Navigating modern etiquette can be a minefield at times. Dress codes and old-fashioned invite formalities can be difficult to interpret, and who wants to be the one to have to ask exactly what “smart-casual” means?

If you have been invited to a dinner party or similar formal engagement, where you may be particularly keen to impress (perhaps it’s a high-profile fund raiser, dinner at the boss’s house or your host is a potential future- business partner) follow these tips on formal engagement etiquette and you won’t be putting a foot wrong!

Getting the dress code right is perhaps the most important point as this is where most common mistakes can occur and getting it wrong can lead to an extremely uncomfortable evening of lurking behind the pot plants and trying to go unnoticed, when instead you should be confidently circulating and charming all with your good wit, taste and elegantly turned out appearance.

White Tie (or full formal dress)

If you have been invited to an event with a White Tie dress code, then your hosts may be acquainted with Prince William and his bride-to- be, Kate Middleton, as this dress code is the most formal of attire after court dress. White tie should be worn with “tails”; never with a tuxedo (only an oaf would do so.) Ladies would be expected to wear ball gowns or evening dresses, which should be full length.

Black Tie (formal, semi-formal dress)

Black tie, is slightly less formal than white-tie and is the standard attire for dinner engagements. Black tie should be worn with a tuxedo style dinner suit. Do not wear red or coloured bow-ties as you may risk matching the waiting staff (unless explicitly noted in the invitation as “scarlet” which is common at hunt balls. As for your tie, it is a point of breeding but the ability to wear a traditional black tie, as opposed to a “clip-on” will speak volumes about you. As for “will anyone notice” Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is said to detest clip-on bow ties and can spot one from across the room. (Just in case you are actually going to the Royal Wedding – you have been warned.) Gentlemen of Celtic descent may wear the family dress tartan and officers may wear Military mess dress.

Ladies would again be expected to wear ball gowns or full length evening dresses, though a short cocktail dress is also perfectly acceptable.


Informal, means “not formal” however it does not mean the opposite of formal. Turning up to an “informal” event in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt would certainly not do. In this case think theatre, not opera (which is really a white-tie occasion).

Informal wear should encompass suits, including most business suits and certainly a tie (though not a bow tie). Ladies may wear a short evening dress, suit- dress or evening suit.


The casual codes, can be a little more difficult to define, with less distinction between say, smart casual and business casual as opposed to White Tie versus Informal.

I find it simplest to ally the code with the most suitable occasion, to get the most appropriate idea of pitch. Smart-casual, therefore – think “Country Club”. Smart slacks and a stylish blazer would be appropriate, shirt, tie and cufflinks should be worn. Ladies have greater freedom here, with suits, smart separates (think blazer and knee-length skirt) and day dresses with jackets being in-place.

Business casual

A notch less formal than smart-casual, business casual dress is most often stated for company away-days, or in most white-collar occupations where business-formal dress is no longer considered in keeping with modern times. Think more Silicon Valley than Wall Street. Business casual includes suits and long-sleeved shirts though ties and cufflinks are not necessary. Smart separates are perfectly permissible as is not wearing a jacket; however it’s always best to wear a jacket at the outset as this can easily be removed. Ladies business-casual can be similar to smart-casual though a blazer may look a little out of place. Think smart separates, blouses or polo necks with skirts and trousers. In this case a jacket or suit will be too formal and more in-keeping with the smart casual dress code.


Mayhem is the author of a series of Murder Mystery Games, and writes on entertaining, party games, social etiquette and murder mystery parties for the site

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