchesse’s and a pair of elephant skin boots that go great with a suit.

13 ryan December 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I wish these images were available for sale on art of manliness! They would look cool in an 8x10amazon and framed in my classy man cave! Please make it happen!

14 Ryan D. December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I wish these images were available for sale on art of manliness! They would look cool in an 8×10 and framed in my classy man cave! Please make it happen!

15 Eric December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Saw two “conservative” ties on there. Is there a liberal one?

Didn’t see a note on the hair, but it appears that the more formal one is, the better kept it seems to be here.

16 jeff December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm

So is a denim tux formal or semi-formal, and should you wear a black tie?

17 HughesProductions47 December 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Thanks for this!

18 Wilson December 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Thank you Thank you Thank you
It has taken me 7 years to teach my partner that clothes make the man. Just remember you can use the clothes the make a hell of a impression. Dont forget Bow Ties and Flashy SOCKS.

19 Mark W December 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Another great article… But I have to agree with a couple of the comments on Black Tie. I’m from UK, so I may see things differently but Black Tie optional means Black Tie. You could wear a dark suit, but there’s a good chance you’ll look shoddily dressed to the othe guests. Also never a long tie, always a bow tie and learn how to tie it – not a horrible clip on. The Army would ridicule you for a clip on – round of drinks all around! And for shoes, the only correct option is patent ‘shiny’ shoes. Enjoy the holiday season : )

20 Wade December 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Is is me or does the ‘black tie optional’ guy look like a villain from a James Bond movie.

21 RJ December 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Hahahaha @ Wade
I see the resemblance of the Villain of J. Bond. But the Business Casual guy looks like Bill Nigh the Science guy.
Always Great stuff .. In your Debt on more than one Occasion.

22 Kenny L. December 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm

In my experience, Semi-Formal is more in line with what this lists as Business Casual, if not less. Semi-Formal is khakis and a button up shirt, with optional tie.

23 Bradley December 15, 2011 at 10:06 pm

This is really helpful! Thanks!

24 Tony December 15, 2011 at 11:22 pm

So where would “Cocktail Attire” fall in this illustration?

25 James T. December 16, 2011 at 1:45 am

If black tie optional meant the same as black tie, then why would there be a separate name for it? No, black tie optional means just that–tux or dark suit. It is a generous thing for the hosts to say, because it allows the gentleman who may not have a tux or even the money to rent one, to still be able to attend and fit in. As someone else mentioned, most men have a dark suit in their closet. And the reason the black tie optional guy is wearing a long tie, is because he’s wearing a regular dark suit, and you shouldn’t wear a black bow tie with anything but a tux. So all in all, two thumbs up from me.

26 Russ Ebert December 16, 2011 at 5:23 am

Great! I love the 60 second visual guide.

27 Random Stranger December 16, 2011 at 6:11 am

I really love those illustrations

28 Shane Etter December 16, 2011 at 8:30 am

I’m 58 yrs old, but the way I’ve always understood it, from a friend with a lifetime in the tuxedo business, is that formal or black tie, means tuxedo with tails, only worn after 6:00 pm. Semi-formal is a tuxedo dinner jacket. Business, or street wear is a suit with tie, and then you have business casual, or casual.

29 Roland December 16, 2011 at 8:42 am

@Matty + Levi:
Never (!) wear a long tie with a tuxedo, even (or esp.) if some Hollywood doofuses do it. Black bow tie is the only neckwear for a tuxedo.

@Shane Etter:
A tailcoat (there is no such thing as a “tux with tails”) is only correct if the invitation calls for white tie. Black tie always means a tuxedo.

30 Joseph December 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

“Black Tie Optional” means wear black tie, unless you don’t own it, in which case wear a conservative suit. Long ties with tuxedos are best left to Hollywood.

Additionally, describing the dress code which I would call “Lounge Suit” as “Semi-Formal” is needlessly confusing. Strictly, semi-formal refers to black tie (or its daytime equivalent, the near-extinct cutaway, or the equivalent military uniform) as distinguished from “Formal” (which is white tie [i.e. evening tailcoat, etc] or its daytime equivalent [the morning suit], or equivalent military uniforms).

The best guide for formalwear I have ever seen, by the way, is blacktieguide.com. AoM ought to collaborate with it to clear up formalwear myths. The world would be that little bit better if people wore real bow ties, peak or shaw lapels on a well-made tuxedo, shirts with studs (and not 1970s-style excessive ruffles), and wore a cummerbund or low-cut dark waistcoat instead of the awful waistcoats most people currently wear.

31 Brian December 16, 2011 at 10:39 am

A lot of the comments are missing the other reason for “Black Tie Optional,” which is that one can wear a white or ivory tie with a tuxedo. “Black Tie” means that there is no other option. “Black Tie Optional” means formal, but uniformity in dress is not required.

Also left out is a formal occasion before 4:00 PM, where morning suits are traditionally worn.

