I must confess I’m a stickler when it comes to dress code. Few things annoy me more than the casual disregard of an official dress code, be it for a wedding, business conference or formal event. Only last week I attended a fundraising ball for which ‘cocktail dress’ was the specified dress code. Sadly, only a handful of the two hundred ladies turned up in the correct attire, the majority opting to wear formal evening dress instead. In a world where information is available, quite literally, at the touch of a button, ignorance is no excuse; those unsure of the cocktail dress etiquette could quite easily have researched it rather than disrespecting their host and ignoring the stated policy.

Dress codes are specified for a reason. From the host’s point of view, they ensure that a certain standard of dress is observed. However, they are also there for the avoidance of doubt allowing guests to dress appropriately safe in the knowledge they won’t stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

For me, the very mention of ‘cocktail dress’ conjures an image of a short glitzy frock paired with strappy heels and a sequinned clutch. It suggests a party atmosphere which is neither too formal nor too casual but requires maximum effort by the guests to arrive looking stylish and chic. But this particular dress code is perhaps the most flexible and can include jumpsuits, skirt suits and short skirts as well as the favoured strappy dress.

By contrast, I’ve lost count of the number of ‘evening dress’ events I’ve attended where there have been more short dresses than long. If evening dress is the specified dress code, the host is expecting long evening gowns – not short, party frocks more suited to a Dubai night club.

Contrary to what a designated dress code may suggest, it is not designed to clip your creative wings and curtail your personal style. Regardless of whether the ticket states ‘cocktail dress’ or ‘evening dress’ (or any other code) there are still endless ways to personalise your look and avoid drowning in a sea of conformity. Avoid the traditional black evening dress and choose a brightly coloured gown (glistening green, brilliant blue or radiant red) or turn heads in a metallic cocktail dress with sequins or tassels. You can even decorate your hair with jewells and make a statement with eye catching jewellery.

Of course, it’s not just women who get it wrong when it comes to dress code. Men are also guilty of the odd faux pas regarding costume etiquette. Despite the obvious descriptions such as black tie, white tie or dinner jacket, men still fail to observe the correct dress code, pushing the boundaries of tradition and, in doing so, disrespecting their hosts. Black tie means black tie, the very name announcing a formal occasion with no room for doubt. Similarly, ‘morning dress’ or ‘lounge suit’ are indicative of what is required with little or no margin for error.

Naturally, everyone wants to look their best when attending parties and events but modifying your understanding of the dress code or worse still, ignoring it altogether, shows blatant disregard to the host. Dressing inappropriately also highlights your ignorance when it comes to etiquette and tradition, an obvious sign of discourtesy or, at the very least, naivety.

Admittedly, event hosts are sometimes the authors of their own misfortune. If, for example, they fail to include a dress code on their tickets/invitations, then they can’t complain when guests are not dressed as expected. Dress codes should always be absolutely clear. And, regardless of the occasion, if you’re in any doubt about the dress code, ask the host what he/she expects. Adhering to the dress code is a sign of good manners and it’s better to be remembered for your graciousness than it is for your contempt.

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