Between black-tie fundraisers, smart work events and weddings, there is an abundance of dress codes to decipher – and some common questions that 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: what they mean and what you should wear if they appear on your invitation. All you need to do is RSVP 'yes'.

COCKTAIL PARTY DRESS CODE
Purple sleeveless A-line 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 that's sophisticated yet 'party ready'. This could mean anything from a simple silk shift to an embellished skater dress – the choice is yours.


If 'cocktail dress' appears on the dress code, the event is probably stylish with a hint of formality, so it's best to keep hemlines and necklines appropriate. A midi dress is a flattering and comfortable length which looks great when balanced with slim straps or a halter neck.


Add interest to your outfit by playing with different textures. Try a sequinned dress with sleek satin heels, or some sparkling embellished flats with an understated crepe shift. Lastly, don't be afraid of colour – formal doesn't need to mean black. Saturated jewel-tones are a fantastic choice.


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BLACK TIE DRESS CODE
Sequined sleeveless maxi dress

Traditionally, your black-tie attire should consist of a formal, floor-length gown. Neutral colours are encouraged, as are ladylike up-dos and delicate jewellery. If the invitation says 'white tie', you can go a step further with a pair of long gloves. Sophisticated clutch bags tend to work best with this dress code, preferably in a colour that matches or subtly complements your dress.


While cocktail dresses are usually also allowed, they should be on the more conservative end of the spectrum; it's best to avoid anything that is too tight or falls more than an inch above the knee. Try a strapless gown with a pleated skirt, or a sleek one-shouldered design. Complete the look with a simple pair of stiletto heels.


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FORMAL OCCASION DRESS CODE
Electric blue sheath dress

What is a formal dress? Whether you're joining the wedding party or amping up the glamour for a day at the races, formal occasion dress codes are all about keeping it classic – but still having fun.


This dress code is broad and should be open to different interpretations depending on the nature of your event. Dresses can be full or knee-length, in a wide spectrum of colours and styles. If you're planning on dancing the night away, choose a simple sheath silhouette or a cute mini dress that won't restrict your movement. Try accessorising with a fascinator and an embellished clutch bag for a show-stopping finish.


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SMART CASUAL DRESS CODE
Black skater dress

A smart casual dress code is probably the most ambiguous in terms of formality: take your cues from the type of event and use your intuition. Although the style is more relaxed than other dress codes, you'll still need to look put-together. Any length of dress is suitable, as are polished separates and sharp trouser suits.


Playful details such as a cut-out back or bell sleeves are an effortless way to dress up understated outfits. A design with an off-the-shoulder Bardot neckline is a universally flattering option. Heels are typically encouraged, while jewellery and accessories can be kept to a minimum if you prefer.


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PARTY DRESS CODE
Sequined short purple shift dress

'Party dress' is another wide-reaching term that depends on the type of event you're invited to. Birthday parties usually call for an elevated take on your everyday wear; dressy without being too overstated . A work 'do', on the other hand, might require a tailored shift dress in a brighter hue than your usual work attire.


Parties often involve dancing at some point, or plenty of walking about to chat to different people, so best to choose something you can move in. Fabrics with a bit of stretch like silk jersey won't restrict you, and they look fantastic in draped or wrap styles. Avoid tight fitting pencil dresses and heavyweight fabrics which you might find uncomfortable and overly warm.


Make getting ready almost as fun as the party itself by adding plenty of sparkle in the form of jewellery, hair accessories and a clutch bag.


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PARTY-READY BRANDS
Sleeveless dark grey sequined maxi dress

  • For designer cocktail dresses, Ted Baker offers a range of both statement-making and pared-back designs. Discover bodycon silhouettes with lace panels alongside pleated mini dresses adorned with floral patterns.
  • The Phase Eight range has something for every occasion – from floor-length fringed gowns to sequinned cocktail dresses.
  • With eye-catching prints, playful textures and fun silhouettes, Yumi has a bold selection. Think embellished midi dresses and colourful skater silhouettes.
  • Perfect for black tie events, Adrianna Papell dresses exude elegance with their quality craftsmanship and flowing silhouettes. We love the range of metallic hues and full-bodied skirts.
  • For classic designs with an edge, Gina Bacconi is an elegant choice. Look out for long sleeved shift dresses with sequinned waistbands and embroidered cape dresses with sheer floral sleeves.

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Whether you opt for figure-flattering elegance or all-out glamour, you're sure to look fantastic as long as you're channelling your unique personal style. If in doubt, look to a casual dress you already own and love, and then search for a similar shape or colour in a more party-ready style.