10/09/2011 07:13 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2011

Decoding Invitation Dress Codes

As the holidays approach, so do party invitations and the potentially confusing dress code requests. "The point of adding a dress code is so that everyone feels comfortable -- it puts everyone on the same playing field," says etiquette consultant and author Mindy Lockard. "Since the invitation itself sets the tone, you can use playful words in the invitation, but be very clear what you're saying in that dress code line; the role of the host is to make this as easy as possible for guests." Got that hosts? Don't be clever with "Smoking Attire" or "Festive Chic" -- simply state what guests should wear.

If a dress code request is unclear, delicately ask the host for further explanation. "You can say, 'I wanted to check in on the dress code' or ask what people will be wearing and offer what you were thinking of," suggests Lockard. "Just ask for clarification."

Nowadays, the traditional codes have become a bit more casual, even more so outside of Manhattan and D.C. When it comes to decoding, white tie is the most formal (jackets with tails and a white tie for men, long gowns for women), followed by formal and black tie (a jacket without tails and black tie for men, gowns or a dressy knee- or tea-length dress for women), cocktail and black tie optional (a suit for men, cocktail dresses for women), business casual (work clothes such as trousers and a button-up for men and a skirt and top for women) and casual (which means anything non-dressy is appropriate, but know your host and the occasion to decide how casual that should mean). If you're party hopping and don't have time to dress between parties, dress for the fancier affair. "You'll feel more confident dressed up than dressed down," says Lockard.

And what if you don't like the cheesy holiday sweater dress code that a host writes on an invite? "When you RSVP to an event, then you're accepting the request of the host," says Lockard. "You're a bit of a poor sport if you choose not to go because you don't like the ugly sweater theme." Have you experienced bizarre dress requests? Share them here!