Ladder of Formality


July 5th, 2018

When you see “cocktail attire” on an event invite, do you really know what that means? What about “Smart Casual”? Menswear can be complicated. Different events call for different levels of formality, but knowing how to dress for these occasions isn’t entirely straightforward.

You never want to be the guy who is underdressed for a business interview or party. Hopefully we can clear up some of your dress code dilemmas for you here with our Ladder of Formality.

Ladder of formality


How formal something is usually comes down to colour, fit, pattern, and texture.
Ladder of formality rules
If you’ve ever been left scratching your head when you’re told a dress code, read up on our Ladder of Formality so you never have to question your look again.


Formal attire is at the top of the ladder. It encompasses the fanciest of occasions, and will be your go-to style for most major formal events. There are a few different event types that fall under this rung on the ladder, so if you get an event invite that says “Formal,” it’s probably best to clarify exactly which level the host means. Here are three of the more common formal sub-categories:



Image via Corneliani
White tie is the most formal attire. It’s more common in Europe than it is here in North America. Think “Downton Abbey.” Unless you’re invited to the Royal Wedding, you won’t likely encounter this level of formality.
Dress code says: White Tie
What to wear:
  • Black tailcoat
  • White waistcoat
  • White shirt with a wingtip collar
  • White bow tie
  • High-shine patent shoe
  • Top hat optional



Black tie is a bit more common in North America than white tie. It is typically reserved for galas and fundraisers, or for the groom at a wedding. Black tie requires a tuxedo or dinner jacket in black or a very rich midnight blue, with a focus on smooth textures.
Dress code says: Black Tie, Formal, or Evening Wear
What to wear:
  • Tuxedo
  • Dinner jacket with satin lapels
  • White french cuff shirt
  • Black bowtie
  • Cufflinks
  • High-shine patent shoe


cocktail attire ladder of formality
Think sleek, sharp, and a little fun. You’ll see lots of events with Cocktail Attire on the invite in Edmonton. This is generally what to wear to most weddings. You can get a bit more playful with colours, textures, and patterns here, but keep it looking classy. You don’t want to look like you just came from the office.
Dress code says: Cocktail Attire or Semi-Formal
What to wear:
  • Black suit with peak lapel suggested
  • Velvet jackets
  • Dinner jackets
  • White, patterned, or solid-colour dress shirt
  • Patterned or solid-colour tie
  • Black or dark brown shoes
  • Pocket square


Business attire is what most professionals will want to default to. This is also typically what you should choose to wear for job interviews. Stay away from plain black suits here. Black should be reserved for more formal events and funerals.
Dress code says: Business or Business Professional
What to wear:
  • Navy, grey, or dark earth-tone
  • Sport jacket or suit with notched lapel
  • All dress shirts are appropriate
  • Dress trousers
  • Patterned silk tie
  • Pocket square optional but recommended
  • All dress shoes


We often see people abusing the “business casual” term. Business Casual is what you should be wearing for Casual Friday at the office. It is NOT golf polos and jeans. You can go for softer construction with these pieces, but they should still be tailored and professional. Business casual is great because it is so versatile. Go right from the office to dinner!
Dress code says: Business Casual
What to wear:
  • Sport jacket with patch pockets or flap pockets in a softer construction
  • Sport shirt with soft collar
  • Patterned tie (optional)
  • Pocket square optional (but will look great)
  • Creased cotton or wool trousers
  • Brown monk strap or derby shoes (try suede in the fall)


Smart casual is a bit more playful than business casual, but you should still look sharp. Perfect for evening drinks or summer stolls, this should be your go-to street style.
Dress code says: Smart or Smart Casual
What to wear:
  • Knitwear
  • Chinos or dark jeans
  • Patterned sport shirt with soft collar
  • Sport jacket or bomber
  • Loafers or trendy sneakers


A casual look is great for hitting the farmer’s market or a night at the pub. Casual doesn’t mean sloppy, though. We don’t want to see any holes in your shirt.
Dress code says: Casual (or there is no dress code)
What to wear:
  • Polo shirts
  • Quality t-shirts
  • Chinos or jeans
  • Denim jacket or bomber
  • Trendy sneakers


Casual ladder of formality
There are some items that are really just meant to be worn at home. While you may love your tattered Mötley Crüe shirt, it’s really not appropriate to wear out and about. Especially if we can see skin through it.
What to wear:
  • Sweat pants
  • Pullover hoodies
  • Sports shorts
  • Tattered t-shirts
  • Old, ripped jeans
The fashion police aren’t going to arrest you if you aren’t following these rules, and these lists aren’t exhaustive, but it is important to know what is categorized where in the ladder of formality so you feel confident in your outfit choice.
Fashion rules are made to be broken, but you absolutely must know the rules (and be able to follow them) before you can decide which ones to break. If you find yourself thinking you can “get away with” a particular outfit, chances are you should step it up a notch.
Let us know if you ever have questions about what to wear to an event. We love to help.
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