Women’s dress codes explained
Received an invitation to an occasion with a specific dress code but not sure what to wear? Between black-tie fundraisers, work events, smart casual affairs and weddings, there are an abundance of dress codes.
However, the same common questions often arise. What is a cocktail dress? What is a formal dress? Can a black-tie dress be short?
Choosing your outfit should be the fun part, so we’ve made a list of the most common dress codes. To make it simpler we'll explain in the order of most informal to formal along with what each dress code means. Each dress code will also state what you should and shouldn’t wear.
A dress code is a set of rules that you should follow for the occasion you’re attending. This will ensure you’re dressed appropriately for the event. All you need to do now is RSVP ‘yes’
Smart Casual Dress Code
What is a smart casual dress code?

A smart casual dress code combines smarter pieces with casual wear and sometimes even streetwear. Although this style is more relaxed than other dress codes, you’ll still need to look put-together.

This is what will make an outfit ‘smart casual’ so that it can be worn to both formal and informal occasions. From bottomless brunches to evening meals out, just take your cues from the type of event and use your intuition.

What is a smart casual dress for women?
A smart casual dress code for women includes combining a polished piece with something more laid back. Some examples are a day dress paired with heels or a shirt dress styled with trainers and a stylish shoulder bag. Depending on the office setting, jewellery and accessories should be kept to a minimum if you prefer.
Typically a mini or midi dress would be best suited for a smart casual ensemble. Lightweight linen or chiffon materials work best for the warmer seasons. Feminine floral dresses and patterned designs add effortless style. You’ll also find playful details such as cut-out backs and belted features elevate an understated piece.
Looking for something to fit the smart casual dress code on a chillier day? Knitted dresses with long sleeves paired with tights and heeled boots will do the trick.
Business Casual Dress Code
What is a business casual dress code?

A business casual dress code offers a more relaxed version of a typical office dress code. However, you’ll still need to be dressed appropriately in your work environment. In terms of what attire would be a good choice, this really depends on your office style, location and profession.

If your company has dress code guidelines in place, it’s worth following them to make yourself look presentable.

What should you wear for a business casual dress code?
In comparison, the difference between a casual dress code and a business casual dress code is that it's considered less formal. Hoodies and t-shirt dresses wouldn’t be permitted and mini dresses may be discouraged.
If you were a banker or an estate agent, you would be expected to dress in shirts, blouses and slick suits. However, if you worked for a marketing agency in Soho, you wouldn’t be expected to dress as smart. Jeans , blazers and simple tops would be acceptable for a business casual dress code.
If permitted, you can wear sneakers with a business casual attire styled with an office dress from shirt to wrap dresses. If your workplace doesn't allow trainers you should be able to wear flat shoes like loafers and ballet flats. In the summer, smart sandals can be worn to complete a business casual outfit. Just remember to keep jewellery and accessories to a minimum.
Keep it simple with a black or navy work dress that can be worn for all seasons. When finding the perfect summer dress to wear in the warmer months, opt for bright and vibrant colours. In the colder seasons, invest in a long sleeve dress styled with a sleek silver watch. For your commute to and from the office, choose a backpack or tote bag big enough to fit your laptop in.
Smart Business Dress Code
What is a smart business dress code?

A smart business dress code refers to a more formal ensemble suitable for work environments with a stricter dress code. Whether you’ve got a job interview or have an important business meeting, first impressions count.

You don’t need a written dress code to figure out what smart business outfits are suitable in your organisation. Take a look around at what smart work dresses other women in similar positions to you are wearing.

In comparison to a business casual dress code, a smart business dress code is a more polished way to dress.

What can and can’t you wear for a smart business dress code?
With a selection of smart dresses for work to choose from, women can wear midi dresses and long dresses. Style with heels , a sleek watch and if allowed, minimal jewellery.
Keep your belongings and work laptop stored in a laptop case and leather backpack on your commute to and from work.
Chic shift dresses and a-line dresses are typical silhouettes you’d expect to see in a formal environment. Choose plain and muted tones like black, navy and grey to ensure you blend in with other employees.
Pencil skirts, smart blouses and blazers are also applicable for a smart business code. Look to premium brands like Ted Baker, Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors.
Make sure you keep away from mini dresses, plunging necklines and bright colours. This wouldn’t be following a smart business dress code.
Party Dress Code
What is a party dress code?

A party dress code is a wide-reaching term that depends on the type of event you’re invited to. Usually it’s something that is dressy without being too overstated.

House of Fraser can help you find the perfect piece to adhere to a particular party dress code. Discover birthday party dresses, going out dresses and Christmas party dresses perfect for festive occasions

Parties often involve dancing, three course meals and plenty of walking to chat to different people attending. It's important to choose something you can move and feel comfortable in.

What should women wear to a party?
Depending on the party you’re attending, there really are so many options with what you can wear.
A midi or mini party dress styled with heeled sandals, a clutch bag can create an elegant look. If the occasion is slightly more formal, a long party dress would be appropriate too paired with silver or gold jewellery.
Received an invite in the warmer months? A summer party dress in lightweight jersey materials looks fantastic in wrap and ruched styles. For the festive season a red, green, white or black party dress will get you in the spirit.
Don’t forget to add glamour and sparkle with luxe velvet, glitter and sequin dresses ! As it’s chillier at that time of the year, invest in a long-sleeve party dress to keep you warm.
Cocktail Party Dress Code
What is a cocktail dress?

