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Christian Dior Black Dress w Beaded Dior Logo

Deciphering Dress Codes in a Modern World

I took 3 of my grandchildren to see a fun holiday play this year and two of them wore their normal everyday clothing - stretch pants and super casual tee shirts. I explained to them after the play that dressing up for things like the ballet, theater, or any live performance is a way to show the performers that you believe that this is something special. When people spend months preparing for a performance, it is respectful to dress a little nicer as a tribute to their hard work. I'm not sure they got it but I will keep trying!

During the holidays, with invitations to cookie exchanges, cocktail parties, office celebrations and New Years soirees, it can be so confusing knowing what to wear, even for adults! We've put together a simple guide to help you navigate the confusing language of dress codes! 


Casual attire is one of the easiest categories for most people. Don't get me wrong, It doesn't necessarily mean roll out of bed and grab a coat and go, but it does mean you don't need to wear evening or special event clothing. Think "what if I run into someone I know" as you are heading out of the door, so that means no bathrobes or stretched out sweat pants. You might dress this way to go shopping for the holidays with friends.
  • Sundress or other casual short day dresses
  • Casual Maxi Dress
  • Long or short skirt with T shirt or button down blouse
  • Casual Trousers with blouse, T shirt or turtleneck
  • Jeans with Casual button down shirt or plain t-shirt


Vintage Claude Montana Grey Wool Jumpsuit



2000 Chanel Vintage Denim Wide Leg Trousers Pants



Vintage Alexander McQueen Orange Zipper Dress



Business and Business Casual

Business attire is usually clothing that isn't embellished or formal. Even business casual needs to be a little more polished than "casual,"and it can be more like dressy casual but with a more sophisticated overall look. 

  • Skirt or Trouser Suit
  • Two Piece Dress
  • Simple day dress in cotton, linen or wool.
  • Casual Dress with a refined jacket
  • Heels, low or high


Documented Alexander McQueen Runway Patchwork Jacket Skirt Suit



Alaia Vintage Black Dress With Unique Seams



Bill Blass Vintage Blue dress With Red Zippers


Dressy Casual

Dressy casual requires a little more thought - this is usually making one part of your outfit more elevated. You might want to wear a silk blouse with jeans or a chunky sweater with a pretty pleated maxi skirt. Adding something extra that makes the outfit less casual but not quite dressy will complete the look. You might wear dressy casual to a holiday performance, or a holiday luncheon or tea.
  • Nicer Dress with accessories
  • Skirt and dressy top
  • Dressy pants outfit
  • Nice jeans and dressy top
  • Jumpsuits
Dolce Gabbana 2pc Pants Blouse outfit


Christian Dior Vintage Dress w Beaded Dior Logo Applique



Vintage Comme des Garcons Ruffle and Black Velvet Slit Jacket



Chanel 1989 Military Style Jacket With Velvet Trim



Cocktail is a fun, dressier category that usually refers to short dresses or skirts or a two piece pants outfit in more luxurious fabrics that you wouldn't wear casually. If it is designated "beach casual" you might be able to wear cotton or florals, but otherwise, keep it more luxe. 
  • Short dress in luxe fabric 
  • Dressy skirt with fun top
  • Dressy two piece pants outfit


Alaia Vintage Black Lace Mini Dress Runway Documented




Gold Vintage Mini Dress



Versace Vintage Grey strappy cocktail dress



Gianni Versace Vintage Documented Dress


Semi Formal

This category is dressier than cocktail attire - maybe longer dresses or beaded cocktail dresses. You might have some crossover here - some cocktail dresses are dressy enough to be semi formal, but it all really depends on the fabrics, trims and accessories!

  • Cocktail dress in nicer fabrics with embellishments just above the knee or longer
  • Wrap or evening jacket if shoulders are exposed
  • A dressy “little black dress” with luxe accessories
  • Long dressy skirt and top


Christian Dior Couture Vintage Pink Dress With Black Crystals 1987



Alexander McQueen Vintage Runway Lace Back Black Dress



1920s Beaded Black Vintage Flapper Dress


Black Tie

Black tie is perhaps the most confusing category for most people. For women, it really refers to formal, long evening gowns. The term has been changed a lot and now it can sometimes just mean a midi or maxi dress as long as they are in more luxurious fabrics like satin, velvet, or silk, often embellished with beads, sequins, trim, or embroidery.
  • Formal (floor length) evening gown
  • An embellished or luxe fabric dress that is in a maxi length
  • Heels or dressy flats


1940s Sheer Black Mesh Satin Trimmed Evening Gown Dress



Couture Vintage Formal Evening Gown



Scaasi Vintage Blue formal Evening gown


Creative black tie

Creative black tie is a modern term that gives party goers the option of wearing something "fancy" with their own interpretation. It still means "get dressed up" but it is meant to take the fear of what "black tie" represents out of the story.  
  • Full length evening gown
  • Dressy cocktail dress in fun colors preferably longer length like a midi or maxi
  • Full length Skirt with a dressy top
  • Elegant Jumpsuit in a luxe fabric or with Embellishments 
  • Fun jewelry and accessories


Vintage Black Beaded Low V Jumpsuit



Vintage Gold Lame Evening Dress



Scherrer Vintage Pink and Black Strapless Evening Outfit


Festive Attire

Like creative black tie, this is a modern term that means - put on your best but make it fun and festive! It's all about texture, color, shimmer and shine! This one allows for more personal interpretation and is one of our favorites!
  • Cocktail dress in holiday textures like gold lame, tulle, lace, velvet, lurex, silk, etc.
  • Long dressy skirt and top - one of which is embellished or is in a fun color.
  • Dressy pants outfit or jumpsuits in velvet, lurex, lame, etc. 
  • A “little black dress” with fun jacket, festive jewelry, etc.
  • Holiday colors or colorful sequins, beads, etc..
  • Sparkling Accessories
Yves Saint Laurent Vintage Beaded Top


Vintage Silver Lurex Jumpsuit



Vintage Oscar de la Renta Outfit


White Tie

White tie is rarely used now, but it is the most formal of the list. Usually worn with long gloves, this category requires floor length evening gowns. Again, there may be crossover with black tie, but white tie gives more formal night at the opera with the addition of gloves and the right accessories.
  • Formal (floor length) evening gown
  • Long gloves (optional)


Yves Saint Laurent Vintage Black Velvet Silver Taffeta Evening Gown



Vintage 1940s Green Velvet Beaded Dress


Dress codes, manners and ethics were not just created as secret codes that were meant only for the elite to decipher. Many people today, especially new parents, reject traditional manners and codes of conduct because they don't understand or see any meaning in them. They think of them as old fashioned or out of style. Most of the time, believe it or not, these things were designed to show honor and respect to other people. The codes of dress might have blurred lines and the categories may change or be altered, but the original spirit of respecting the event and the people involved is still the same.

I host a black tie Christmas eve dinner every year at my home and people always arrive in such beautiful, creative, festive outfits. They might not be dressed "traditional black tie" but they definitely look like they are going someplace very special! That extra effort means so much to me and I feel so honored.

We hope you have a joyful holiday season and that whatever the dress code, you find something that makes you feel comfortable, happy and a little extra sparkly. 

Happy Holidays!

The Modig Team

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