Should my event be formal?

As a live event professional, I have been a proud element of thousands of events. Corporate, private, military, campus, theater, fundraisers, virtual, the works! Here is another quick tip that comes from my personal experience!

It wasn’t until the “grunge” era of the early 1990s that this would have been a question at all. Should my Gala be formal? That was a given, even in the 80s.

Effective Event Production: Quick Tip #5

First, no matter what type of dress you expect at your event, do not forget to indicate the dress code in your invitations, on the poster, or in the email. Tell your guests how to dress! They will be grateful and more comfortable. Nobody wants to be over or underdressed!

paper and pen preparing to handwrite envelopes

Here is the psychology that I would love for you to consider. Folks love to dress up. They LOVE IT! These days there are so few occasions that call for it, it is woefully missed. In fact, it is missed so much it has resulted in the cosplay movement which is essentially Halloween on demand.

Unfortunately, cosplay is regarded as a young people’s game and older folks have just resigned to believing there are no more events that merit dressing up. ANY opportunity to dress up gives people a delicious kind of stress that offers an opportunity to dazzle people who already know them well. Couples fall in love again. Friends may say things like Wow! You clean up well!

Inviting folks to an event for which Black Tie is the indicated dress code will ignite their imaginations. They will have that much more reverence for the invitation. Psychologically, they will recognize that they are not just being invited to an event but that they are being invited to an important event!

Incidentally, if you have anyone on your list who prefers suits over dresses, can’t accept an invitation due to dress code, and are roughly my size… call me. I will get them perfectly sorted out! I am like Old Eye for the New Guy over here! I will take that person shopping if I don’t have what they need. Not kidding.

Importantly, I will love for you to know that the mindful act of dressing for an event establishes importance. The ritual will result in a considerably more engaged and grateful crowd and they will even modify their behavior to suit. As an analogy, a well-maintained and very clean restroom invites respect and you will see no graffiti in this place. People care for what cares for them. It is instinctive.

Common Dress Codes for Events

Let me give you a list of the most common dress codes and their meanings here:

Edit: If any of the top three dress code indicators include the phrase, “With Honors” it means that anyone who has decorations (medals and ribbons) from the military, fraternal orders, religious, academic, and governmental awards, those decorations have also been invited to be displayed. If the invitation does not state, “With Honors”, one should modestly leave the decorations at home. Folk who have earned honors do like the opportunity to display them, but in this age is it also classist. Use discretion.

White Tie

“White Tie” is the most formal and is very unusual anymore. I can admit that I belong to organizations that exist just to keep this dress code alive but… it is more like reenactors playing dress-up, and that honest observation makes me a bit sad.

This style of dress would be very appropriate for a 1920s-themed affair but it is unlikely that your guests already own the type of garments this dress code calls for and thereby you are directing them to make a purchase or to secure a rental. Instructions to buy things to feel comfortable at an event will lower your attendance (but I have witnessed this used as an effective tactic if you gather).

historical photo showing "White tie" attire

Black Tie

“Black Tie” indicates that this is an occasion for tuxedos/dinner jackets and gowns. Beads, sequins, pearls, sparkles, feathers. This is appropriate wear for a Gala event.

man buttoning top button of tuxedo jacket

Cocktail Attire

“Cocktail Attire” calls for little black dresses, pearls, some sparkles, nice slacks, and absolutely a necktie but also a waistcoat/vest and jacket. A bit more formal than what is appropriate for the office and you can take it all the way up to a black tie ensemble, which is perfectly acceptable. There is a welcome and acceptable spectrum to play with this instruction. It may be interpreted to include “Club Wear” and that can be less than business appropriate.

woman in red cocktail dress

Business Attire

“Business Attire” is a fairly self-explanatory phrase but on an invitation, this phrase indicates that one should select clothing from one’s more business-formal ensembles. Imagine you’re dressing to meet the boss who is flying in from across the country or that you are about to lead a merger contract signing. Yeah, that’s the outfit.

man adjusting tie of business suit

Business Casual

“Business Casual” is khaki-land. Neckties are optional. Knitwear like cardigans and sweaters, polo shirts, linen suits with no neckwear, and simple, comfortable cotton dresses with a more casual, non-heeled shoe (but not trainers/sneakers).

man holding book and coffee in casual business attire


“Casual” invites the All-American blue-jean to the party. This is your “weekend mode” being invited out for drinks. Give it some signature style. This is an event that you are being invited to. That’s an honor!

man giving presentation in casual attire

I have no doubt that I have communicated my preferences here. As an entertainer, I always pay attention to the indicated dress code and always include my own style. I will dress for your event but I would like to know how your guests will be dressed so I can help them be comfortable.

I will still “stick out”; promise. I can’t help it!

Reach me with questions! I’ll see you in the funny papers!