32 Jon December 16, 2011 at 10:40 am

This was very helpful. I wonder if the guide still pertains to those of us who aren’t fortunate to have a “perfect” build, though. I look horrible in suits – kind of a cross between an angry professor and a gorilla. I used to weigh 430 pounds, and I’ve lost more than 200 pounds over the past 4 years, without surgery. However, I haven’t been able to afford “body sculpting”, so I have some very unique body dynamics. This guide would have been difficult for me when I weighed 430 pounds too. Any suggestions for those of us who can’t wear formal well?

33 Collin December 16, 2011 at 11:07 am

@Martin, don’t wear cargo pants. Just don’t.

34 claude December 16, 2011 at 12:09 pm

If you take the business casual guy above and replace the “khaki’s or nice trousers” with a decent pair of jeans, is that acceptable? I do it often and believe it looks alright. No one ever says anything negative about it. In fact, i get compliments for always being “neat”. But I’ve never had an official calling on it.

35 Jeffrey December 16, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Guides like this are informal ideas only and may well be wrong depending on the culture, the situation the age or background of the host. Meanings differ. To me, given my background “Formal” has means white tie and tails, worn with a boiled front shirt. “Semi Formal” means black tie (ie. tuxedo and a silk bowtie generally with a wing collar shirt). “Business Attire” is what in this guide is said to be “Semi Formal”. I find that most people wanting “business attire” will send out invitations saying “formal” or “semi formal”. As an aside, in my world “Business Casual” in this scheme simply does not exist. What is here “Business Casual” is in my world “Casual”. Cultures differ. Be careful about this sort of guide.

36 Jeffrey December 16, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Further to my previous comment: What is “business attire” in downtown Manhattan or Boston is not “business attire” in the mid-west of the United States. What is “semi formal” in Washington is not semi formal in Florida. All of this stuff is culturally dependent.

37 Jeffrey December 16, 2011 at 1:15 pm

And to add one last point: military uniforms, are always formal. But again, that depends on where one comes from, one’s history and the military one belongs to.

38 Leo December 16, 2011 at 1:18 pm

These days semi-formal means exactly what the illustration depicts. I’m not a fan of GQ, but their answer on the matter sums it up well:

“White tie vs. black tie
My fiancée and I were discussing our wedding and got into a dispute. She said that black-tie events are semiformal and white-tie events are formal. I could see how white-tie events are more formal than black-tie events, but I disagreed that black-tie events are semiformal. Could you clear this up?
In our gloriously dressed past, the lives of many men included a variety of events to which black tie and white tie were worn. Through most of the past century, formal did indeed refer to white tie and tails, and semiformal did indeed refer to dinner clothes, tuxedos, and other forms of black tie. Now, alas and totally alack, formal is generally taken to mean tux, and semiformal is taken to mean dark suit and (hopefully) tie. So you are both right, in a sense, although your fiancée is correct in the best of all possible worlds.”

If you show up to a semi-formal affair in a tux you will look hopelessly outdated and pretentious. Which is exactly what blacktieguide.com is: hopelessly outdated. Sure, if would be nice if we all still walked around in tuxes and top hats, but definitions change, and a gentleman adapts. Being a gentleman has always meant showing respect to the people hosting an event, by following the etiquette expected of them. But holding onto to outdated definitions, you show disrespect for the event, as you look out of place and become a distraction.

39 JohnT December 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Actually, Joseph, semi-formal day wear is black lounge, or “the stroller,” which is the dinner jacket equivalent. The morning coat, or “cutaway” is daytime formal, or white-tie equivalent for the day.

Also, I will concur with no long ties with dinner jackets.

40 JohnT December 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Also, the morning coat is anything but extinct outside of the U.S.

41 Pancho December 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I don’t think anybody would be offended if you showed up at a “semi-formal” event in a tux, or see it as disrespectful. I can’t imagine anyone sees a tux and thinks “he’s dissing us!). I think the hosts and guests might find it overdressed and funny. They’d probably be amused, because as others have pointed out, definitions of “formal”, “semi-forma”, etc. have shifted in this country. That’s why I wouldn’t get too upset at guys wearing long ties with their dinner jackets, not that I’d recommend it either but dozens of Oscar and Golden Globe broadcasts have convinced guys its okay (I draw the line at clip-ons, however). A gentleman or a lady always gives the benefit of the doubt, always strives to be understanding, and always strives to treat his or her guests well.

Like someone else said, the reason “black-tie optional” exists is because most guys nowadays don’t own a tux let alone white-tie and tails, especially us poorer or younger guys. It enables the hosts to invite guests who might not be able to attend otherwise.

Whenever in doubt call the hosts and ask them what they’d like the guests to where.

Hosts, if you want a dress code (nothing wrong with that), you can never be too specific. Lay it out in your invitation. Print out this graphic and include it if it applies.

42 Pancho December 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm

“what they’d like the guests to where.”

Before anybody call me on it, I meant to write “what they’d like the guests to wear”.

