How to Dress for Any Occasion

For day weddings, which tend to be more casual, steer clear of anything heavily beaded or sequined,” says Lauren A. Rothman, founder of Style Auteur, a fashion-consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Instead, opt for a knee-length dress in a material like cotton; in warmer weather or regions, strapless styles and open-toed shoes get the nod of approval. “Simple hats” also earn a thumbs-up, says Amy Lindquist, head of Lindquist Fashion & Image Consulting, in Minneapolis. If the ceremony is in the afternoon and the reception in the evening and the invitation doesn’t specify dress, assume the event is semiformal, which calls for a cocktail dress or an evening suit in a color that won’t upstage the bride. “Pale pink is OK―hot pink is not,” says Lindquist.
Black tie once meant floor-length gowns. Now, at all but the grandest affairs, dresses as short as knee-length are acceptable, provided they have a semiformal or formal cut and fabric; silk or a silk blend, for instance, would be appropriate. As for wearing a strapless or sleeveless dress in a house of worship, some have strict rules about covering up; check the protocol beforehand or bring a wrap.
Should you be invited to the rehearsal dinner, “they vary greatly in formality, so note where it’s being held,” says Lizzie Post, an etiquette authority, an author, and a spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute. In general, “cocktail-party rules apply,” Joseph Williamson, a fashion stylist in New York City. “Save your better outfit for the big day, but wear something dressy to the dinner. A dress and a jacket or a cardigan with some sparkle would be nice. But keep it understated.” Remember―there’s only one shining star at matrimonial shindigs, and it’s not you.

These days, a cocktail party can be anything from a swanky society affair―cue that glittery knee-length number from the “special occasions” department―to a low-key group of friends gathered around a platter of crudités. But for the most part, “cocktail parties are dressy-casual, so you can’t go wrong if you wear a top with some special details and a skirt or tailored pants, plus heels or fancy flats,” says Williamson. “Avoid fabrics that are too casual, like chino, jersey, and denim.”

A fitted cashmere or fine-gauge merino-wool top with a knee-length satin skirt, heels, earrings, and an armful of stacked bangles is just right, he says. Sue Fox, an etiquette authority based in Paso Robles, California, and the author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com), also suggests a pantsuit, provided it doesn’t look too corporate. (Under the jacket, wear a silky camisole or some other feminine top with an evening vibe.) Keep in mind that different cities have their own dress codes, says Rothman: “Cocktail attire in Miami is just as dressy and chic as in New York, regardless of the weather differences, while in San Diego it’s interpreted a bit more casually, because the city is relaxed.

At large, traditional companies, suits are still the standard. “There aren’t appropriate alternatives to a suit, and wearing one tells me you are seriously interested in the position,” says legal recruiter Kim Mains, manager of legal recruiting for Cozen O’Connor, a law firm based in Philadelphia. However, in many creative or artistic fields―design, media, retail, technology―it can be a plus to step outside of the box: Try a sheath dress with a wide belt and a cardigan, or a pencil skirt with a blouse and a cropped jacket. “When I’m hiring, I like to see an outfit that tells me the candidate has a personal sense of style,” says Paul Howalt, creative director and owner of Tactix Creative, a branding firm in Mesa, Arizona.
That said, no matter how casual the environment, don’t assume that it’s cool to wear jeans to an interview. “Don’t dress as if the job is yours,” cautions Peri Hansen, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, an executive-search firm in Los Angeles. When in doubt, she says, “call the interviewer’s assistant or the HR executive and ask what’s appropriate. It shows interest and respect.” In all cases, your clothing should be impeccably clean, ironed, and tailored. Under no circumstances should it be skimpy, plunging, or tight.

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