Your guide to those confusing party attire rules
Published December 30, 2021
It’s the holidays and now that we’re (mostly) back to in-person gatherings, it’s time to revisit those confusing dress code instructions. What, pray tell, is beach casual? Or creative black tie? Or business casual or cocktail attire or, ugh, sporty casual?
I have no idea. What? You thought this was going to be useful? Please. That’s not why I’m here. All I can share is what I think these silly terms SHOULD mean. Onward…
Cocktail attire: Even the venerable Miss Manners recently confessed she’s stumped by this one. So maybe it’s time she was fired. Because it seems obvious cocktail attire means you should wear anything that allows you to drink lustily without damaging fine fabrics. You can wear your Clemson sweatshirt, for example, or really any long- sleeved tee. (But no short-sleeved tees; you’re not a savage!) If you want to class things up a bit, make sure your tee boasts how much you support your local public radio station. Done!
Black tie optional: This one is a bit easier to interpret. The hint’s right there in the title. As everyone knows, black tie means tuxedos for the gents but what is this optional business? I believe this means you can pick either the bottom or the top of the tuxedo, leaving the remaining body part completely exposed. You’re welcome.
Creative black tie: This one’s a fairly new entry into the lexicon of party attire but it’s also simple enough to break down. Think outside the box! Men, wear cocktail dresses (these are anything shiny you can find at Ross for under $30) and ladies, wear a cummerbund over whatever body part you are most embarrassed about. How creative!
Business casual: This may be the most confusing of all, am I right? What does this even mean? Anyone who receives an invitation with this designation immediately despairs of getting it wrong. Are you dressing like you would for work but adding some sort of frivolous twist? Yes, I believe that’s it! Ladies, for example, should wear a nice suit from Talbot’s or Dillard’s accompanied by flip flops to denote “casual”? Yes! You’ve nailed it. Maybe this isn’t as hard as I thought. Let’s continue.
Beach casual: Because I live a mere nine miles from the ocean, this potentially confusing party attire glossary designation shows up with distressing regularity on invitations. My standard approach would be to arrive wearing a bathing suit (maternity OK so you can eat more) and perhaps carrying a bucket of Walmart crab legs as a playful accessory. Gents, of course, should wear swim trunks and an annoying amount of white sunscreen on their noses to add to the merriment. It goes without saying that no one should wear shoes. Side note: Sporty casual simply means wear what you want and add a tennis racket.
Semi-formal: Whew. At last, an easy one! Just dress exactly as you would if you were hauling a tractor trailer of goods across the country but feeling as though you might just pop in on your high school class reunion along the way!
Smart casual: It’s just an educated (ha!) guess but I think this means you should show up wearing a college sweatshirt. If you can get your hands on an Ivy League version, all the better. Also, sew on some elbow patches, smoke a pipe and tell everyone at the party you are “inebriated” and “overserved” rather than “hammered” or “wall-eyed.” This will subtly signal to other partygoers you are “smart.” I know what you’re thinking: Is there a “dumb casual” party dress designation? The answer is, not that I know of BUT if there is, you may be perfectly safe in simply wearing a shirt proclaiming “Let’s Go Brandon,” “Defund Fauci” or “Guns Don’t Kill People, Alec Baldwin Does.”
Celia Rivenbark is a NYT-bestselling author and columnist. Write her at email@example.com.