If you're anything like my family, everyone calls to discuss what they will be wearing to an event. The tricky part is always in distinguishing what type of event calls for what type of dress. Hopefully this will help put your nerves at ease to make sure you don't show up at a Black Tie event in December wearing Festive Attire!
A Black Tie invitation calls for formal attire. Men wear tuxedos, women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.
Formal usually means the same as Black Tie, but in some trendier cities like New York or Los Angeles, it could mean a black shirt, no tie with a tux. Women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.
More about formal dresses:
A White Tie or Ultra-formal invitation requires men wear full dress, with white tie, vest, shirt. Women wear long gowns.
Black Tie Optional
A Black Tie Optional or Black Tie Invited gives you the option of wearing a tuxedo or formal dress, but it should clue you into the formality of the event, meaning a dark suit and tie would be your other option. Women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.
Creative Black Tie
Creative Black Tie leaves room for trendy interpretations of formal wear. He can go more modern with a tux -- maybe a black shirt, no tie. She wears long or short dresses or evening separates.
Sometimes, themed parties call for dress codes like Texas Black Tie or other variations of Creative Black Tie. In that situation, you can have more fun with it, choosing a dressy look with a theme (for him, it could be a tux with boots and for her it could be a long dress paired with Southwestern style silver belt and jewelry).
Semi-Formal or After Five means that tuxes are not required, nor are long dresses. An evening wedding (after 6 PM) would still dictate dark suits for him, and a cocktail dress for her. Daytime semi-formal events mean a suit for him and an appropriate short dress or dressy suit for her.
Business Formal is the same as Semi-Formal for him, but for women it suggests that women opt for more tailored dressy suits and dresses (nothing too slinky or sexy).
Cocktail Attire means short, elegant dresses for her and dark suits for him.
More about cocktail dresses: Best Little Black Dresses
Informal is often interpreted as the same as Casual but it actually calls for the same dress as Semi-Formal -- dark suits for him, short dresses for her -- especially when associated with a wedding or special event.
Festive Attire is usually seen around the holidays, with the mood of the party being Informal or Semi-Formal. For her, it means to choose looks with a bit of sparkle or holiday bent (i.e. a beaded sweater with black pants, a red silk blouse with a black skirt).
Dressy Casual calls for dressed-up versions of casual looks. For him, it could be trousers and a sportcoat, for her a dressy pants look. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts and other casual looks are not appropriate for Dressy Casual.
Casual generally means anything goes.