Deciphering the Dress Code: Why Formal Does not mean Denim

A couple of weeks ago, I gave my first-year fashion communication students an assignment. It was a simple enough one… or so I thought. Dress up in business formals, pair up, and assess the other person for what their outfit says about them. I was prepared for a few stereotypes, some unnecessary suppositions but what I wasn’t prepared for was the question that faced me the week they submitted their assignments. “But ma’am, aren’t denims formals, too?”

It’s a common enough sight; at interviews, weddings, parties. Everyone’s come across that one person who’s shown up for an interview wearing a hoodie and a pair of jeans. I know you are going to throw names like Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook at me. But wait for a second and think about it. While your clothes shouldn’t define you, well, they just do. But in the case of Zuckerberg or Cook, they say, “I have too much on my plate to bother with my clothes.” And if I turned up for a wedding, which clearly said dress code-formal in the card, in a hoodie and a pair of ripped jeans, it would say, “She just doesn’t care about us enough.”

Whether you like it or not, dress codes exist, and sometimes they make life simpler (you don’t need to think about what to wear, chicer (holla to the fashionistas amongst us), and exciting (take it from someone who works from home and lives in pyjamas). So, here’s your quick guide to deciphering dress codes.

Let’s start with the easiest, shall we? This is your everyday wear. Think tees, jeans, sneakers, cargos, t-backs. Basically, wear what your mood tells you to. Of course, if it’s a party you are attending, let’s give the inflammatory slogan tees and mostly-ripped-slight-sewn denims a skip, shall we?

Casual Dressy
A slightly more dressed-up version of your regular fare. Girls, wear that cute Kurti with denims and a pair of heeled Kolhapuris. Guys, how about teaming your tee-and-denim outfit with a well-cut sports coat.

Business Casual
This is the new dress code in most corporate offices, a week-long Friday casual affair. For women, that would mean your formal-cut palazzos with straight-cut kurtas or a pencil skirt with a fun blouse. For men, think chinos or slacks with a collared shirt. In most offices, denims are no-no as are sneakers.

Business Formal
If you work at the headquarters of an MNC or have meetings with head honchos, then this is the dress code to follow. A suit and tie for the men, a tailored dress, a pantsuit, or a crisp saree for the women.

For men, this means a dark suit with a tie. For women, think LBDs, cocktail sarees, fun jewellery and heels. Your dress code translates to being party ready so keep that in mind.

Black Tie
In the West, this is a clear signal for men to wear a tuxedo and for women to don long gowns (or even tuxedos). In India, depending on the kind of event you are attending, you can choose from a tuxedo, a sherwani, a saree or a gown. Pay close attention to what your invite says.

For many years and even now, if I am ever confused about the dress code, I simply ask my host. I have realized it’s the easiest way to get your outfit right. Of course, it’s an anything-goes attitude today. There’s a sense of my-outfit-needs-to-reflect-my-insides, and that’s great. It makes of interesting style outings and some amazing fashion inspiration. But let’s go a little old school with dress codes, let’s give following them a try. You may just have fewer I-don’t-know-what-to-wear days.

Tulika Nair

Tulika Nair is a content strategist and creator with almost a decade's experience in television , print & digital media and a focus on the fashion and luxury industry. She has combined her love for writing with a deep interest in fashion to unearth what fashion means to society, its aspiration , and its identity.

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