The dress codes for men have become laughably confusing. What is the difference between smart, casual, smart-casual, formal and black tie?

Who the hell knows anymore?!

I’ve been invited to weddings with a smart-casual dress code, awards evenings with a formal dress code and parties with black tie instructions. It’s hard for a guy to know what to wear for what occasion. I’ve put together some guidelines and thoughts about how you should approach the event, the dress and the codes.

Does anyone care?
The short answer here is no. I’ve attended many events where the dress code has been completely ignored by most and no one has really made a noise about it. I normally dress up as a rule to avoid being the guy in shorts when everyone else is wearing their penguin suits. But on the whole, no one is going to care if you’re wearing chinos at a “formal” event as long as you’ve dressed them up.

The main point here is to stop taking yourself (and the hosts instructions) so seriously. The only exception to this more relaxed approach to the rules is with a black tie dress code. More often than not, if you wear your denims to a black tie event you won’t be allowed in. So be mindful of context.

Remember – people are more concerned with how they look than with how you look.

The Event Context
Context is king when it comes to the event that you are dressing for. The host also plays an imperative part in it. If you are attending a gala event with media and it’s well publicised and hyped up, then you should probably stick to the dress code specified. Unless, of course, you’re trying to make statement by bucking the system. Then go for it and dress that code down or smart it up.

Remember: deep down, no one cares what you look like, they mostly care that they look great. Concern for how others think you look can often force men to dress in a similar and safe fashion. Your ability to swallow that unease and wear a bright pink pocket square will make you a leader in a crowd filled with black, grey and white.

Casual (day)
Events held in the day and labeled “casual” should be approached in the most casual way possible. This is a t-shirt and shorts kind of event. It is important to know your crowd though. So if you’ve been to an event with the people before, think back and remember how they approached that event. Were they dressed up or down? Use this as a guide. In general, casual day events allow you to be yourself in a comfortable way. If it’s chilly you can feel free to wear denims or chinos with a t-shirt and some great kicks. As a standard point, don’t ever wear your running or workout shoes with chinos or denims. Ever. If it’s warmer then feel free to kick it in shorts and t-shirt. You can dress up those shorts with a button-down and open toed shoes if you feel like standing out a bit.

Casual (night)
Events at night labeled “casual” should be approached with caution. If it’s a pool party, then go ahead and slip into your shorts and a t-shirt. If it’s a braai (barbecue) then you can pick your outfit based on the crowd you’re going to be seeing. If you know them well then don’t think too much about it, slap on a t-shirt and shorts and get going. If you’re trying to make a good impression then you can consider denims (with or without rips in them), a t-shirt, open toed shoes or your favourite kicks. Again, don’t wear your exercise shoes with denims, ever. It’s really not a great look. Suits are a definite no-no at a casual event, you’ll probably get odd stares and confused glances the entire evening.

This is the most confusing of all categories. Smart casual could mean smart, it could mean casual, it could mean suit up but dress the suit down. It’s a never ending pit of confusing frustration for men

Let’s break it down with some simple rules:
1. Do you know the people at the event well?
If so, then feel free to take a more casual than smart approach. Denims, a t-shirt and a jacket will do nicely. It’s time to whip out those brogues if you’ve got em, or a pair of bright and loud puma (no exercise shoes, see above).
2. The venue is imperative
Is this event being held at a venue that has a reputation for being smarter or more casual?
3. The actual event determines a lot
Is this a wedding rehearsal? A birthday? An awards evening? If it’s the latter, then you can feel free to dress more smart than casual and have people respond positively. If you’re heading to a birthday and you’re the only one in a suit, the chances are you’ll get jabbed by your buddies.
You can feel comfortable wearing denims or chinos with a button down shirt and jacket. If you’re wearing a suit then dress it down a bit with the t-shirt.
Don’t feel the need to wear a tie for smart-casual. Open-collar is probably the best approach if you’re wearing a button down shirt. If you’re wearing a t-shirt you’re going to need to dress it up with a jacket of some kind. Using bright and fun accessories to make more a statement is always a good idea too.

Smart means no shorts, unless you’re one of those guys who own and know how to wear a shorts suit and it’s a day event, then go for it. Smart means what is says. You don’t necessarily need to wear a full suit with waistcoat, tie and overcoat but it’s probably a safe bet to wear a suit as a start. I like to make the suits slightly more fun and playful with a bright pair of kicks, loud and fun tie or amazing socks to match. You can definitely still pull of a t-shirt if it’s a clean, plain colour (black, white, grey, blue) and is working in conjunction with another item that you’re wearing. For example, you can wear a red t-shirt, with a grey suit, brown shoes and a pair of amazing red socks. You’ll need to wear your suit jacket to make sure you hit the “smart” label. Again, it’s important to remember two key things: No one really cares what you’re wearing (as long as you’re vaguely in the guidelines) and event context is key.

At this point things begins to simplify somewhat. Formal means no denims, no chinos and no shorts. Of course, event context still applies. If this is a day wedding and the dress code is formal then if the weather allows for it, you can wear a shorts suit. But that’s your call and will require you to consider the hosts, the venue and the type of event. Mostly though, you’ll have to drop the t-shirts, get rid of the shorts, wear closed toe shoes (preferably formal shoes) and a suit of some kind. You’ll be able to wear suits of any colour at a formal event, play with your accessories and cater for the event itself. If it’s a funeral, then you should probably go with a black suit. If it’s a wedding or birthday party then you can go wild and break out that turquoise suit you’ve been dying to wear. Formal does not mean boring. It means a button up shirt with some form of neck item (bow tie, tie, scarf, etc) a jacket, smart pants and shoes.
As always, you’ve got your accessories to really help you stand out and feel like you’re making a statement. You can match your socks and shoelaces. You can rock a pocket square and match that to your wrist band or bracelet or you can wear a crazy tie and match it to your socks.Remember; formal does not mean boring.

Black Tie
This is the simplest and most obvious of the lot. Black tie is what it says it is: An event most probably requiring a black tie. You’ll need to really dress up for this. Black does not refer to the colour that you have to wear necessarily. You can feel free to wear charcoal, blue or even go further out there with your style. It’s not unheard of to wear white suits and invert the theme.
The key things to remember are that you must aim to wear the following things:
• Neck item,
• Button up shirt,
• Jacket and pants combination that belong together (it’s not advisable to mix and match your pants and jackets for a black tie event)
• Smart shoes
You’ll need to wear items that match but don’t try too hard. Feel free to play with colour in your accessories like your socks, pocket squares, shoe laces, lapel pins, ties, cuff links and others.

Remember, you need to be yourself in any context and feel comfortable. If you feel uncomfortable, whether you’re at a black tie event or a casual afternoon party, you’re going to look uncomfortable and people will notice that.

When I’m picking my outfits, my motto is: if in doubt, dress up not down.

You can always take off your jacket and untuck your shirt. You cannot turn a pair of shorts into a suit.

– by Nic Haralambous