Shopping for an evening dress is only part of the what-should-I-wear challenge. Understanding what type of dress is appropriate for an occasion can be a big hurdle, too. In the movies, the handsome lead characters wear whatever they want, wherever they want. In real life though, there's usually a dress code. It may not be written down, and it's likely a loose set of rules, but you're better off knowing what's expected sooner rather than later -- or too late.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid embarrassment is to ask about the appropriate dress for an occasion in advance. Your company Christmas party or other gathering could easily be casual -- or formal -- so getting the straight scoop from human resources or someone else in the know is the best way to avoid disaster. If there's no one to ask how to dress, you can always use an approach that's worked for decades (if not centuries): Ask other women who are planning on attending what they'll be wearing. A large enough consensus is as good as a written note from your host.
A description of the occasion can also give you the clues you need to dress appropriately. Here are some examples:
- Cocktail parties -- The classic cocktail dress is short (but not too short) and dressy. Leave the long gown at home for this one. Cocktail parties are usually somewhat conservative, from a wardrobe perspective anyway. If a dress looks too daring, it probably is. Steer clear of very revealing or tight dresses in favor of something more refined and subdued. Your little black dress is a perfect cocktail party option. The type of garment you'd wear to a cocktail party is also appropriate for what's often called "business formal" attire. Think nice, but not too sexy.
- After five occasions -- Cocktail party attire is appropriate.
- The opera -- Formal attire is expected: This typically means a cocktail dress, long gown, dressy pant suit or fancy coordinated separates.
- Black tie affairs -- Formal attire is expected. If an invitation indicates "black tie" but with a qualification, there may be wiggle room for a broader interpretation that could include a somewhat less fancy outfit, say something lightweight for an outdoor event.
- White tie affairs -- This is as formal as it gets. Think Cinderella after her Fairy Godmother's visit. Appropriate attire includes evening gowns and ball gowns (full length). If you've been waiting for the right occasion to wear Grandma's diamond earrings, this is it.
- On a cruise -- Cruise lines are becoming somewhat more casual in their approach to evening dining, but be sure to read the literature before you pack. You may just need formal attire if you're eating in the main dining room.
- An evening wedding -- The dress code should be spelled out in the invitation. After five styles (cocktail dresses) are common. If you have doubts, ask.