The Complete GQ Guide To Dress Codes

16 February 2020
Style, Dress Code, Black Tie, Formal, Office style, Beach Style, Traditional Dress, Casual, Smart Casual, Business Casual

From smart casual to thobes, black tie to beach formal: this is how to navigate modern dress codes

Dress codes seem like a good idea on paper, especially if you believe that selecting something to wear should be fun, not stressful.

That is, until an invite arrives in your inbox suggesting you wear 'beach formal'. The trend for breaking away from traditional ‘black tie’, office-appropriate and casual modes of dressing means that dress codes have become near unfathomable.

Read More: How Guests Navigated The Dress Code At The GQ Awards

One man’s beach casual could well be another’s poolside formal. Fortunately, GQ knows the experts needed to help crack the (dress) code, so you can spend less time dressing and more time relaxing.

Black Tie

Given that black tie is the gold standard for the most celebrated occasions (think company awards ceremonies, big weddings and milestone birthdays), it's likely that a) you won't wear it very often and b) you’ll almost certainly be photographed in it.

If the dress code is strictly 'black tie' and not 'black tie with a twist', your outfit should comprise a single- or double-breasted tuxedo in wool, with silk peak or shawl lapels and covered buttons. Though, as the name suggests, this is usually black, white dinner jackets are also common in hot climates, as is midnight blue, which actually looks darker than black under artificial lighting.

Read More: The New Rules of Black Tie

Now, back to point ‘a’. It’s unlikely you’ll wear black tie very often, so make the effort to do it correctly. You need tuxedo trousers (which feature a single satin or grosgrain stripe down the outside of each leg), a pressed white dinner shirt— look for one with a textured bib-front (ask in-store), black patent shoes and always, always, always a self-tie bow tie. Never a regular tie.

Expert tip: "A well-fitting dinner suit will provide you with years of service, assuming you take good care of it, so it pays to invest in bespoke rather than rent." - Simon Cundey, Managing Director of Henry Poole, the Savile Row tailor that invented the dinner jacket.

Beach Formal

Assuming head-scratching monikers like 'tropical business' and 'Jumeirah Beach best' were also on the cards at some point, you can breathe a sigh of relief that your host opted for this relatively straightforward dress code.

Often deployed at outdoor weddings and business lunches, beach formal means you need to look good, but within the limits imposed by sun, sweat and sand. Which admittedly is no walk on the, well, you get it.

To nail the look without melting, invest in a climate-friendly suit in a light colour (cream, ivory, sky blue or even pink) and fabric like cotton, linen or hopsack. Then, if the occasion allows for it, lean into the vibes by swapping out your classic white button-up for a Cuban collar shirt and finish with a pair of espadrilles. This almost goes without saying but, no need for socks, either.

Expert tip: "A light linen suit is an effortless approach to formal dressing in the warmer months. Team a double-breasted jacket with a white tee and white sneakers for a more relaxed feel." - Chris Brown, David Beckham's stylist.

The New Office

In recent years, the rules surrounding what men wear to work have been changing faster than you can say "out of office." Today, the CEO of a FTSE 100 business is just as likely to be spotted in a hoodie and sliders as he is in a suit and tie.

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Every workplace (and indeed, every country) is different, so you'll have to figure out what will fly with your HR department. The smart move, however, is to look for clothes that will serve you well for the 9-5 but can also hit their targets at the weekend.

To be in with the best chance of standing out for all the right reasons, add unstructured tailoring, grandad collar shirts and slim-fit chinos into your rotation; all of which can form part of a more dressed-up outfit when the situation demands it.

Read More: Your New Office Style Has Arrived – And It's Taking You To The Top

Expert tip: "If you think Oxfords are too formal and trainers too casual, try the most versatile of shoes: the Chelsea boot. They can be worn with anything - suits, jeans, chinos, ever a cuffed jogging pant." - David Gandy, international model.

Traditional Dress

The three-piece suit is an entirely western mode of formal dressing. Across the Arabian Gulf, wearing traditional dress – with a few subtle additions – is a flex strong enough to rival any shoulder-padded Gordon Gekko.

