One of the key tenets of classic style is to always dress appropriately for the occasion, which is most often stipulated by the required level of formality. But which articles of clothing are appropriate to different levels of formality, and how do they rank in comparison to one another? For an event hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, you’d select different items than you would for office work or for a weekend brunch with friends. In this article, we present some general principles to determine the formality of nearly any menswear item and provide you with a list of clues to recognize where they fall on the scale of casual to formal.
The General Rules of Formality
Every item of clothing and every accessory falls somewhere on the continuum of formality, and there are some broader principles you can use to see at a glance where that is.
Dress Codes Formality Scale
1. Casual vs. Formal Colors
Colors formality scale
A useful technique to sort this out is to think of colors one could typically wear in the summer as casual, no matter what the season–beige, white, or light blue, for example. Although not really a bright color, brown is also more casual than navy or grey. A lot of this is owed to the long-established British distinction between city and country wear. Browns were not supposed to be worn in town, which immediately associates the color with a more casual rural setting than the charcoal grey or navy one would wear when doing business in London.
A navy suit is more formal than one in a brighter blue.
2. Casual vs. Formal Texture
The smoother and often the shinier the fabric, the more formal it generally is. A textured basketweave fabric would be more likely to appear on a sports coat than a classic suit, and corduroy would make for casual trousers not dress pants. As a general guideline, if there’s strong visual evidence of the weave or texture, it’s more casual.
Ties that are made of rough wool or slubby shantung are casual while smoothly printed silks are business ties; on the other hand, you wouldn’t wear a shiny satin silk tie to work as its shine makes it too formal for that setting; satins should be reserved for evening events. Shine can be thought of as a variant on texture, as it is usually associated with smoothness. Shiny silk appears on the lapels of tuxedo jackets and on cummerbunds. Velvet, which has a distinctive sheen, is used for dinner jackets. Patent leather is used for opera pumps as part of formal evening wear.
The top fabric shows a prominent weave on a casual sports coat (as does the color); the bottom shows a formal Super 150s worsted wool.
3. Patterns and Formality
Similar to texture, patterns also play a role in assessing formality. Articles of clothing with patterns tend to be less formal than those that are plain. Indeed, in British tailoring, many of the most popular and classic menswear patterns, particularly any plaid–from houndstooth to glen check, to Prince of Wales–were originally reserved for less formal country wear. A possible exception could be ties and pocket squares, as all sorts of patterns are acceptable on silk business ties (the printed silk it’s made of supersedes any informality of pattern).
Even formal morning wear allows ties with patterns on them, whether geometric or stripes; however, a solid color tie would still be considered more conservative. Among patterns, those that are smaller and therefore less forceful are more formal than those that are large or loud. A mistake commonly made by beginners looking to “dress up” is buying designer or fashion items that usually have a lot of ornamentation, for instance, a gold and black jacket, when the exact opposite–a lack of pattern–would actually be more refined.
A strong pattern does not make an article of clothing more formal.
4. Structure and Formality
Another rule in classic menswear is that the more something is structured the more formal it is. In the realm of suit jackets and sports coats, those with canvas, lining, and padding have greater formality than those that are unlined or partially lined with unpadded shoulders. Ties that contain an interlining are likewise more formal than those that are hand-rolled, unlined, and untipped. Because the former are more constructed. Even shirts fit under this umbrella. If you have a hard collar, the shirt will be more formal than one with a soft or unfused version.
The tailoring of the Kingsman films displays strong structure.
5. Purpose and Formality
Knowing the origins and historic uses of the article of clothing can also be a way of judging it. If you have something that was originally intended to be worn in the country, for sport, or for utilitarian purposes, like a flat cap or a polo shirt, it would more casual than something intended as business attire.
The flat cap has its origins in British rural clothing.
Now, having provided the clues that enable you to assess the formality of clothing in general. We can turn our attention to the earmarks of specific wardrobe items.