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Understanding dress codes

By Jon Watt
Understanding dress codes
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Stuck between the formal traditions of the past and the casual expectations of modern society, we're left with a cryptic language of dress codes which mix contemporary with historical and formal with casual. Fortunately, NZ Men is here to guide you through this minefield of social faux pas, from the highly formal where there's almost no room for personal expression, to the relaxed casual, where anything goes.

White tie
Not to be confused with wearing a white dinner jacket, a white tie invitation is the most antiquated and traditional of formal dress codes requiring cut-away tail coat, white bow tie and winged collars. It actually began life in the late 18th century in England as a practical riding outfit for a gentleman but is seldom requested today, especially in New Zealand.

Do: feel free to accessorise with white scarf, opera cloak and cane for a touch of Victorian chic.
Don't: stray from the classical cut and style of white tie. If you're wearing this garb then you're probably going to a seriously formal event where eccentricity won’t too too welcome.

Business casual
The concept of business casual was born as a rebellion against the suited establishment. As a dress code it's never really been defined and can be enormously confusing. Traditionalists would have us believe that business casual attire requires a collar at the very least. However, the dot com boom challenged conventional ideas of office dress codes as tech tycoons like Bill Gates, founder of MSN's-owner Microsoft, led the way with a more casual look. These days it's loved by 'folksy' politicians like US president Barack Obama trying to show they are down with the kids.

The safest modern definition for business casual is that it requires at least one item of smart clothing in a casual outfit — it could be anything from a collared shirt with jeans to a T-shirt with a jacket and chinos.

Do: play it safe rather than sorry. Leave the ripped jeans look to celebrities or millionaire owners of dot coms.
Don't: display obvious logos — it'll just look like you're sponsored.

Black tie
Being the most common and least stringent of the formal wear dress codes, black tie is an attire that has evolved greatly since its introduction. Almost anything goes at a black tie function these days, but traditional attire involves a black or midnight blue jacket with black silk or satin lapels to match the seam on the outside trouser leg.

Even today there are a couple of golden rules that should still be observed with black tie. Firstly, never wear a waistcoat with cummerbund — it's one or the other.

Do: remember that a double-breasted jacket is only acceptable if you're over 50 or trying to hide a belly.
Don't: be fooled into thinking you'll look like 007 if you wear a white jacket. This combo is only acceptable in the tropics or if you want to look like a waiter.

Black has been the colour of mourners since the time of ancient Greeks. Today, a dark suit and tie are recommended for most funerals, unless instructed otherwise. However, this is increasingly not the case for memorial or thanksgiving services, which are seen as a celebration of a life and therefore colour is acceptable and even encouraged.

Do: try and wear a plain dark suit if possible.
Don't: worry if it's not perfect. Attendance is the main thing.

Lounge suit or cocktail
Lounge suit is the traditional term for the everyday suit still worn by office workers around the world. When used as a dress code today, lounge suit or cocktail refers to any matching jacket and trouser combo — though it's generally asking for a more relaxed style than the average business suit. If you are so inclined, then embrace the opportunity to add colour to your suit palette.

Do: wear your work suit if you've nothing else — few people's wardrobes have room for an array of non-work suits.
Don't: wear a bow tie unless you've got a doctorate or reputation as an eccentric.

Smart casual
This is the biggie that causes the most confusion. Not surprising given the Oxford English Dictionary defines smart casual as: informal yet smart enough to conform to a certain dress code. A wishy-washy definition if ever there was one, but it gives some idea of quite how wide the parameters are for this dress code. As a general rule, smart casual is a step up from business casual. The jacket doesn't necessarily have to match the trousers and there could be a sweater involved as well but the overall picture is one of a politician trying to dress down over the Christmas break when he knows he'll still be photographed.

Do: think long and hard before donning anything with elbow pads.
Don't: let yourself slip from smart casual into academic casual like a geography teacher.

Informal wear
We've now left formal and entered a grey area (in definition, if not always in colour) where an informal wear party invitation could be asking for attendees to arrive in anything from suit to jeans. Normally, however, it's requesting something slightly more formal than smart casual — a blazer with smart trousers and shoes.

Do: feel free to drop the hosts a line and ask exactly what they mean by informal attire — you won't be the only one.
Don't: try and pull off a turtleneck and sports jacket look. It's not the 70s and you're not Ron Burgundy in Anchorman.

Morning suit
The morning suit is the quintessential English wedding attire much favoured by the Four Weddings and a Funeral set. Traditionally, morning suit was seen as day wear and men would be expected to change into evening attire for dinner. These days it's common for the groom and ushers at a wedding and anyone collecting an OBE or MBE from the Queen.

It's considered slightly less formal than white tie and there is some room for personal expression, with colourful waistcoats being acceptable and even the width and style of the stripes on your trousers can vary. For race days a daring mid-grey morning suit can also be worn.

Do: be aware that they're generally heavy wool coats and consequently on a hot day you'll quickly become the not-so-proud owner of a fine pair of sweat patches on your shirt, so try and hold off removing your jacket until the lights are dimmed after dinner.
Don't: forget to load your pockets with unusual objects to deter drunken jacket-lifters who, by the end of a wedding, do not possess the time, inclination or ability to locate their own jacket on the back of a chair.

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User comments
Received an invitation, advose dress code 'FORMAL' This was to a 21st? Cant see young men wearing DJs!!