Read More: The New Rules Of Middle Eastern Menswear

A fixture of Middle Eastern menswear since the early 19th century, the thobe, dishdasha or kandura, depending on where in the region you’re wearing it, has strength in its simplicity. The key though, is in the details. Traditional dress dictates that a long robe should be worn but thobes are available in colours like navy and black. Small details like a shawl collar offer a break from the norm as well.

Like most formal staples, the thobe can always be re-thought but this needs to done with some smart accessories. Contrasting sneakers, for instance or a blazer worn over it will change things up.

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Expert tip: "Even when wearing traditional dress, it's important to express yourself. Accessorise with items that compliment your personal style such as sneakers, watches or bracelets." Saudi designer Hatem Alakeel.

Smart Casual

Smart-casual is nigh-on impossible to define. Even the chaps at British etiquette guide Debrett's struggle, pointing out that a printed smart-casual invitation suggests a smarter smart-casual event than an invite sent by text or email, which makes smart-casual more casual. Does anyone else's head hurt?

The key here is not to worry about being overdressed. Unless you’ve arrived in a top hat and tails, people aren’t going to worry that you looked too good. They will, however, remember that time you looked scruffy.

Read More: Rami Malek Gives us a Lesson in Smart-Casual

Take a practical approach and start casual, then by change one piece at a time, make it smarter. Swap jeans for cotton or wool trousers, trainers for loafers, a T-shirt for a knitted polo shirt.

Expert tip: "It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed. If in doubt, wear an unstructured blazer; it's more relaxed than traditional tailoring and shows you made an effort." - Mr Porter Style Director, Olie Arnold.


Short of wearing pyjamas to an outdoor barbecue, you really can't go wrong when it comes to dressing casually. Essentially the dress code for when there is no dress code, use this as an open invitation to show off your signature style by throwing on whatever you feel most comfortable in.

Of course, even when not dressing smart, it pays to think it through. Take into account the location of the event, the time of day and weather – all of which will have an impact on what you’ll feel comfortable in and subsequently how you look.

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If in doubt, dress loose. Comfort fits are all over menswear stores, from high-street to high end. A loose-fitting shirt worn over wide-legged jersey trousers with a clean pair of sneakers will feel great to wear and won’t look lazy. Oh, and if the invite asks for "dressy casual", consider investing in new friends.

Expert tip: "Aside from sneakers, the ultimate marker of a casual look is a relaxed fit. Try slightly looser, draped garments that skim the body rather than sit closely all over." - Sarah Ann Murray, a stylist who has dressed Samuel L Jackson and Kit Harrington.

Business Casual

Old news, working vacation, jumbo shrimp; the modern world is full of oxymorons. But few are as confusing as business casual. After all, whether you're a lifeguard or a stockbroker, your business isn't something you want to be casual about.

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With roots that can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Hawaiian Fashion Guild came up with 'Aloha Fridays', and later American workwear brand Dockers produced their Guide To Casual Business Wear, business-casual has generally referred to office-appropriate clothes.

Thanks to the relaxed bro-culture of the start-ups dominating the conversation in office behaviour, business casual has become an almost redundant phrase. But consider this: if you’re the billionaire CEO of a multinational tech start-up, wearing a tracksuit to the office is irrelevant. If you’re not a billionaire, or a CEO, it does.

Business casual means conceding that ‘business’ doesn’t have to be done by people in three-piece suits, without looking like you just woke up from an afternoon nap on your sofa.

Err on the side of business and wear dark, neutral colours- navy, grey, black, and brown. Make sure everything you wear is clean, and if in doubt, buy one good, unstructured blazer and wear it over everything.

Read More: Here's A Cheat Sheet on How To Style For Bizzaro Dress Codes

Expert tip: "An unlined blazer in a solid colour or a checked sports jacket, worn with chino-style trousers and a button-down Oxford cotton shirt, will keep you sharp.". - Eric Musgrave, author of Sharp Suits: A Celebration of Men's Tailoring.