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Jul 14, 2011
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The Dress Code: What to Wear to Special Events

The Dress Code: What to Wear to Special Events

What are you wearing? Is a pretty common question I ask others when I’m attending an event. Thing is, Madison’s a tricky place to interpret dress codes: some people dress to the nines at every event and some think their nicest jeans will do. I am always a bit surprised by at least one person when I attend a dressy event: they’ll wear some iteration of jeans, or sandals, or a wildly inappropriate casual outfit. In general, Madison is known as a casual place, and you can chalk that up to being a mid-sized city, or perhaps our affable Midwestern nature, or even that some people just don’t enjoy dressing up. Whatever it is, I started thinking about what an event dress code means.

First I’ll share a fashion mishap I had two years ago attending a Sunday night charity event. I had attended the event the year before and recalled it as being pretty casual—it seemed most women donned nice jeans and tops; guys wore khakis and button-ups. So when I attended the event the next year (this time held at a different venue, the Madison Club), I made the dreaded mistake of dressing too casually. As I walked up the stairs to the reception I could see women in black cocktail dresses and men in suits. I, meanwhile, had worn trouser jeans and nice top and cardigan. Eek! Ironically, this was the first time I felt too dressed down for something—I’m typically the one that’s too dressed up! So, it was an interesting change.

So for those who have summer cocktail parties and weddings, what does a dress code mean?

Recently a friend asked me to elaborate on what “cocktail attire” was for an event he was planning on a weeknight. He waAfter-work or cocktail-party appropriate. Robert Rodriguez Black cocktail dress, renttherunway.comnted to know how to explain to the board and attendees how to dress, so I sent him an answer that would hopefully demystify those folks:

Dress codes can be a relief for some people to know what to wear, and wildly confusing for others. “Black tie,” “semi-formal,” “cocktail attire” and more are clues on what your party hosts want you to wear.

In this case, “cocktail attire,” when applied to a weeknight/after-work hours shindig, is a hint that this party is more formal than just an after-work networking event. At a networking event, you’d typically sport what you wore to work. For this occasion, you would want to wear something a bit more dressed-up than your work attire—but not as “dressed up” as what you’d wear to a wedding (typically also defined as “cocktail attire”—confusing, we know).

In this instance, for men, this would mean a suit with a shirt sans tie—maybe with the top button or two worn open, a suit with a fun tie or, if you want to wear separates, a sport coat with some iteration of slacks, a shirt and nice shoes.

For women, this would mean a nice dress (a step down from what you’d wear to a wedding), a top and skirt, or a nice top with dressy pants and heels. Think: an outfit that’s a bit dressier than what you’d wear to work.

For men AND women: no jeans, please!

Other Suggestions

So what about those “black-tie,” “cocktail” and “festive” attire wedding and event invites you’ve gotten?

Black-tie perfect: Oscar de la Renta's asymmetric draped silk-chiffon gown, $4,690, netaporter.comBlack-tie is as formal as you can get. I’m assuming black-tie weddings are rare in Madison, but black-tie events (such as Frostiball and other charitable events) do go on throughout the year. Men typically sport a tuxedo or, at the very least, a black suit with a solid tie or very formal pattern.

For women, floor-length gowns are tastefully appropriate. Since rules have relaxed somewhat in the formality of dressing for events, shorter cocktail dresses do seem to be worn more frequently—as long as they’re in a suitable fabric—i.e., some iteration of satin, silk, sequin or chiffon. Personally I still opt for floor-length when it comes to black-tie but I do know that when an irresistible dress comes along, sometimes you’ve got to wear it!

I outlined cocktail attire above for weeknight dressing, which is different when applied to a wedding scenario. Cocktail attire is typically the standard for most weddings and for men means a nice suit and tie. For women, opt for a nice dress that’s knee-length or above. Or experiment with the fun miSO pretty for a garden or beach wedding. Nicole Miller "Rainforest" maxidress, renttherunway.comdi- and maxi-skirt lengths that are uber-chic right now!

I’ve seen women wear black pants to weddings before and it’s not my preference—unless they’re some avant-garde ones like these from Shopbop. Otherwise I typically discourage pants for a wedding unless it’s being held in a more casual venue. Frankly, if there’s a guy wearing a tuxedo there, that probably means you can dress up a bit more, too.

“Festive” is the code word most open to interpretation. Where is the event being held? A farm? Overture Center? A restaurant? Use the venue to help guide your decision. Or, if you know your hosts and their personalities you could think about what they’d wear to the event. Recently a relative got married on a chartered boat ride down the Milwaukee River. This was one of those “festive” occasions that was open for interpretation. I chose a colorful sheath that wasn’t quite fancy enough for an evening wedding but was a bit too dressy for work. It was spot-on, but I realized how tough those in-between events can be to dress for!This "festive" frock is spot-on for a number of occasions. Tracey Reese "Smokey Floral" dress,

If you’re stuck, ask your host what they’d like you to wear—this can demystify the dress code dilemma, too.

Photo, top: Mark & James strapless embellished dress, $172 (on sale),

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About This Blog

As Madison Magazine's style editor, Shayna Mace writes the monthly "Window Shopping" column about Madison's coolest store owners, products and shops. She also reports on Madison's most stylish people, chic items she loves, store events and sales, and additional dish in her weekly blog. Her favorite places to check out around town are local boutiques, consignment and vintage shops for one-of-a-kind treasures, new restaurants and bars, and anywhere that affords her the opportunity to meet and talk to Madison's most inspirational (and many times, fashionable!) people.

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