Infuriatingly Vague Holiday Party Dress Codes Explained

Don't panic when you see these dress codes on invitations. Here's what they really mean.

By Andrew Hoge


November 28, 2017

The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time—friends, family, food, celebrations. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that the season can be stressful too. Between deciding what gift to buy for the uncle you see once a year and conforming Christmas dinner to your niece’s new fad diet, it’s a lot to navigate as your social calendar fills up with a slew of holiday events.

And then there is the party invitation itself. Whether it’s sent via snail mail or Evite, you might run into a detail that makes you scratch your head: the dress code.

In 2017, the range of dress codes can make even the most seasoned event goer second guess their outfit selection. While it’s best to err on the side of being overdressed, it’s also uncomfortable to arrive in a sparkly cocktail dress only to find everyone else dressed in a T-shirt and blazer, as is par for the course in this tech-dressed city (Oh, Seattle).

Of course, your first glass of champagne will help alleviate that feeling. But to save you the embarrassment, we have deciphered the most common dress code terminology to get you through this holiday season.

Stay classy when you see “black tie,” Seattle. Photo courtesy of

Black Tie
Traditionally, this requires the guys to don a tux, crisp white shirt and black bow tie. For many occasions in the Pacific Northwest, it is acceptable to step out in a slightly toned-down (notice I did not say “casual”) version that is a black suit and bow tie. While the formal men’s ensemble for the most part remains the same year after year, there are so many more opportunities to show off your personality with a patterned bow tie or pair of socks. 

For women, your best bet is to wear a dark full-length gown while also taking your cue from the event host if possible. Attending a black-tie holiday wedding? A hemline that brushes the floor is the way to go. If, on the other hand, you are attending a private soirée, it’s perfectly appropriate to wear a sheath cocktail (knee-length) dress. 

Creative Black Tie
This is your opportunity to show off your artistic flair. For the gentlemen, stick to a tux jacket but enjoy some creative freedom; perhaps a darker colored shirt or statement shoes. Ladies, this is your chance to wear something show-stopping. Think somewhere in between the Met Gala and a chic party at an artist’s loft with your best bet being a trendy, full-length gown. A splash of color or interesting embroidery will do the trick. You can also get creative with your accessories, for example a set of refined Geode earrings and a bracelet (how very PNW!).

“Cocktail” attire means keep it simple and sophisticated. Photos courtesy of

For the guys, this one is pretty straightforward: suit and tie. Just skip the jeans. If your host is requesting cocktail attire, especially around the holidays, they are probably hoping for an elevated event. For women, your foolproof option here is a cocktail dress and stilettos. As far as colors are concerned, you can’t go wrong with black or navy, but if you’re feeling especially festive, try a bold statement color. That said, for some events, a fresh take such as a jumpsuit is acceptable. Just save the sequins for “festive” attire (see below). 

Fellas, embrace the holiday season with a “festive” burgundy or dark red. Photo courtesy of

If your invitation reads festive, then you have permission to lean into the holidays. By no means should you consider wearing your favorite holiday sweater (c’mon!). But feel free to make your outfit pop. The best way for men to accomplish this is by adopting holiday colors like burgundy and forest green, or consider cranberry or sage for a more contemporary color scheme. Another option is throwing on a fitted velvet blazer (just don’t be the guy who shows up in full velvet ensemble).

Ladies, this is your chance to make your outfit sparkle, literally. Add subtle details such as statement jewelry, a sparkly belt over your dress or go big with sequins. Just keep the host in mind to guide your decision as to whether you wear a cocktail dress or full-length gown. 

For many Seattleites, this dress code might be the most difficult to decipher considering that many of us enjoy a fairly casual work environment. Before that holiday business party, think about what your boss would wear. Remember the adage “dress for the job you want” and aim to dress at the same level as your most senior colleague in the room.

Gentlemen, this might be as simple as jeans and a button-down shirt, but lean toward fitted denim and a dark wash this time of year. If the typical office dress code looks like a scene right out of Mad Men, lose the tie and replace it with a festive pocket square.

For women, stick with an outfit you’d normally wear to the office but jazz it up for the occasion. For example, swap your favorite pantsuit for a romper and bolero or trade in the little black dress and business jacket for a cocktail dress with pop of color and a shawl.


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