Western dress codes


Western dress codes are dress codes in Western culture about what clothes are worn for what occasion. Classifications are traditionally divided into formal wear (full dress), semi-formal wear (half dress), and informal wear (undress). The first two are sometimes in turn divided into day and evening wear. In western countries, a "formal" or white tie dress code typically means tailcoats for men and full-length evening dresses with opera-length gloves for women. A most formal dress for women are full-length ball or evening gowns with evening gloves. Anything below this level is referred to as casual wear, although sometimes in combinations such as "smart casual" or "business casual" in order to indicate higher expectation than none at all.

Formal i.e. white tie, semi-formal i.e. black tie, and informal i.e. suit, all have roots in 19th century customs subsequent to the replacement of the 18th century generic justaucorps, and has remained essentially fixed defined since the 20th century, despite decline following the counterculture of the 1960s. The 19th century frock coat rarely occurs except as formal alternative. For women, interpretations have fluctuated more dynamically according to fashion. For both men and women, hats corresponding to the various levels of formality declined following the counterculture of the 1960s.

Dress codes are typically explicitly instructed, but may also be expected by peer pressure of sensitivity.

Ceremonial dress, military uniform, religious clothing, academic dress, and folk costume appropriate to the formality level are generally permitted alongside the respective dresscodes and may be permitted as supplementary alternative exceptions to the uniformity, often in the form of headgear (see biretta, kippah etc.). Conversely, since most cultures have at least intuitively applied some level equivalent to the more formal ones in Western dress code traditions, the latter's versatile framework open to amalgamation of international and local customs, have influenced its competitiveness as international standard formality scale.


A historic chart of dress codes from Fashion, 1902
Collection Kuhn (1910).

The background of traditional contemporary Western dress codes as fixed in 20th century relied on several steps of replacement of preexisting formal wear, while in turn increasing the formality levels of the previously less formal alternatives. Thus was the case with the ceasing of the justacorps, extensively worn from the 1660s until the 1790s, followed by the same fate of the 18th century frock (not to be confused with frock coat), in turn followed by the frock coat.

Full dress, half dress, and undress

Before the modern system of formal, semi-formal, and informal was consolidated in the 20th century, the terms were looser. In the 19th century, during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the principal classifications of clothing were full dress and undress, and, less commonly the intermediate half dress. Full dress covered the most formal option: frock coat for day wear, and dress coat (white tie) for evening wear (sometimes with supplementary alternative being a full dress uniform independent of what time of the day). As such, full dress may still appear in use designating formal wear.

When morning dress became common (in the modern sense, using a morning tailcoat rather than a frock coat), it was considered less formal than a frock coat, and even when the frock coat was increasingly phased out, morning dress never achieved full dress status.[citation needed] Therefore, in the 21st century, full dress often refers to white tie only.[citation needed]

Today's semi-formal black tie (originally dinner clothes) was initially described as informal wear, while the "lounge suit," now standard business wear, was originally considered (as its name suggests) casual wear. Half dress, when used, was variously applied at different times, but was used to cover modern morning dress (the term morning dress is fairly undescriptive and has not always meant modern morning dress). Undress (not to be confused with naked) in turn was similarly loose in meaning, corresponding to anything from a dressing gown to a lounge suit or its evening equivalent of dinner clothes (now one of the more formal dress codes seen in many Western regions).[1]


President Ronald Reagan in a formal evening dress coat ("white tie"), and brother Neil Reagan in a dinner suit i.e. tuxedo ("black tie") (1981).

The table below summarises the traditional Western dress codes:

Formality Day Evening Military Ladies Supplementary
Formal wear i.e. "Full dress" Morning dress White tie Full dress uniform Ball gown Ceremonial dress,
religious clothing,
folk costumes,
orders and medals, etc.
Semi-formal wear i.e. "Half dress" Black lounge suit Black tie Mess dress uniform Evening gown
Informal wear i.e. "Undress" Suit Service dress uniform Cocktail dress
Casual wear Anything considered inappropriate for more formal occasions

These definitions are the strict, traditional definitions,[2][better source needed] which may not be followed in common use. For example, formal is often used to mean any of the first three, and informal to indicate what is classified here as casual.

Formal wear

Typical events: Weddings, state dinners and affairs, formal balls, royal events, etc.

The use of white tie and morning dress has become rare in some countries (such as the United States and Australia), where black tie or a lounge suit (as appropriate) is often worn to these events.

Semi-formal wear

Typical events: Theatre opening nights, charity balls, etc.

There is some variation in style depending on whether it is summer or winter. See black tie and stroller for more details.

In the last few decades, in place of the traditional white tie or morning dress, black tie has been increasingly seen in the United States at formal day wedding. However, etiquette and clothing experts continue to discourage or condemn the wearing of black tie as too informal for weddings, or any event before 6 p.m.,[3] such as by Emily Post (1872–1960) and Amy Vanderbilt (1908–1974), the latter arguing that "no man should ever be caught in a church in a tuxedo."

Informal wear

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wearing western business suits as per their gender, February 2016

Typical events: Diplomatic and business meetings, many social occasions, everyday wear

Business wear is included in the informal category, generally consisting of a business suit and tie. Informal dress code encompasses all suits, but not all suits are considered business appropriate in fabric, cut, or color.

Casual wear

Casual wear, although not traditionally part of Western dress codes, are sometimes applied colloquially. Related to this category is business casual, smart casual, etc.

See also


  1. ^ Kent State University Museum (2002). "Of Men & Their Elegance". Archived from the original on 2008-10-17. Retrieved 2008-11-02.
  2. ^ "The Complete Dress Code Guide For Men". Ask Andy About Clothes. 2018-11-10. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  3. ^ Ford, Charlotte; DeMontravel, Jacqueline (2001). 21st century etiquette: a guide to manners for the modern age. Barnes & Noble Books. p. 210. ISBN 978-1-56731-629-2.

Further reading