Another way of stating “black-tie optional” could be “black-tie encouraged”, a way of saying “it’s okay if all you have is a dark suit but if you’ve got a tux please wear it”.

43 Joseph Sanchez December 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm

@jon, Like me you have some “girth” to you. Best bet is to try on different brands in the sizes you would normaly wear. Some brrands I am a 48 short, some I am a 46 short portly cut, others a 48 regular works perfectly. Its the exact same with shirts and pants. Joseph Bank and Mens wearhouse carry “portly cuts” plus, if you pay a bit extra for tailoring, you can get your suit to fit and look great.

Also in my experience, formal means tux, or black suit if you dont have/can’t afford one. Semi formal is suit and tie. Business Casual is slacks and blazer, with dress shirt, polo shirt, or turtleneck. Finaly casual is Jeans/shorts and t-shirt/polo.

44 GregD December 17, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I always thought “black tie optional” was a nice way of saying “wear a black tie”.

45 PB December 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm

What about people in tropical/hot environments? Sure a full suit or long pants and long sleeve shirts look nice, but near the equator where its a constant 90+ degrees they are not practical. What should have been added was a separation showing cool vs hot climates and what to wear in each. Here in southern Florida, many men wear light khaki pants or pleated shorts with a polo shirt for casual/business casual.

46 Pancho December 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm

“What about people in tropical/hot environments?”
Wear a white dinner jacket. Or a linen suit. Remove your panama hat or pith helmet indoors.

More seriously, I think you one can use common sense, and sometimes there is local clothing, like the guayabera in Latin America, that is appropriate for some occasions.

But there could be times and places there in which the guide’s advice still applies. On those occasions wear natural fabrics. Wear weaves and lighter fabrics like linen or cotton. If it’s the daytime possibly wear lighter colors. Wear the correct size collar for your shirt. When in doubt, ask the host what he or she expects you to wear.

(Businessmen and politicians in these countries often wear Western business dress. Imagine how it was 100 years ago when Western men dressed much more formally day-to-day, even in the tropics. Just look at old pictures of Latin America, Hawaii or Florida, or colonial Asia and Africa).

I think for the majority of the readership, for about 90% of the time, the guide’s advice is useful. I don’t think Brett & Kate are supposed to think of every contingency when they post these things.

47 Luke December 19, 2011 at 1:07 am

@Joseph Sanchez Luchesse boots as dress shoes is sort of a regional thing restricted to the Southwest or gentlemen from the Southwest.

48 Sweden December 19, 2011 at 9:52 am

Haha, who ever wears a shirt under a sweater, for example?
You have seen way to many American College films, where teenagers can not properly dress casual.

49 Matt December 19, 2011 at 8:18 pm

So when do I where my seersucker?

Kidding aside, a nicely drawn quick reference. Thanks!

50 captcouv December 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm

You forgot to include a hat with each!

51 Neil January 8, 2012 at 8:21 pm

An older gentleman now deceased once told me…”son, Ive never seen a man thrown out of a place for wearing a suit”…..This said a lot to me and I live by it every day.

52 Anthony January 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I would like to see the white tie affair make a come back. It’s more formal than black tie. Classy.

53 Discount ties January 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Great dressing tips. I get super nice ties from tiecoon.com, and they are always only $5. Ties outfits like this together perfectly! = )


54 Wasim May 19, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Some would say that “semi-formal” means Tux and “formal” means white tie (with tailcoat and all).

55 TSE December 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Just got an invite for a Black Tie Optional Holiday party … glad I stumbled across this article!

56 Robin December 17, 2013 at 8:47 am

OK guys, here it is….. Most of us gals like to see men dressed in their finest. And those discussing tux vs black suit ‘if one cannot afford a tux’ have any of you priced men’s suits? An inexpensive (not cheap) tux can cost a guy less than a suit! The largest difference is the wearablity factor. Most guys will get more wear from a suit than they will a tux. Either way guys: dress up for your lady, she’ll like it!!!

57 Dan January 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Despite what some believe, a necktie is appropriate with a Tuxedo, especially with a contrast color vest. A cravat is acceptable as well. A bow tie is usually worn when a cummerbund is part of the ensemble.

58 TP February 14, 2014 at 9:07 pm

What’s listed here as “Semi-Formal” is historically called “Informal”. In other words, a conservative suit with tie and dress shoes. No tuxedos. No blazers or sports coats. Just a suit.

“Semi-Formal” is Black tie (and the tie/ vest/ cummerbund can be fancy colors–black is for the staff, not guests).

“Formal” is White tie, and there are stricter rules about the cut of the coat, tie, type of shoes, etc. No-one is likely to need worry about this unless they’re part of a super fancy wedding, invited to a State dinner at the White House, etc.

What’s missing is “Cocktail Attire” — which would be more loosely defined than “Informal” but stricter than “Business Casual.”

59 Sam Armstrong April 16, 2014 at 1:35 pm

We could relabel these in order:
CEO, VP of Sales, Outside Salesman, Inside Sales support

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