A Guide to Help You Decipher What Those Dress Codes Actually Mean

Today we are getting into etiquette and protocol, and the first up is the dress code. Yes, the military has a dress code for civilians as well as military at certain functions.

Typically, when you receive an official function invitation, it usually specifies what attendees should wear in the bottom left corner. A lot of time, there is confusion about what that means. And the meaning can depend on where you live. For instance, business casual in Alaska usually means no Carharts, while in Washington D.C., it means a suit and ties for men. It all depends. When in doubt, ask the host what they are wearing.

I happen to have a handy guide of what to wear that the Good Chaplain got when we were stationed in Hawaii. It’s a pretty good guide for the basics. So let’s dive right in.

Women’s Casual Dress
Women’s Semi-Formal Dress
Men’s Business Casual
Men’s Formal Dress

  • Women’s Casual is a conservative dress or a nice shirt with slacks, capri pants, or a skirt. Sandals are fine.
  • Men’s Casual is a button-down shirt with slacks—no jeans or streetwear.
  • Women’s Business Casual is what you would wear to work. A nice blouse or top with slacks, capri pants, skirt, or dressy sundress.
  • Women’s Business is a suit with either pants or a skirt and a jacket. Closed-toe shoes are more appropriate.
  • Men’s Business Casual is a sport coat, dressy button-down shirt, and slacks. The sport coat can be optional, as is a tie. No jeans.
  • Men’s Business is a suit where the color and style of the pants and jacket match. The shirt color and style can vary.
  • Men can also have Open Collar Casual, a Polo, or button-down shirt with slacks or khakis. No jeans.
  • Men’s Semi-Formal is a white shirt with a tie and a dark-colored suit. No boots. No overcoat was used as the jacket.
  • The dress must be lower than mid-thigh to a tea length and conservative for Women’s Semi-Formal or Cocktail Dress. No thigh slits or excessive bust line showing.
  • For Men’s Formal, a tuxedo or black tie with a black suit is most appropriate, along with a white shirt.
  • Women’s Formal is similar to semi-formal except dresses should be tea length or floor length. Again, no high front or thigh slits. Although the open back is allowed, a shawl is recommended. (The ballrooms tend to be chilly, so this is a good recommendation anyway.) Women’s Formal can also be a floor-length evening pants suit, but not your normal business suit.

Most dress for formal events such as changes of command or promotions is business casual for the civilians and uniform of the day for the military. Uniform of the day means either OCPs (Operational Camouflage Pattern) uniform that most people wear to work or Service Dress uniform (Blues, Class A, or whatever your branch calls them.)

My friend, Marlene, used to tell me the dress code was my “Sunday best” until I told her I normally wore pants to church, and I knew she was talking about a dress. Knowing what to wear is important. You don’t want to be either overdressed or underdressed. Neither scenario is comfortable. But the language of what is appropriate is as clear as mud. I hope this post will help you decipher some of what is meant by different types of dress.

Next time we will talk about when it is appropriate to contact your spouse’s commanders.

Until then,


Do you have an official function coming up? What do you plan to wear? Reply in the comment section below. And be sure to subscribe to this blog, so you never miss any earth-shattering pieces of information I have to share with you.

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