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Dressing for special occasions

Published:Saturday | November 6, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Heather Little-White, Contributor

The 'cocktail' dress code for the recent Bill Clinton lecture was grossly misunderstood by guests, who it is reported, wore wedding-type gowns and men were dressed to boot in tuxedos and black ties.

As the festive season approaches, and in your social life in general, it is important to know the socially accepted attire for the occasion. You can avoid the jitters if you have the basic understanding of what to wear for the occasion and the time of day to save yourself from ridicule at the event.

Cocktail dress code

Cocktail attire means short, elegant dresses for the woman and dark suits for the man. Here's how contributor Chris Bank describes the code for cocktail dressing as was intentioned for the evening with Mr Clinton during his visit last week.

Cocktail dress is usually required for evening events more than daytime ones, and the evening cocktail attire is quite distinct from other evening attire. Although the categories of attire for evening social occasions overlap, to some extent, there are distinctions.

In defining cocktail dress, Bank refers to it as dress-up attire for social occasions like holiday parties to singles get-togethers. Cocktail dress is sometimes referred to as 'creative black tie'. Accessories, women's hairstyles and jewellery for cocktail dress are typically more flashy and distinctive than for other types of dress-up attire.

Men: The cocktail dress for the men is similar to semi-formal attire. However, the differences are that semi-formal attire is a suit or jacket, often with a vest, and a tie; while cocktail attire for men consists of a jacket with or without a tie, and slacks. Cocktail attire for men is usually more fashion-forward, and with bolder colours and patterns than semi-formal attire, which calls for tuxedos or morning coats. If an occasion calls for cocktail attire, formal attire should not be worn. You leave yourself to be ridiculed if you wear a tuxedo or a floor-length dress. .

Women: Cocktail dress for women creates more appeal to the opposite sex than semi-formal attire, which usually refers to long dresses below the knee but above floor length. Cocktail dresses are usually at the knee or above, with more definition to the body compared to the semi-formal dress.

Business social: For a bus-iness social occasion, the cocktail dress is not suitable unless it is toned down. Women should be especially careful about showing too much skin. Men should also concentrate on subdued colours and styles when dressing for an occasion which mixes business and socialising.

Formal wear worldwide

Many cultures have formal evening and day dress which will take the place of Western formal dress at formal state functions with diplomats, foreign dignitaries and guests of honour.

Scottish kilt - worn as formal dress by men in Scotland or of Scottish descent.

Bunad - worn as formal dress by women and men in Norway.

Hátíoarbúningur- worn by men in Iceland to formal events such as state dinners and weddings.

Sari - worn by women in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Dashiki - worn by men in West African countries.

Kebaya - worn by women in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Qipao - a modern female variation of the Qing Dynasty silk dress, characterised by a high mandarin collar, and side open slits of varying lengths. It can be sleeveless, short, elbow or long-sleeved, and has been adopted by most Chinese women as a Chinese wear, depending on materials and occasions.

Changshan - a long male version of the qipao. It can be cotton for ordinary wear, or silk for those within aristocratic families. Beneath the changshan, the male generally wears white mandarin-collar, long-sleeved shirt and a pair of dark-coloured long pants. Like the qipao, this changshan male gown has slits on both sides (at least knee level) as well. It is worn nowadays either by Chinese men in the martial arts world, or as attire for weddings to match the qipao the bride wears.

The qipao and Changshan originated as Manchurian dresses that were forced on to the Chinese population during the Qing Dynasty's laws under the penalty of death.

Dressy casual

Dressy casual, or casually elegant, calls for dressed-up versions of casual looks. For the man, he could wear trousers and a sports coat, and the woman can wear dressy pants. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts and other casual looks are not appropriate for dressy casual.

Casual generally means anything goes. Casual on an invitation creates confusion, as there are varying degrees of casual and just one word does not cover it. The inviter needs to communicate exactly what he or she has in mind, like dressy casual.

As a general rule, use good judgement if the invitation does not specify the formality of the event. A pastel suit or soft floral dress for daytime, or a little black dress for evening (after 6 p.m.), will work well most of the time. Follow the age-old rule of keeping it simple.

Creative black tie

New categories emerge with styles, and creative black tie is one such option. This allows for a trendy approach to formal wear, going more modern with a tuxedo and possibly a black shirt without a tie. Women wear long or short dresses or evening separates.

It is a social blunder when wedding planners put the bridegroom in one style of formal wear and the groomsmen in another style. The variation should only come with neckwear or boutonnières.


Semi-formal, or after-five, means that tuxes are not required, nor are long dresses. An evening wedding, anytime after 6 p.m., would still dictate dark suits for him, and a cocktail dress for her.

Daytime semi-formal:Grey morning coat (cutaway), black or grey striped trousers, grey double-breasted vest, grey long tie or pinned ascot, grey gloves, white boutonnière, grey top hat, spats and pearl cufflinks. An appropriate short dress or dressy suit will do for her.

Evening semi-formal: (weddings, theatre opening nights) Black dinner jacket or white in summer (tuxedo), black trousers with one satin seam on the outside leg, black vest or cummerbund, black bow tie, white silk scarf, black or gold cufflinks and studs.

Business formal is the same as semi-formal for him, but for women, it suggests that women opt for more tailored dressy suits and dresses, not slinky and suggestive outfits.

Themed parties

These allow for some variation, with the man having some latitude, like the creative black tie. These invitations offer more fun to dress to the theme, for example, 'going western' when a tuxedo would go well with boots and women could accessorise in leather belts and silver chains.

Day formal: This refers to very formal diplomatic receptions when men are required to wear black or grey tailcoat, with matching trousers, grey double-breasted vest, long grey tie, grey gloves, white boutonnière, grey homburg (hat), pearl cufflinks and studs (

Evening formal: Occasions like a charity ball and classical music presentations like the opera require white tie and tails (black tailcoat), black trousers with two satin seams on the outside leg, white pique vest, white bow tie, white kid gloves, white boutonnière, black top hat, white silk scarf, black or gold cufflinks and studs.

Formal or black tie

Formal means the same as black tie, with men wearing tuxedos. In some trendsetting cities like New York or Los Angeles, formal also means black shirt, no tie with a tux. Women should wear long cocktail dresses or dressy evening separates.

White tie

What if your invitation says white tie or ultra-formal? It means that men should wear full white with white bow tie, white pique vest (waistcoat) with white pique front or plain stiff-fronted shirt with detachable collar, cufflinks and shirt studs with black patent leather court shoe and accessories.

Evening informal

You should not go casual, but wear cocktail or business attire. This requires a business suit, necktie, lace-up shoes and, for evening occasions a non-button-down, collar dress shirt. A short dress is acceptable for women. Make certain that the person sending out the invitations really means informal, and not casual, as this is a common misconception.

Black tie optional or black tie invited

This gives a man the option of wearing a tuxedo or formal wear, but it should clue you as to the formality of the event, meaning a dark suit and tie would be your other option. Women wear long cocktail dresses or dressy evening separates.

Festive attire

Festive attire is usually seen around the holidays, with the mood of the party being informal or semi-formal. Women should choose fashion with some sparkle or holiday colours.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Kingston. Email comments to