Dress Codes Decoded: What To Wear For Party Season

By Dan Ahwa
Party season is kicking off. Photo / Mara Sommer

We’re almost on the home run for 2023, and it’s about this time of year when everyone prepares for a season of entertainment and festivities. Part of the process is about navigating the range of dress codes coming your way. If in doubt, err towards the side of being overdressed,

As party invitations start trickling in from November onwards, it’s normal to feel somewhat nonplussed about what to wear. Many of us have become accustomed to hybrid working and it’s no wonder some of this flexibility is reflected in our daily wardrobes. Coupled with our national preference to err on the side of casual, just how much effort is required when it comes to dressing “up” for party season?

When it comes to the festivity of celebrating with colleagues, family and friends, a little effort can go a long way, and there’s a range of helpful ways to combat outfit uncertainty with a little preparation. Whether you’re attending a cocktail party straight after work or an al fresco long lunch, or perhaps in some rare cases RSVPing to the small renaissance of black-tie events, the overarching memo is to consider the power of being overdressed as opposed to being underdressed.

While there might be specific themes or even dress-ups that can offer up plenty of experimentation and opportunity to play, the below suggestions are a basic guide to understanding what to wear when - along with some helpful recommendations of local brands offering outfit formulas that are easy to reference.

What To Wear To A Cocktail Party

The invitation says drinks start at 5pm/6pm, and for many, this might mean having to traipse directly from the office to the venue with no time to duck back home to freshen up. So pack wisely on the day and consider thinking about leaving some things behind at work if you can.

One good idea is to wear something that can segue from work to cocktail with the swift addition of some thoughtful accessories and shoes, so while it might sound basic, a black dress does wonders here. Something in a special fabric that can be layered with a blazer for work, and then taken off for after-five drinks, or if you’re able to, a spare outfit you can change into easily. For guys, think about throwing on an easy blazer over a T-shirt or a smart dress shirt that can be worn with smart trousers — avoid wearing jeans unless they’re dark and clean-cut. Your host expects some level of elevated dressing here.

Again, shoes are a pivotal part of looking respectful at a cocktail event, where most likely you’ll be doing a lot of standing. The best thing about this dress code is that it’s the one that possibly most aligns with our hybrid working lives, so consider a semi-formal approach. The key is to look relaxed yet smart, allowing for more opportunity to play with colour and shape.

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Politix has a range of suiting that offers a contemporary silhouette that’s perfect for a cocktail event. Tailored suit jacket, $399, and Tailored dress trousers, $199.

An Aje midi dress, $835, is also an appropriate length for a cocktail event and offers a colour that’s vibrant and bold.

Crane Brothers is synonymous with understanding men’s dress codes. A linen blazer is perfect for both cocktail and casual events. Crane Brothers Irish linen jacket, $1195, is particularly great teamed with a dark dress shirt and trousers.

For a classic LBD, Paris Georgia offers up this great option, $790, that’s sophisticated and elegant and made from 100 per cent recycled polyester.

What To Wear To A Smart-Casual Party

Smart-casual is basically code for “jeans are fine”. Perhaps try a sandal or a simple flat that works well in a festive workplace environment.

Length is important here, so obviously don’t opt for a full-length gown — if it’s a full-length anything, then a simple summer maxi dress will suffice. Smart-casual is much like business-casual, tidy but with a far more casual approach, like a T-shirt under a blazer or perhaps the ubiquitous clean-cut sneaker teamed with a summer dress.

Laid-back yet professional, this dress code is one that appeals to a wider demographic and is therefore one of the most reliable for work functions at this time of year. That’s not to say you need to play it safe. Have fun mixing casual and formal pieces that showcase your on-duty and off-duty personality easily. Styling is key, so choose your accessories wisely.

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Local menswear label Thom Morison has a range of great trousers and shirts that easily transition to a tidy-casual dress code, like this oversized shirt, $420, that works well unbuttoned and layered over a simple white T-shirt or singlet. Trousers $380.

Rebe is a brand synonymous with accessories and footwear, and its recent launch into ready-to-wear offers a great outfit formula for clean-cut casual separates like this boxy T-shirt, $120 (another great investment worth considering for a smart casual dress code), tucked inside a smart skirt, $295.

You can also try layering a T-shirt underneath a simple summer dress like this timeless number from Mina $475.

For something that can be worn from work to event with little fuss, you can’t look past the merits of a reliable shirtdress like this Penny Sage option, $490, great for summer workwear and easily worn undone and louche with sandals over togs for the holidays.

What To Wear To A Black-Tie Party

I’ve been to one black-tie event this year, and it was an opportunity to dust off the Crane Brothers tuxedo I had made a few years ago for situations like this. Yes, it’s fine to hire a tux or a gown — there’s a veritable assortment of reliable hire places in town, but if you have the means to invest in a decent black-tie go-to outfit then why not opt for something timeless?

