It was William Shakespeare who coined the phrase “the clothes maketh the man,” but if you turn up at your next event dressed in Elizabethan breeches, a ruff and a codpiece, you’re going to make a bad impression.

Dressing for events can be as difficult as arranging them, especially if your invitation speaks only in codes more opaque than Shakespearean language. With advice from Snapdragon, luxury party planners, we’ve compiled a guide of how to decode the dress codes, make the most of the rules and really show off your style.

  1. Black tie

The most common formal dress code, black tie is very much not what is says on the tin. Those encountering the phrase for the first time would assume it stipulates the wearing of a literal black tie. It does not. In fact, if you turn up at a corporate event or party in an actual black tie, you’re likely to look like you got lost on the way to a funeral.

Rather than black ties, black tie is all about wearing a suit, a shirt, nice shoes, and a tie (but probably not a black one if your event doesn’t have a mournful tone). This framework gives you room to manoeuvre. Try wearing a fun tie, perhaps with a pattern. Bow ties are even an option here, if you’re feeling fancy/quirky. (A bowtie that squirts water is probably a step too far.)

  1. White tie

While black tie is more common, white tie is the most formal dress code, meaning there is limited scope to display your unique style. Perhaps most helpfully, this dress code is also known as full evening dress, or a dress suit. Think aristocratic British politicians David Cameron, Boris Johnson and pals back in their Oxford days.

It’s unlikely you own a dress suit, unless you frequent the most formal events in the land (in which case, you probably have one of your servants reading this for you). But if you do receive an unexpected invite to Harry and Meghan’s wedding, you’ll need to know what to wear. Luckily, the lack of flexibility with this dress code means you can walk into any tailors and ask for the works. Just make sure they give you a black tailcoat, white shirt, waistcoat, white bow tie, detachable collar, high-waisted black trousers, and leather shoes.

son in law cufflinks black and white bow tie 38270 - Our Guide to Suiting Up (or not) For Your Next Event

  1. Formal

Finally, a dress code not named for one specific garment. On the downside, ‘formal’ sounds extremely vague, and it conjures up nightmares of misinterpretation. What if you’re not formal enough? What if you’re too formal? Thankfully, the broad nature of this dress code will work in your favour. If the event planner was that fussy about attire, they would have insisted on a more rigid framework.

As such, formal dress codes allow you to have a little more fun. Try a bright jacket, a patterned shirt, a patterned tie—even no tie at all is on the table here. Those looking to make their mark with their outfit can do so with flair and gusto at a formal event. It’s still best to avoid the squirty bow tie, but some degree of novelty is acceptable.

  1. A specific theme

Themed dress codes are the outlier here, in that it’s (normally) very difficult to misunderstand them. If your invite is hand-delivered by a life-size Dalek, you can go wild with the Sci Fi theme. For a pirate theme, an eyepatch is almost essential.

Sticking to the event’s theme is key to survival at a themed event. Rather than attempting to impress with formality, you can show off your costume creation skills with a homemade outfit, or more likely your eBay bidding skills with an outfit bought online. Try not to be embarrassed by looking outlandish—the event planners wanted it this way. If you’re shy, subtle adherence to the theme should be acceptable. And yes, if your event is clown-themed, you can dust off your water-squirting bow tie. But use it wisely, or you could find yourself kicked out.