Holiday season, aka the most wonderful time of the year, is just weeks away. What's less than wonderful, though, is the "What do I wear?" panic when faced with an onslaught of confusing party dress codes. To prepare for the round of champagne-fueled festivities ahead, we turned to the experts—and Amal Clooney's head-turning style—to figure out exactly what to wear for each occasion.
First, we had to know: How crucial is it to abide by the dress code after you've accepted the invite? "For weddings, black ties, and business occasions, do not mess with the dress code. Holiday parties that are social give you more leeway," answers Lizzie Post, co-host of Awesome Etiquette on American Public Media's podcast and great-great granddaughter of etiquette icon Emily Post. She also reminds us not to overshadow the host, especially when the event is in celebration of someone specific.
Camille Seydoux, stylist (and sister!) to Spectre's Lea Seydoux, agrees. "Feel good, but show some respect. Don't come in jeans and a baggy T-shirt," she says. "If you don’t show some respect to the dress code, you're not going to be invited anymore. It's always good to be chic, no matter what."
With that in mind, below are 8 holiday party dress codes defined by the professionals themselves.
Black tie attire requires tuxedos for men, but for women, it's all about the hemline, which is why Clooney opted for a floor-length Maison Margiela piece at this year's Met Gala (above). "Ninety percent of the time black tie means a formal gown and you should be looking at something that is floor-length," Post explains, despite today's preference for knee-length dresses. "We do say a cocktail dress is OK, but it should be very formal. It can't be just some jersey knit, no-wrinkle type thing. You need to dress it up, especially if you decide to go short."
Seydoux puts it in layman's terms: "Black tie means you need to be fancy. You need to have a beautiful long dress, maybe ball gown." Troy Williams, an L.A.-based event planner who has staged parties for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, says this dress code gives you the freedom to go long and whip out the good jewelry. "This is your Met Gala, like the top of the dressing chain, the top of the heap," he says.
Formal style calls for the same cues as black tie. However, knee-length pieces are accepted for women, while men must still rock a tuxedo, Post says. But what if you don't have a gorgeous taffeta gown stuffed in the depths of your closet? "When in doubt, women will never go wrong with a black dress," Williams says. Seydoux agrees, but it's all about the fit and the accessories for her. "The fit is the most important thing," she explains. "You can wear anything you want with a black dress, but have fun with it, like a statement jewel, an embellished clutch, or strappy high-heel."
2. BLACK TIE-OPTIONAL
Post takes an "anything goes" approach to this code, and suggests you stick to a cocktail dress you'd consider for a formal event or even a pair of sleek separates. "Older women tend to get away with stunning evening pantsuits. It's simply that you've attended enough social functions that you're completely allowed to wear that," she says. "This gives your men the option of wearing a black suit that looks like a tuxedo, while women can push the fashion forward."
3. CREATIVE BLACK TIE
Here's where you can really have fun. "This is really pushing your artistic fashion sense," Williams explains. "Women can really pump up the color and sparkle. This is their opportunity to pull out what they've been dying to wear." For men, he explains that the style M.O. is popular in the South, where it's often OK (depending on your host) to wear tuxedos with jeans, and to experiment with color, prints, texture (think velvet jackets), and volume, like out-of-proportion bow ties. In either instance, Post says, it's important to pay attention to the theme, as it determines how "creative" you can get. In summary: Reach for dressy cocktail pieces with fun accessories.
This is your opportunity to don your favorite knee-length LBD or a trendier mix of separates that are sexy, flirty, and evening-appropriate. There’s no need for a ball gown or high heels. "If I was going to a cocktail party in the wintertime, for example, I would wear a long skirt with a pair of slightly more casual boots—not as casual as Ugg boots, but it might be a tall pair," Post suggests. For Seydoux, it's about feeling comfortable and, once more, playing with accessories. "If you don't like high heels, don't wear high heels," she continues. "It's not beautiful to see a woman who can't walk in them. If you can't, wear beautiful flat shoes."
There is one style rule she always follows, however. "Never wear black shoes with a black outfit. Never. It's boring. Never be boring." Williams also suggests a suit for women, complete "with some rocking Louboutins and sexy, gorgeous jewelry." He, too, abides by one rule: "I never like jeans when it comes to cocktail."
Semi-formal attire follows in the same vein as cocktail in that cocktail dresses and polished separates are encouraged. How do you step outside of the LBD box, though? Take a cue from the French, Seydoux suggests. "The French woman is going to wear a beautiful, well-tailored suit from Saint Laurent with flat shoes. And maybe she's going to wear a red lip with messy hair," she says. Try layering a graphic tee underneath your suit to achieve that Parisian joie de vivre aesthetic. "If you are more of a classic girl, don't try to be 'too fashion,'" Seydoux continues. "Some women don't like to wear dresses, so choose a beautiful, feminine shoe that pairs well with comfortable pants."
Themed holiday parties tend to fit into the festive category, so pay close attention to the invitation. "You can be super fashionable or you can whip out super tacky sweaters. Know who your host is and what the vibe is," Williams suggests. Post also suggests chunkier jewelry, and, for example, red, green, gold, and silver hues for themed events. "Think about the season," she says. "Winter itself can be a little bit festive, without getting hokey." Seydoux agrees: "You can wear a sparkling dress and have super crazy high heels from fashion labels, like Charlotte Olympia. Have fun!"
7. BUSINESS CASUAL
What to wear to a work-related holiday party is somewhat trickier. It depends on your work environment, Williams says, but it's OK to take things up a notch: "Some people are super casual at work, so this is your chance to step it up and clean up a little bit."
"For a work-related event, you really need to tone down skin exposure," Post adds. "Try a dress that has sleeves, or if you want to sport a spaghetti strap dress, you might wear a little jacket over it. It can be stylish, fun, and still beautiful, but it needs to be appropriate for your industry and company. You're not going to want to wear a super deep-V cocktail dress that's glittery and sparkly. It's also not a floor-length ball gown."