I fail to get the memo about what to wear for events, parties, and even family gatherings.
It’s nearly guaranteed that when I show up at Aunt Betty’s 74th birthday party wearing jeans and a t-shirt, thinking it’s just super casual, everyone else shows up in stylish dresses, heels, jackets, and ties. Arriving under-dressed or over-dressed can feel like a regrettable moment you’ll never forget, not to mention how much it can kick your confidence in the gut.
A few years ago at Christmas, my fiancé’s family was having a small get-together–just siblings, significant others, and their kiddos for a white elephant-style gift exchange. The group invite said, “Flannel Party.” The invite mentioned a potluck, a hot cocoa bar, s’mores over a fire pit, and BYOB. Casual, right?
I lived in Phoenix then, and flannel wasn’t a wardrobe staple in that climate. So I scoured the stores for flannel pajama pants for my boys (ages 9 and 12 at the time) and a flannel pajama pant set with a cutesy snowflake pattern for myself (thank you, Walmart). Unsure what shoes would pair well with pajamas, I opted for my Ugg knock-offs to keep warm just in case the temps might dip while roasting marshmallows outside.
My fiancé stayed home, sick with the flu, so it was just my boys and me going. When I arrived, the kids ran in ahead of me, so I walked in solo. I felt a little insecure, not only because I was wearing jammies outside the comfort of my own home, but because it wasn’t my own, familiar family. So I started down the path of self-doubt. Why didn’t I ditch the pajamas at the last minute? To ease my mind, I figured at least I wouldn’t be the only one, and I’d blend right in.
As soon as I walked in, I was immediately aware that everyone was NOT in pajamas. Instead, everyone wore plaid flannel shirts with cute lil’ skinny jeans and designer belts. And not Ugg boots.
The memo must have gone straight to my spam folder. “Flannel” didn’t mean flannel pajamas. Everyone was wearing flannel shirts! At that moment, I had never wished to be sick with the flu so badly.
While my boys got a pass for being kids, I was utterly embarrassed. I felt alone and like the only one dressed for a slumber party. It ruined my night and deflated my enjoyment. Major fail, but a teachable moment.
Regardless of the occasion, I now simply ask if the dress style isn’t stated. However, it can be complicated if you don’t know what the dress style means. I’ve broken it down here into a few common categories, so hopefully, you don’t feel quite as foolish as I did.
Every Day or “As You Are”
This is the ultimate “anything goes” and “you do you.” There should be no judgment, whether in your favorite jeans and t-shirt with sneakers, or semi-dressy slacks, trendy tops, and sandals. Depending on who is doing the inviting, you may want to think twice. Anything goes if it’s your friends and family–just a casual get-together. If it’s colleagues from work or a networking event, maybe avoid sweatpants. Just don’t show up in a prom-style dress. Unless, of course, that’s your typical, everyday style.
Working in a corporate office helps give some context here. What seems appropriate if you’re meeting with your boss and colleagues or hosting a presentation in a conference room? No jeans, no open-toe shoes, and nothing low-cut (back or chest). This will be something like dark, dress slacks, khaki pants, a knee-length skirt with a blouse, and maybe even a waist-length blazer. Nothing less, nothing too much more. I usually stick with basic colors and avoid wild prints. Note: avoid khaki pants with a red shirt unless you follow the Target dress code.
Smart Casual or Dressy Casual
What is the difference between these two anyway? I’m sure the fashion police can tell you, but I combine this into one category. It’s like business casual, just not so office-like. There is more room to be a pinch trendier here and not so professional. A shorter skirt or a V-neck blouse is okay, along with bolder colors and prints. You could also go with a little bit more flair, like ruffles and floral patterns.
It’s a step above professional workplace attire and below formal. Think black cocktail dress–classic and timeless. It will be dressy and make a statement, but not a ballgown. Cocktail attire is elegant but can still make a statement, but not an overly bold one. You’ll likely wear heels, so be ready to dust yours off if yours sit in the closet most of the time as mine do.
Formal or Black Tie
Now it’s time to get out the floor-length gowns. This is about as fancy as it gets. This includes prom dresses, bridal party-type dresses, and even sequins. Think Hollywood Red Carpet!
Caution with this one. Be sure you know the theme’s meaning (see my embarrassing anecdote above)! This could be a decade theme or costume party. If you’re unsure, just ask what others may be planning to wear. This will help you know how decked-out you want to go. I’ve also learned that the more people invited, the more over-the-top guests seem to go with their attire. When it’s an 80’s style with just a few girlfriends, you can make do with what you have at home. When it’s 50 plus guests, several attendees will go the whole nine yards.
If all else fails or you’re just unsure, ask others. Maybe your fashionista friends, daughters, or sisters can add valuable input. And trust your instincts! If you’re contemplating if your blouse is too low cut for the office, don’t wear it. If your gut is telling you something doesn’t feel quite right, follow it.
With the holiday season right around the corner, your calendar is sure to fill with various social events and parties.
Your work holiday shindig may call for a different outfit than the gift exchange with your girlfriends. Even bridal showers can be super fancy or casual and intimate. Picking out the perfect outfit can be intimidating and, at times, stressful.
Dressing suitably for the occasion and showing up with confidence will make the event more enjoyable. Happy styling, friends!
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