Dress Codes and reasons to follow them.

I am a strong believer dressing, saying and doing exactly as you please, but dress codes do have some value. Dress codes are designed to make everyone feel more comfortable, they are an official social equalizer.

Under-dressing despite a written dress code is one of the most common and least sensible breaches of etiquette. It says a lot.

First and foremost, under-dressing expresses disrespect for the host and venue. Wearing cocktail to a formal event openly says ‘your event is not worth my effort’. Yet people, good, kind, polite people, do it all the time, there must be a strong motivator behind this phenomenon.

The motivator is insecurity. Disrespect for one’s peers is a classic sign of personal insecurity, because it’s a fairly effective method of dealing with said insecurity. When a person puts their peers down, they feel elevated above those peers, which makes them feel more secure about their social status. Most people do this periodically, when threatened. I certainly do, even though it makes me look like a twat. Most people find an event with a dress code mildly intimidating, and the natural response for many is to employ an easy, undemanding form of disrespect toward the threatening party (the host or hosts).

There is also an element of fear that accompanies formal attire. Being ‘dressed up’ attracts attention, which is, in itself, undesirable to some. Attracting attention comes with its own set of personal threats. What if you look silly, or fat, or over-dressed? If you’re over-dressed, will everyone think this little party is the most exciting event of your year? Under-dressing is beginning to look like the safest option, but don’t let anxiety control your decisions.  Under-dressing makes people look both disrespectful and insecure, and neither of those traits will do anything flattering for anyone.

Under-dressing can also imply many things to fellow guests: poor education (not understanding the dress code), poverty (inability to afford anything that could fit the dress code), social inexperience (never being invited to such an event before), and even gate crashing (not receiving an invitation and therefore not seeing the dress code).

Over-dressing is rarely a problem to anyone. Hosts feel validated by it, venues like the apparent social elevation, guests feel more confident about their own formalwear, the wearer is complimented all night and their date feels lucky and proud. Of course, dull, jealous under-dressed women sit in the corner sniggering, but given the choice between joining them, and being their newest idol, I know which I would choose. It is a problem when you outshine the bride/birthday girl, wear something uncomfortable or look truly out of place, but I think you can avoid such problems fairly easily.

I trust you to dress up, trust yourself.

Yours, very truly indeed,


P.S. What do the various dress codes actually mean? That is an article for another time, but until then, Wikipedia!


4 thoughts on “Dress Codes and reasons to follow them.

  1. Dear Madelyn,
    I am hoping you can help me with a distressing dressing dilemma.
    I have recently received an invitation, from a dear friend, to a ‘fancy dress party’. I am to come as my favourite cat from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. You see, my dear friend is of a flamboyant personality, whilst I fear that I am more of the type that, as you suggest, is uncomfortable attracting attention through my manner of dress. My therapist is working with me on this, although I have been noticing recently that in some quarters it is believed that fully half of the population is of this introverted type.
    I must admit that I have been considering attending in ordinary cocktail attire, but I would be mortified to feel that I am showing disrespect to my (dear) host and venue. I must also admit that I would not like it to be assumed that I did not understand the dress code, couldn’t afford to dress as a cat or have not been invited to such a function in the past. I do feel confident, however, that my demeanor will not be taken as that of a gate crasher.
    I also fear that a mere tail pinned to my party clothes will not suffice in this case (and is most certainly against the letter of the specified dress code).
    I see now that my options are very limited.
    As I have already acquired a costume in an attempt to increase my comfort level by wearing it around the house, I am now seriously considering sending it to the party, unaccompanied, in my place. I feel that this will avert many of the pitfalls you have pointed out, and I can imagine the glee on my dear friend’s face as she unveils this treasure (it IS a truly spectacular costume) in front of her other guests. My feeling is that this will add more to the occasion and to my friend’s pleasure than my uncomfortable or inappropriately attired presence could.
    I concede that I may have erred wildly in my judgement however, and thus I invite your judgement.
    Please advise.
    Most sincerely.
    Timid Cat


  2. Thank you for entrusting me with your dilemma.

    Although you might be nervous about wearing your costume, remember that you have all the same rights and abilities that allow fabulous, sparkly people to wear such costumes with poise. You may be shy, but you are not intrinsically less glamorous than anyone else.

    As I see it, you have two problems to overcome: firstly, preparing for the event without having a nervous breakdown. Secondly, enjoying the event without having to hide in the toilets for half the night.

    I’m sure friends, family, fellow commenters and wiki how will have good suggestions on what helps them. In particular, I strongly suggest you discuss this event with your psychologist. That has helped me far more than anything else. Here are my suggestions:

    Arrive with a friend. Arriving is by far the most nerve wracking part of any social event. You are suddenly in the middle of the party without having time to assess it. Arriving with a friend splits any attention in half and gives you someone to chat to so you’re never standing there alone feeling awkward. You could bring a date, offer a friend a lift, ask to get dressed at a fellow guest’s house, or take a family member. If none of those are options, you could arrive early, help with the party preparations and get dressed there.

    Give yourself options. Wear a shawl, jacket or coat over your costume. Wear plain, simple hair and make up, but take a fancy clip and some dramatic lipstick to amp it up if you feel comfortable later.

    Physiological chemical help… It might help to have a drink while you’re getting ready. It will not help to have five! A mild sedative such as Valium is good if you have one, although keep the dose low, or it will make you too sleepy.

    Do not give yourself too much time to prepare. Given too much time, most people will agonise over their outfit and become night-ruiningly anxious.

    Remember that the purpose of parties is enjoyment! Anyone trying to complicate, ruin or interfere with that is missing the point.

    I really hope my advice helps you. Please let me know how the event goes.

    Yours sincerely,



  3. Thank you for your thoughtful response.
    I feel you have much to offer a reader who finds themself in the position of aspiring to attend a function dressed as a cat, yet finds they lack the necessary courage. I would chance to say that your sound advice would equally apply to other social situations.
    As you suggested, friends and family have been full of suggestions and the internet has been especially helpful (particularly with regards to the works of Mr Lloyd-Webber). Alas my psychologist seems to be mainly preoccupied with the issue of WHICH of the cats in question I most see myself as.
    And yet I now tend to feel that my intrinsic glamour may not be best served by reference to this particular work by this particular composer. I have considered asking my dear friend if we might widen the parameters somewhat to include some of his later works – but I think you would probably agree that this wouldn’t show quite the right spirit.
    Alas I think I must conclude that this event is not the one for me. It is my sincere hope that my dear friend’s event is well attended by friends and acquaintances who feel that they are perfectly able to express themselves as cats, and that my absence will not be grieved.
    I now feel that it is better to risk disappointing in this way, rather than causing offence with a lacklustre performance and general inability to commit.
    Realising the need to be more proactive in shaping my own social life I am now considering a get-together of my own.
    My theme will be Middle Earth.
    Almost sincerely,
    Newly Confident Hobbit


    • Thank your for your story. I feel that cat related advice blogging is truly my calling and I am so glad you have found wisdom in my rant.

      P.S. I saw Alan Davies and you didn’t, he loved my g-string!


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