A Dress Code for Brits in America


The business attire runs the gamut in The Wolf of Wall Street. (Paramount)

Most of my visitors from the U.K. invariably remark on how “casual” the American dress code appears. (Please note, I’m not talking about people at shopping malls—there are eye-watering specimens on both sides of the Pond.) Perhaps because going out for dinner is just a way of life here and less of an event, few people seem to dress up at all. Obviously if you’re eating in the middle of the day, you’re not going to go home and change, but I’m always quite surprised at the apparent lack of effort in the evening. Parties at peoples’ houses (unless it’s a holiday party, perhaps) can be just as casual, even when it’s an evening event celebrating something in particular. It’s obviously my opinion, but a pair of khaki shorts that you’ve worn all day, paired with a Lands End-type t-shirt, isn’t what I knew as party attire.

Perhaps prompted by the over-casual approach, quite a few invitations these days come with a suggested dress code. Obviously “black tie” means men wear a tux (dinner jacket), and the ladies wear long dresses or cocktail attire. Some events go further and specify whether it’s “formal” black tie or “fashion” black tie—where dudes can get away with a black shirt or a different cut of jacket.

“Cocktail” means the men can wear a nice suit, and the ladies don’t have to be so formal, although a little bling is expected. “Semi-formal” is pretty much what it says: men in dark suits and ties, ladies in more of a cocktail number. “Jacket, no tie” might sound more casual, but men are expected to wear a “nice” jacket as opposed to denim or leather, with a shirt, as opposed to a t-shirt underneath. Climate has some influence on all of this, and you often find it slightly less formal say, on the West Coast.

Other party or event guidelines might suggest “dressy resort,” which would mean pale and slightly preppy looking menswear (linen or seersucker) and ladies in floaty things. “Festive” suggests a winter holiday event where a velvet jacket wouldn’t go amiss. You may receive a “Come as you are” invitation to pop along to the neighbor’s place for an impromptu BBQ; unless you know the hosts really well, or you’re a right old joker, don’t actually turn up in your sweaty yoga pants or a terry toweling robe. Wedding attire is dictated by the venue and the preference of the bride and groom. A back yard wedding is probably going to be more casual than one at a posh country mansion, and a beach wedding will require something lighter than a formal city wedding.

Private member clubs, such as city and country clubs, often have fairly strict dress codes—typically no jeans, no tank tops, flip flops or sneakers, with a request that, if you’re dining in a formal dining room, men wear a jacket and/or tie. If there’s a pool at the club, members and guests are usually asked not to swan around in swimwear away from the pool area.

The world of work also has its dress codes. (If you’re interviewing or starting a new job and unsure of this, I strongly suggest a call to HR for advice.) Obviously expected attire for a photographer is going to be different from that of a lawyer or tax accountant, but in general “business attire” means a suit (and tie for the fellas).

“Business casual” is where the confusion starts. Typically, this is khakis or wool trousers for men, shirt (can be a Polo shirt), jacket, but no tie. Women can also wear trousers as long as they’re not creased and usually not denim. Many offices are now exclusively “business casual”. When full on “casual” is allowed, it may still exclude denim; this is when it’s best to check ahead of time. “Streetwear,” however, can mean literally anything you like, but is not often office attire.

As I mentioned, it differs with climate and profession. What’s it like in your neck of the woods?

Join @MindtheGap_BBCA on Twitter on Wednesday (April 2) at 2 pm ET to discuss differences in dress code and fashion between the U.S. and U.K. Tweet your thoughts and questions to our panel using the hashtag #MindTheChat.

See More:
What Not to Wear in the U.S.
How to Dress Like the Doctor
What to Expect If You’re in an American Wedding


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Lost In The Pond

    Yeah, it’s pretty much like that in Indiana, though people in Indianapolis seem to take a little more care to dress up than those in the smaller towns I’ve inhabited.

  • Ryan Pooler

    As an American, I think this is something that both defines and confuses both Americans and foreigners alike. We have common expressions of being both “overdressed” and “underdressed” I tend to be more classical, so I prefer to overdress, but overdressed can be equally judged as underdressed in certain circles. I wore “business casual” to a cousin’s rural wedding last summer and was a bit overdressed. I was a “city slicker.” Honestly, you are more well respected for being true to yourself in whatever environment that typically is. If you are a formal Brit who wears a tux to a hoe down wedding, then you will not fit in per say, but you will have the opportunity then to define who you are in conversation and at least not be fake. Politicians and social climbers struggle with this one in America continually. America is Urban, Rural, huge and dynamic. We love growing from the ashes and sometimes we can’t figure out whether sackcloth or tuxedos are more appropriate. The best of us don’t care, which is why it is apparent that we don’t care. (Please shower and use deodorant, we don’t care for “trendy” cultures who fail in these basic essentials, we don’t care how rich you are)

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      Excellent comment! It is very true that we Brits can often “get away” with stuff because we’re Brits – either clueless, eccentric or whatever. I was once caught wearing white sandals after Labor Day (in sweltering Texas) and someone said “Oh you can get away with it.”