It’s a term we hear often, but what actually is a cocktail dress? The modern definition has come to mean a shorter, above-the-knee style dress. It’s sophisticated yet ‘party ready’ whilst bridging the gap between day and night.

This could mean anything from a simple silk shift to an embellished skater dress paired with footwear that feels elevated. This semi-formal dress can be worn late afternoon or to evening gatherings and occasions. You’ll find evening dresses suited for work events, birthdays and any weddings you’re attending

What do you wear for a cocktail dress code?
If 'cocktail dress' appears on the dress code, the event is probably stylish with a hint of formality. It's best to keep hemlines and necklines appropriate. A midi cocktail dress is a flattering length that looks great when balanced with slim straps or a halter neck.
A cocktail dress code can also mean a short or long cocktail dress depending on the event you’re attending. Add interest to your outfit by playing with different textures. Try a lace dress with silver and gold heels to add some glamour. Alternatively, style some sparkly flats with an understated long sleeve dress paired with a clutch, pendant necklace and bracelet.
Lastly, don’t be afraid of colour. Formal doesn’t mean you have to wear a black cocktail dress. Bold colours like red, green and gold also make a fantastic choice
Formal Occasion Dress Code
What is a formal occasion dress code?

What is a formal dress? Formal occasion dress codes are all about keeping it classic- but still having fun. Find the perfect wedding guest dress or amp up the glamour with your race day outfit.

This can even include dresses for graduation and prom dressesfor a polished formal look. The dress code is broad and you should dress according to the nature of the event you’re attending.

The formal dress code is located somewhere between cocktail and black tie. Dresses can be full or knee-length, in a wide spectrum of colours and styles.

What is the suitable dress code for a formal occasion?
If you’re planning on dancing the night away, choose a comfortable yet well fitting formal dress. A midi or long formal dress makes the perfect choice. Strappy and halter neck styles in lightweight materials like chiffon are best suited for the warmer months. A long sleeve formal dress will keep you warm in the chillier seasons.
Stick to the classics with white and black formal dresses. Looking to add a cheerful pop of colour? Hues of red, green and pink will do just that.
From wrap to slip dresses, complete your formal attire with an embellished mini bag or clutch and statement earrings. For your footwear choice sky high stilettos or a smaller block heel style would make the perfect fit.
If you’re looking for a race day outfit, try figure hugging pencil dresses and accessorise with a fascinator. You can also read our guide on What to wear at Royal Ascot to discover what the expected dress code is.
Black Tie Dress Code
What is a black tie dress code?

Traditionally, black-tie attire is a dress code reserved for formal evening events. Guests commonly choose sophisticated floor-length gowns but depending on the occasion, beautiful long dresses are often worn too.

A black tie event can include award ceremonies, prestigious balls, milestone birthdays and fancy black tie weddings. Just make sure to follow the specific dress code to understand what you can and can’t wear. This would mean not wearing white if invited to a black tie wedding.

What should ladies wear to a black tie event?
There are many appropriate black tie dresses that a woman can wear including floor-sweeping ball gowns and maxi dresses. Under some circumstances, you can get away with a formal cocktail dress of the longer variety.
Whatever style you choose, make sure it's comfortable to last the whole night in. There’s a chance your evening may lead to the dancefloor so ensure you can move in your ensemble. You need to ensure the hem of the dress grazes the ground for a well-fitted finish.
You can wear colour to a black tie event but neutral hues like silver, beige and black ball gowns are encouraged. Ladylike up-dos, like chignons will finalise your look along with delicate jewellery from pearls to embellished pieces.
Sophisticated clutch bags tend to work best with this dress code. Preferably a colour that matches or subtly compliments your dress. A sleek pair of stilettos will tie your look together. Avoid chunky platforms and open-toe shoes as this isn’t appropriate for a black tie dress code.
White Tie Dress Code
What is a white tie dress code?

Received a white tie dress code invitation? The undisputed champion of formality, a white tie attire is typically floor-length gowns worn to a night time event. These prestigious events include stately dinners, diplomatic balls and galas like those hosted by Buckingham Palace.

Grand ceremonies and a theatre or opera opening will also include you wearing a white tie dress code. As society's most formal dress code, white tie is more formal than a black tie dress code. White tie is renowned for its stricter requirements and elevated outfits to create a red-carpet ready look.

What can you wear to a white tie event?
Women commonly choose a full-skirted ball gown or understated evening gown for a white tie event. Complete your ensemble with a small clutch, sleek ring and matching earrings. Fishtail finishes, halter necks and long sleeve styles are perfect for that prestigious ball you’ve been meaning to RSVP to.
Long white gloves are encouraged at certain events with stiletto heels and smart court shoes as the perfect footwear choice. There aren’t really any exceptions with a white tie dress code. Short dresses cannot be worn to the event and neither can too much jewellery.
Choose from a plethora of colourways including elegant red, white and black evening gowns.
Now you’ve identified which dress code is required, it’s time to get excited and prepare for the special occasion. You’ll easily understand how to dress for the specific event and style with the right shoes and accessories
The next step? Time to think about other important questions: Can you bring a plus one? What are the dining options? Just make sure you follow the dress code whilst feeling comfortable and having fun.