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Deciphering the dress code: Choosing appropriate event attire

By Aleigh Acerni

March 21, 2005

Recently a group of Business Journal staffers was headed to an awards event, but the invitation’s dress code gave them pause: it was “cozy festive.” For the next week, we tried to decipher what exactly cozy festive attire meant.

Did it mean “dress warmly because you’ll be standing outside in the cold for an extended period of time”? Did it mean “dress in your holiday formals,” or “wear your most glamorous pajamas?” We didn’t know.

At the event, attire ranged from jeans paired with casual boots to evening wear—proof that Business Journal staffers weren’t the only ones puzzled by the cryptic dress requirements.

Since then, I’ve heard of other confusing dress codes, like “dress stylish” or “dress to impress,” neither of which gives an attendee any idea of the level of formality. For advice on deciphering the dress code, I turned to Cindy Grosso, founder of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette.

“That’s one of the big questions we’re getting lately,” says Grosso. “People are starting to be vague (about dress requirements). They’re getting away from the traditional: casual, black tie, white tie dress-language. Without a standard, it’s very hard to know what to wear.”

Grosso points out that even the standards can be open for interpretation. “Professional casual can mean pants, shirt, tie, jacket—but not a suit. But if you look at the financial profession, a suit is still standard.”

She recommends not creating a nontraditional dress code for your event—unless you as host or hostess are prepared to get a lot of phone calls asking for an explanation. Sometimes a dress code isn’t even necessary at all, as when hosting a cookout or oyster roast, she says. “It’s not a faux pas to not include a dress code on an invitation.”

If you’re still puzzled about the appropriate dress for an event, there are several methods of determining what to wear. Here are some ideas offered by Grosso:

Stick with versatile attire. “The ‘little black dress’ is great for a lot of reasons,” says Grosso. “Dress it up or down to be safe.”

Show up early and “spy” on the crowd. “Wear your shirt and pants, and bring along a jacket and tie,” Grosso adds. “You can always add the tie or jacket if you see others doing it.”

Ask. “Do not hesitate to call and ask the host,” says Grosso, who recommends asking for an attire run-down when making an RSVP. It’s still appropriate to call specifically to ask about the dress code, however.

A note to event organizers: When requesting appropriate dress, stick with traditional. It’ll be a lot easier for your guests to decipher, and you won’t have to field phone calls from attendees wondering what “stylish” means to you.

Aleigh Acerni is assistant editor for the Business Journal. E-mail her at

Traditional dress codes, deciphered

Here are the traditional dress codes, and what they mean to most people:

Casual. There are three levels of casual, says Cindy Grosso, founder of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette: basic, which is barbecue or oyster roast attire; standard, which is a level above that; and professional, which is the average American office attire.

Professional. This means suits and ties for men, suits and dressy business attire for women.

Cocktail. Short, elegant dresses for women and dark suits for men.

Formal. Usually means the same as black tie, but can also mean cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates for women and tuxedos without ties for men.

Black tie. Formal dress. Men wear tuxedos, women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.

White tie. This means ultra-formal; the highest level of formal dress. Long gowns for women, tuxedos for men.



Author: by Aleigh Acerni

Source: Charleston Regional Business Journal

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