      • Ryan Pooler

        There’s a perfect example of varying cultural norms! In the Bible belt one might notice. If you’re in North Midwest/West or even New England, the color rule doesn’t apply. You will get stares if you aren’t dressed climatically appropriate though. Coats in spring instead of jackets, long sleeves in summer, shorts/sandals in Fall, Winter, or Spring. (Of course I wear a tank top and sandals as soon as I get 60 degree temps… something normal in Colorado where I’m from, but not so much here in E Washington, where I live)

  • bbdrvr

    In the Seattle area (Microsoft country), it’s generally pretty casual all around. I prefer it that way. If I have to “dress up” to go somewhere, there’s a good chance I just won’t go. I don’t see formal dress as a form of celebration – it’s just a time-consuming nuisance (for women especially) and a guarantee that I’ll be uncomfortable all evening. And, really, why would I want to go somewhere where people would judge others for what they’re wearing? I go out of my way to keep people like that out of my life.

    • frozen01

      I was once visiting Seattle on a business trip during the winter. I was wearing an ankle-length black/blue plaid-type skirt and a black wool coat. When we stopped for lunch, the entrepreneur took one look at me and said “you’re not from around here, are you?” 😉

      I tend to “overdress”. I like looking good. Putting on a nice sweater or a smart skirt takes no more time than a t-shirt or a pair of shorts, and personally I find things like jeans and sneakers to be uncomfortable (jeans because they pinch, sneakers because they are either hot or don’t protect very well from the elements, depending on the season).

      • bbdrvr

        Personally, I *hate* wearing skirts and dresses (and I flat-out refuse to wear nylons), and I find jeans to be more comfortable (and less wrinkly) than a typical pair of slacks. Plus, they go with almost anything.

  • karinagw

    Not a bad article. However, Black Tie does not allow for a cocktail dress and your definitions of Cocktail and Semi-Formal are reversed for the women.

  • hotgeek88

    Where I’m from “black tie” can literally mean “wear your best jeans” if you’re a guy and “wear your nicest skirt/dress/slacks/jeans” if you’re a woman in that order of preference depending on what’s in your closet. lol. It may be a matter of class though. Our family and friends are mostly lower income so affording a nice suit or an expensive dress is over-budget even for “formal” events.

  • Skelton

    In Texas, Denim is usually acceptable for almost any event, the nicer the venue, the darker the denim. pearl Snap shirts seem to be the ‘in’ style for semi-formal, and (if under a decent jacket) formal events. Cowboy Boots tend to also be widely accepted (hide the tops if they’re flashy red like mine, and polish the tops) depending on the venue, of course. I own slacks, jackets, and a three-piece suit, as well as the shoes to match all. But the dress code is usually less formal than than.

    • EllaDisenchanted

      … That’s true up to a point, but denim is still seriously tacky at black tie events. I’d say in Texas it’s generally fine all the way up through business dress for women and semi formal for men, if the right denim is chosen and you’re in the right setting. Less acceptable the more urban you get.

  • Rowan Sauer

    I’ve worked in several different industries as a student intern, and it’s fun to see where the differences are in work attire. I worked in an R&D Lab doing some testing, and it was business casual (khakis and polo shirts. I didn’t have to wear black shoes, thank goodness.) Then, the next summer, I worked in Academia as a lab assistant. I was pretty much able to wear whatever I wanted, but it had to be closed-toed shoes (no sandals). I was working in labs and metalworking shops, so I needed protection for my feet. Last summer, I worked as an environmental engineering intern at a coal mine, and the clothes had to cover my legs, sleeves had to reach past halfway between the shoulder and the elbow, and I was provided steel-toe boots for whenever I was going into the field or the maintenance shops. Nice clothes weren’t a good option there because they would get ruined.

    • kmeghan

      I work with kids, and I was required to wear dressy slacks and a button down shirt. So those clothes got ruined 2 days into the dress code. We were back to clean jeans and a teeshirt a few days later, thankfully! I’d much rather see people doing their job well, and having fun, than dressed up!

  • gn

    For my very first job interview in Silicon Valley, I wore a suit and tie. I got the job, but my colleagues poked gentle fun at me as “the guy in a suit” for several weeks!

  • Ryan Pooler

    I represent America’s mean population well. I might be a little more Christ oriented than the average, but I’m happy to sway the average in this way. You may find some pop latin culture to be unexpected. We border Mexico with a great influx of Mexican immigrants in recent years and it’s had an effect.. We also embody Puerto Rico, SE US heritage, and Hawaii. Large sects (Mexican/Puerto Rican) Americans embody this. I think it’s a great representation of America. If you were to ever need a second language here, Spanish is it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5nFbWLfRMc&feature=kp Especially in SoCal or Florida.

  • Phil

    In Hawaii, an aloha shirt is acceptable almost anywhere. A more formal event in Hawaii will ask you to wear “Aloha Crisp.”

  • i woz ere

    People wear all sorts in my manor.
    Kids still wear uniforms to school, what is that about?
    Everyone, from babys to senior citizens, wears jogging bottoms, trackies or jeans, tho jeans are abit formal, & babies rarely wear them.
    You’ll occasionly see someone wearing a suit, either cos they work up the City, or they’re going to a wedding, or funeral. Suits & ties are becoming rare, especially ties. What is the purpose of a tie?
    Birds do wear dresses & skirts very occasionally, but this is happening less.
    All ages wear hoodies. Occasionally people wear shirts, but this is viewed as quite formal. T-shirts, or tees as they seem to be called now, are standard wear. Polo shirts are seen as quite formal.
    Trainers are worn by everyone, tho shoes, boots & sandels do make appearances at times.
    Shorts, vests & armless tees come out when it goes above 20°c.
    Puffa jackets, woolly hats, jumpers, & gloves are worn in the winter.
    People here would rarely use the phrase attire, they say clothes or dress, wear this, or put saink on.