Again, a faithful, floor-length black dress is a reliable option if you want to play it safe. This offers ample opportunity to experiment with daring jewellery. Focus on one key statement, whether it’s a pair of earrings and a bracelet, or dinner watch, or smaller studs with a statement necklace. It’s all about getting the balance right with black-tie formalities. Keep in mind this is not the place to be lugging around a tote bag.

Consider a discreet evening bag or clutch. If you find clutch purses to be wholly impractical, there’s a range of fun mini pouch evening bags you can sling over your wrist. The most modern thing to do is to invest in a gown with pockets for superfluous things like cellphones and lipstick. For men, a black tie dress code requires some level of decorum so opt for a smart tux with a black tie or a bow tie, and maybe a silk pochette for added interest.

If the dress code extends to “creative black tie”, then you have permission to be a little more daring here too. Have fun with accessories and don’t be afraid to explore other colours or textures that might show your personality, from rich velvet to a floral boutonniere pinned to the lapel should the occasion require one. For women, a floor-sweeping hemline is still a safe bet, or if you like, try a tailored tuxedo with a soft blouse or a jumpsuit.

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Designer Wardrobe has a range of decent rentals on offer. For something classic you can accessorise easily, this reversible black Amari gown is a good starting point, also available to buy for $230.

Ruby also has a collection of fun party dresses on offer, available in a range of colours and sizes. The Ercolini maxi dress, $299, is just the right amount of sensuality required to make an evening dress stand out.

Black tie for men is a simple white shirt, black tux situation with the option of a tie or bow tie. Local family-owned business Rembrandt has a range of good options you can shop or hire. A tuxedo jacket like this Bryan Black tuxedo jacket begins from $649.

For an even more fabulous approach, the doyenne of black tie gowns Adrienne Winkelmann offers a bespoke range of gowns made in her atelier in Auckland that are perfect for business leaders and CEOs looking for something thoroughly unique like this striking Octavia dress, $4399, featuring a dramatic silk chiffon cape and a mesh bodice made with handcrafted lace.

What To Wear To A Casual Outdoor Party

Summer festivities in New Zealand are often taking place outdoors, which means being prepared for the elements. It’s wise to pack sunglasses, a hat and sunblock at these events. Opt for something in keeping with the environment you are in. If it’s an al fresco lunch, keep it fresh in smart linen and printed summer dresses. An all-white look is also ideal in this situation — but be careful when considering what to drink; red wine can be less forgiving than clear spirits and white wines on white fabrics. If you’re at the beach, you can go one step further and layer togs underneath a floating kaftan with smart sandals.

Shorts and short suits are also an ideal way to look unexpected, there’s something cool about tailoring in a more informal setting. If you’re having a festive celebration at a vineyard, consider a light cardigan or jacket for cooler evenings. Again, sneakers are fine here too, but they need to be tidy and clean, which is why so many people opt for the safety of a clean pair of tennis sneakers — they tend to look smart with any causal attire.

When it comes to menswear, this is a dress code that suits our national preference for keeping things simple. Menswear has generally come a long way, and now we’re finally seeing retailers like Barkers deliver things like open-collared camp shirts, which is a slight glimmer of hope that men and their attitude to clothes have finally become less insufferably self-conscious. The boxy 50s-style cut allows you to wear one with jeans or shorts untucked or unbuttoned, and it works just as well with a pair of shorts and sandals for a look that’s entirely appropriate for the great outdoors.

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Outdoor-casual needn’t necessarily be reduced to basics. Consider a beautifully draped dress with an abstract floral print for outdoor celebrations like this Lost And Led Astray Meadow print dress, $579. Great for all shapes, the gathered wrap-front top and wide, flowing sleeves make this one an ideal option for guests attending outdoor weddings this summer.

For men, a simple clean-cut, short-sleeved shirt like this Bergen Cuban shirt from Barkers, $120, is a safe bet.

Easily style with jeans or shorts. Kate Sylvester’s Robyn short, $369, make the perfect pair for summer workwear, or for outdoor casual events with a simple T-shirt.

And for the perfect summer dress, Twenty-seven Names’ joyful polka-dot print Who’s That Girl dress, $450, is perfect on its own with sandals or sneakers or layered over a fitted T-shirt for a nostalgic nod to the 90s.

Shop these new-season edits for the ultimate guide to dressing up this season.

From Smart Shirts To Dreamy Dresses, 16 Style Staples Under $300. Some of the best looks of the season are budget-friendly too.

15 Pairs Of Classic Black Sandals Ready To Stride Into The Heat. A style that will never go out of style, let these sandals be your staples.

15 Scene-Stealing Scrunchies To Elevate Your Up-Do. Fun, flouncy — and formidable. The scrunchie is as dependable as it is charmingly theatrical.

12 Boxy T-Shirts That Are Surprisingly Versatile For Summer (And How To Wear Them). Trussed up or dressed down, a T-shirt with a strong silhouette is an easy wardrobe update.

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