How to Dress Properly for Any Occasion

Person choosing clothing

Sofie Delauw / Getty Images

There's nothing worse than showing up to a job interview or party in the wrong attire, but deciphering what to wear isn't always easy. Knowing how to dress for wherever you're going is extremely important—you obviously don’t want to show up in shorts for a wedding or in worn-out jeans for a job interview. Conversely, you know that wearing a formal gown to a football game would be downright silly.

Even more frustrating, subtle dress code infractions can make the difference between successes like getting a job or not. For instance, if you're interviewing for a position at a company that requires closed-toe shoes, and you show up in sandals, the interviewer may instantly evaluate you based on that one thing. 

For most events, what you should wear will be obvious. If you have plans to go to your child’s Little League game and out for pizza afterward, jeans, a T-shirt, and athletic shoes are perfect. Job interviews often call for business formal or business casual attire, and you can always find out what is expected of you by watching what others wear to that particular office. If you're still stumped for the right thing to wear, keep reading.

Common Dress Code Descriptors

Occasionally, when you inquire about the dress code for an event, you'll be met with phrases such as "casual Friday" or "business formal." However, you may still be unsure about how you're expected to dress, and these terms don't always clarify much. Here are some explanations and helpful tips for each style of dress:

  • Casual: Casual wear can mean anything from shorts and a T-shirt to khakis and a button-down. If attending an occasion that calls for casual attire, you may want to ask the host (or another attendee, like a coworker) for more details, like whether the event will indoors or outdoors and what others are wearing.
  • Resort casual: Resort wear is typically a comfortable pair of shorts, slacks, or a dress as well as a nice top or shirt and sandals. As you put together your resort casual outfit, think about how you want to look in pictures that you’ll show your family and friends later.
  • Business casual: Business casual should always look neat, professional, and put-together. Try to avoid appearing as though you are on your way to a cocktail party or ready to hang out on your couch. Additionally, proper fit is always important—never wear clothes that are too tight or oversized.
  • Business formal: Formal business attire is worn by the ultra-professional who want to be taken seriously and get ahead. Keep in mind that a business suit doesn’t have to cost a fortune to look expensive—a well-tailored suit or skirt set with proper accessories can go a long way. If you aren't sure what shoes are appropriate, keep this in mind: Women can be pretty safe with a pair of solid, neutral pumps, while men should wear dark dress shoes.
  • Semi-formal: Whether you're attending a cocktail party, a wedding, or other events that call for semi-formal attire, you’ll be just fine in clothing made from a seemingly fancier fabric like satin, velvet, or silk. Suits are always appropriate at a semi-formal event, and a little black dress is versatile and can be worn year-round, with or without a jacket or wrap.
  • Formalwear: Formalwear can be tricky. Most of the time, long gowns are acceptable, as are tuxedos or dark suits. However, some designers have made short and mid-calf dresses that are classified as formal. It's important for attendees to clarify whether the event is black tie, white tie, or dark suit appropriate.

Wedding Dress Codes

Attire for wedding guests can run the full dress code spectrum, from resort to formal. Check the invitation and wedding website for a hint as to how to dress for the big day. If neither of those spots states a dress code, let the time and location of the wedding be your guide. If you're still in doubt, you can inquire with other guests about what to wear.

Most of the time, it is perfectly fine to dress in resort or semi-formal attire for a daytime wedding. A sundress with a wrap to cover the shoulders and sandals (not flip-flops!) is fine. You could also opt for a nice pair of slacks, a button-down shirt, and a lightweight jacket, with or without a tie.

For a church wedding, a knee-length or tea-length dress is appropriate. Chances are, you should have your shoulders covered inside any house of worship. A suit or nice pants, shirt, tie, and a coordinating jacket would also be suitable.

An evening wedding is generally more formal, and the invitation should state how to dress. If not, ask someone from the bridal party if you are expected to dress in formal or semi-formal attire.