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Western dress codes

Couple in formal wear

Formal dress (UK) and formal wear (US) are the general terms for clothing suitable for formal social events, such as a wedding, formal garden party or dinner, débutante cotillion, dance, or race. The Western style of formal evening dress, characterized by black and white garments, has spread through many countries; it is almost always the standard formal social dress in countries without a formal national costume.

A dress code is a set of rules governing a certain combination of clothing; some examples are black tie and morning dress. Formal dress is the grouping of all the dress codes which govern clothes worn to formal events. The traditional rules that govern men's formal dress are strictly observed; from these derive the evening dress variants worn on many occasions, such as high school prom dances, formal dances, and entertainment industry award programs.

The dress codes considered formal in the evening are white tie and black tie. In the UK, morning dress is standard formal day time clothing (a lounge suit being still considered informal dress), but in the US morning dress is rare, having been replaced with the stroller and then the lounge, or business, suit. Morning dress, however, does remain in certain settings in Europe, Australasia, and Japan. Some countries still have the semi-formal daywear code, the stroller.


Terminology: formal

Men's formal evening wear, or white tie, in 1912.

The continual relaxation of formal dress standards since the end of the Second World War is redefining what clothes constitute formal and semi-formal dress. The original term full dress was used in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century to mean the most formal option available, while half dress and undress ranked beneath it. They indicated different clothes, but correspond somewhat to the twenty-first century structure of formal, semi-formal, and informal. These are the terms used by traditional etiquette and dress consultants (especially for weddings), while contemporary consultants use looser, modern definitions, in which white tie is styled as most formal, very formal or ultra formal; black tie as formal; and the traditionally informal lounge suit as pseudo-formal. Moreover, modern advisers recommend black tie for events traditionally considered to require formal dress (white tie), and alternatives for what would have been semi-formal events.

However, formal and semi-formal are unambiguous when it is known they are being used in a traditional setting, even though changing fashions can make these terms ambiguous; white tie and black tie on the other hand refer solely to the combination of relevant clothes themselves, regardless of their setting, and so are much less susceptible to misinterpretation.

Particularly in America, but also around the Western world, there has also been a relaxation regarding the dress codes themselves, with full formal dress (white tie or morning dress) almost unheard of in many places. An example of such a variant is removing the traditional, classic black bow tie required by the black tie dress code in favour of a black or coloured regular tie and waistcoat, a development which would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

Dress codes

The dress codes counted as formal wear are the formal dress codes of white tie for evenings and morning dress for daytime, as well as the semi-formal ones of black tie for the evening and strollers in daytime. Dinner suits and dress suits differ in which they don't follow strict coloration. (E.G. A blue bow tie worn instead of a black one.)

The clothes dictated by these dress codes for women include cocktail dresses, ball gowns, dinner gowns, and evening gowns. For many uniforms, the official clothing is unisex. Examples of this are law court dress, academic and graduate dress, formal military uniforms and formal military evening dress.


White tie

The required clothing for men is roughly the following: a (dress) tailcoat; formal trousers, uncuffed, with stripes on leg seams; white piqué bow tie; white piqué vest (waistcoat); white piqué front or plain stiff-fronted shirt with a detachable wing collar; cuff links and shirt studs; black patent leather court shoe; accessories.

Women wear a variety of dresses. See ball gowns, evening gowns, and wedding dresses. Business attire for women had a developmental history of its own and generally looks different than formal dress for social occasions.

Black tie

Briefly, men wear a dinner jacket (tuxedo coat); trousers, uncuffed, with one stripe on leg seams; shirt (stiff wing or soft folded collar) with either a placketed, pleated, piqué, or ruffled front; a black bow tie; a black evening waistcoat or a cummerbund; black, patent leather or calf Oxfords or court shoes; cuff links and shirt studs; accessories.

Again, a variety of dresses is worn by women, including cocktail dresses, little black dresses, and evening gowns.


In Western formal state ceremonies and social functions, diplomats, foreign dignitaries, and guests of honour wear Western formal dress if not wearing their own national dress.

Many cultures have formal evening and day dress, for example:

  • Bunad — worn as formal dress by women and men in Norway.
  • Sari — worn by women in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • Shalwar Qameez — worn by men and women in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
  • Dashiki — worn by men in West African countries
  • Barong Tagalog — worn by men in the Philippines
  • Kebaya — worn by women in Indonesia
  • Qipao — a modern female variation of the Qing Dynasty silk dress, characterized by a high mandarin collar, and side open slits of varying lengths. It can be sleeveless, short, elbow or long sleeve, and has been adopted by most Chinese women as a traditional Chinese formal or informal wear, depending on materials and occasions.
  • Changshan — a long male version of the qipao, which originated during the Ming-Qing Dynasty. It can be of cotton for ordinary wear, or of silk for those within aristocratic families. Beneath the changshan, the male generally wears white mandarin-collar long-sleeve shirt and a pair of dark colored long pants. Like the qipao, this changshan male gown has slits on both sides (at least knee level) as well. Worn nowadays either by Chinese men in the martial arts world, or as a formal attire for weddings to match the qipao the bride wears. Recently, the Chinese government has adopted the Tangzhuang for formal events.
  • Av Pak — both traditional and modern embroided blouse worn by women in Cambodia at Special occasion, traditional festival and Formal show.

See also


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