Dress Codes Defined


June 26, 2013 | BY Kristine Stewart

Our guest columnist Kristine Stewart offers a  comprehensive guide to cracking those dressing conundrums

Are you sometimes unsure of exactly what an invitation dress code requires?  Or maybe you arrive at the event and realise you didn’t quite hit the mark? As fashion evolves and society shifts to more casual dress standards, confusion over dress codes is bound to result.  A quick internet search will show contradicting information – a bit worrying if you are looking for guidance on what to wear for your next important fancy ’do.  Heave a sigh of relief because below we have prepared a comprehensive guide of what you need to know for your next fancy affair. 

First, there are three proper dress categories. There’s formal, which includes morning dress (for day) and white night (for evenings); semi-formal (black tie); and informal (lounge suit, business suit or cocktail). Note: Do not get tricked by the term ‘informal’.  Informal does not suggest casual or even smart casual.  You are still expected to dress up and look presentable, preferably using our guidelines below.

Dress codes are the rare occasion when it is more complicated to be a man. I often get panicked phone calls from male friends and clients an hour before a ball or wedding – not asking me to be their date, but for advice as they scramble to establish what to wear!

First, here are the dress codes as defined for gentlemen:

Morning Dress
Think: The Royal Wedding
Occasions: Weddings and races, such as The Royal Ascot
Coat: Morning coat – grey (or black)
Trousers: Grey (or striped dark grey or black)
Shirt/Waistcoat: White shirt, grey waistcoat
Cufflinks and studs: Your choice, but gold is recommended
Tie: Necktie
Gloves: Grey (optional)

Notes: Black or grey top hats are optional. The cutaway design of the tails was originally made to accommodate horse riding. For some weddings and day events, the lounge suit is preferred

Black Tie
Think: James Bond
Occasions: Formal dinners, receptions, charity balls
Coat: Tuxedo (white jackets are acceptable for the summer)
Trousers: With a single braid on outer leg seam
Shirt: White shirt and waistcoat or a cummerbund for single-breasted jackets
Cufflinks and studs: Black (usually onyx)
Tie: Black bowtie
Gloves: No gloves

Notes: Do not wear a belt – have your trousers properly tailored or wear braces. In the summer, especially in tropical regions such as Hong Kong, a white dinner jacket is perfectly acceptable.  In fact, I encourage this as a refreshing sight in a sea of black! A black business suit and an elastic bowtie from a Pottinger Street costume shop do not make the cut for black tie!

White Tie
Think: Academy Awards
Occasions: Diplomatic or royal events, sometimes the opera, ballet, or charity balls
Coat: Tail coat
Trousers: With double braid on outer leg seam
Shirt: White waistcoat, starched wing collar shirt
Cufflinks and studs: White (usually mother of pearl)
Tie: White bowtie
Gloves: White

Notes: Formal is quite rare, especially in Hong Kong.  Our charity balls are most often, black tie. If you have the pleasure of attending a white tie event, please remember to remove your watch.  If you must keep track of the time, opt for a pocket watch.

Lounge Suit
Think: Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl
Occasions: Evening cocktails, dinners and socials
Coat: Suit jacket, dark colour
Trousers: Matching trousers
Shirt, waistcoat: Collared shirt, ideally white
Cufflinks and studs: No buttons. Opt for cufflinks only
Tie: Necktie (traditional – no bowties or skinny ties)
Gloves: No gloves

Notes: It is acceptable for one to go straight from work to the event in a standard tailored business suit. And remember that the bottom button of your jacket is never done up!


Dress codes for ladies:

Morning Dress
Think: Kate Middleton at the races
Dress: Elegant knee-length dress (no off the shoulder, halter or spaghetti straps)
Accessories: Hat or embellished fascinators, and gloves

Notes: Fascinators are meant for daytime wear only!  Please do not wear them after 6 o’clock. 

Black Tie
Think: Classic Julia Roberts on the red carpet
Dress: Floor length, or in some cases, knee length is acceptable
Accessories: Hair can be worn up or down. Nice jewellery but not too many diamonds, and absolutely no tiaras! Small clutch bag.

Notes: Ladies can wear separates or trousers but the trousers must be well styled and full length.

White Tie:
Think: Princess Diana
Dress: Floor length gown, sleeveless usually décolletage (an open neckline)
Accessories: Hair should be worn up. Couture or vintage jewellery only, gloves, and a small clutch bag.

Notes: Keep your gloves on during the cocktail and the receiving line but please remove them at the table and place them on your lap.

Think: Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
Dress: A tasteful, short evening dress. Length is at least to the knees but not floor length. Your little black dress is a good choice.
Accessories: More flashy jewellery or prints are allowed.

Notes: Cocktail dress is usually not suitable for business occasions, unless clearly indicated on the invitation. Dressy pantsuits are fine.

As you can see, there is a substantial difference in dress code requirements for men and women.  Keep in mind that long ago, the intention of this uniform look for men was to provide a backdrop for the ladies to showcase their fabulous gowns, sparkling jewellery, and polished looks.

Next time you receive an invitation with dress code requirements, make sure you understand what is expected.  Sometimes invitations include terms such as ‘fashion black tie’ or. ‘morning dress or smart casual’, inviting interpretation.  In the case of uncertainty, it is always best to check with your hostess.  A strong understanding of dress codes will help you look your finest and feel your best at the next big event!

Kristine Stewart is the director of the Hong Kong Institute of Etiquette.