Formal or Informal: How to Dress for Each Occasion

Claire Miles
Jul 26, 2022

To always dress correctly for the occasion, which is often dictated by the appropriate level of formality, is one of the fundamental principles of classic style. But which items of clothes, and how do they compare to one another, are suitable for various degrees of formality? You wouldn’t choose the same things for office work or a weekend breakfast with friends as you would for a Mayor-hosted event. In this post, we outline some broad guidelines for judging the formality of almost every menswear item and provide you with a list of hints to help you evaluate where it stands on the casual-to-formal spectrum.

There are certain general guidelines you may apply to quickly identify where each piece of clothing and accessory sits on the formality spectrum. Brighter hues typically provide a more relaxed vibe than somber ones. For instance, a mid-blue suit is less formal than a navy or charcoal gray one. Consider hues like beige, white, or light blue that one might generally wear in the summer as casual attire, regardless of the season, as a helpful strategy for sorting things out. In addition to being less vibrant than blue or gray, brown also has a more laid-back vibe.

 Group of guests seen outside Mykke Hofmann during Copenhagen Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2020

Getty Images / Getty Images Entertainment
/ Christian Vierig

A pair of pants is considered to be more formal than one with a smooth front if it has a sharp crease in the middle of the legs. The latter would also include “chinos” and “jeans,” while the former are “dress pants.” Because chinos are often made of cotton or linen whereas formal pants are typically made of wool, the “crease” separation also follows the rule of materials. In my opinion, wool maintains its shape considerably better than cotton or linen.

Knowing if and to what extent a piece of clothing in your closet is professional or informal might be crucial. It can assist you in determining whether what you are wearing is appropriate for the occasion or whether it is very formal for casual settings. Fortunately, there are several characteristics and identifiers that make it easier to determine where things fall on the formality scale and, consequently, which ones fit together.