Semi-formal attire: casual wear's misunderstood cousin?

Do you ever just get completely befuddled when an invitation to an event indicates that the dress code is 'semi-formal', 'smart-casual' or 'cocktail dress'? 

Suddenly you are expected to make like a trapeze artist through your wardrobe and strike the perfect balance between "I'm chilled" and a "champaaagne dahling" aesthetic.

The thing with these dual dress codes is that the probability of being either underdressed or overdressed is actually exactly the same, and also entirely vibe dependent. 

And you never know until you get there.

We often attend launches for work, where for some the semi-formal/smart-casual dress code is pretty much implied. But for others it's stated explicitly, leaving you wondering if you should go to work in your Sunday Best on that day and just walk in the office like...

Instead, I just opt for platforms or mid-heel shoes and a dress/skirt and blazer ensemble. Basically a look that is smart but not necessarily flashy.

I recently attended the glam Beluga relaunch with a friend of mine, where the invitation indicated a "smart-casual" dress code. I told him and he immediately asked, "What does that mean? Does it just mean look rich?"


But the more I think about how to pick a semi-formal/smart-casj outfit, the more I figure it's like the Goldilocks effect - not too hot, not too cold, but just right!

And this entails putting together the perfect combination of casual and formal items. A little something like this maybe?

The above could be described as a dressed up kind of casual, but what then about the looks below which demonstrate a subtle kind of formal?

Images: Getty

Which is more appropriate and which will get you bounced from the venue?

Probably none will get you bounced, but in terms of appropriateness I think it's safe to say it's dependent on a number of factors, i.e. nature of the occasion, the rest of the folk in attendance as well the city you're in.

Read more: 5 women who’ve lived in both Cape Town and Jozi talk fashion survival in each city

Yes, geography does actually seem to have a some kind of impact on the way we dress, where certain cities/towns generally have a relaxed approach to style depending on how small, conservative or cosmopolitan your location is.

For example, formal to me no longer means the same thing it did in Grahamstown. Grahamstown formal is Cape Town semi-formal, while Cape Town formal is more like Jozi semi-formal.

But I think we still need to ascertain what each dress code means just as a guideline so that we don't get it completely wrong.

So what does the fashion bible say?

According to Vogue Australia, there are three main things to consider when choosing a smart-casual outfit:

Where is the event held?

Vogue suggests looking up the venue sometimes just to get a feel for the decor as well. But if you know quite a few spots in your hood, then you also probably know which ones are sneaker-appropriate and which ones aren't.

Who will be there?

You can't always know in advance who will be at an event/party, but you can always pre-empt the kind of crowd you will be surrounded by for the evening. And usually you can predict based on who's hosting.

Would you wear the same outfit at a different do?

I know it's always ideal to have a look you can pull off more than just once, but dress codes don't always overlap.

The semi-formal dress code may seem quite flexible, however one still has to remain within the given parameters even in the face of their ambiguity.

For example, Vogue says if your look is "bordering on 'cocktail' then you should reconsider."

Read more: The Enhle effect - How to repeat an outfit without 'repeating'it

Ultimately, it's all about balance, and knowing which items are a no-go for certain soirées.

Like, would you wear jeans to a wedding? Absolutely not. However, you can wear a pair of dark denims to a semi-formal function with a pair of heels and a blazer. 

And this doesn't necessarily mean certain clothing items have limited wearability, but rather they can be styled differently to fit the dress code.

Often, styling is everything.

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