Fashion / Style

The Etiquette of Fashion: Mastering the Unspoken Communication of Clothing

Style With Substance

BY HEATHER WIESE // 06.24.24

As if navigating the complex language of self-expression and identity weren’t enough, do you consider fashion’s role in your social interactions? I don’t mean shopping as a team sport — although I encourage it with the right team. Clothing etiquette is a vital part of your daily life. From basic (please wear clothes) to nuanced (summer whites versus winter whites), fashion etiquette enters every aspect of your wardrobe decision-making and personal presentation whether you realize it or not. Now that you’re aware, let’s brush up your game.

What is etiquette as it relates to fashion? Fashion etiquette refers to a set of conventional rules and customs that guide what is appropriate to wear in various contexts. I don’t suggest strict adherence to conventional rules in all circumstances, but being educated about them is helpful. Some of the finest fashion choices result from breaking a conventional rule with such wisdom and grace that it is irresistibly attractive. Other times, of course, it’s just a mess. How you choose to dress influences perceptions and relationships positively or negatively. There’s no neutral zone. At the end of this read, I hope you feel even more confident and ready to make bold choices—or subtle ones—or whatever makes you feel equipped to take on your passion.


The Meaning of Fashion Etiquette

Fashion etiquette is deeply rooted in cultural, social, and professional contexts. It serves as a guideline to help individuals navigate social norms and expectations. Do you believe you are above playing the fashion etiquette game? Think again. Rejection is also a move on the fashion chessboard. One undeniable element of proof that you are already a player in the fashion etiquette game is your closet full of clothes, regardless of its variety or lack thereof. Ignoring fashion is still a choice. If you are not naked, you are fully in the game. I take that back. Naked is a fashion choice. You’re playing regardless. So, would you rather be a queen or a pawn? 


The Role of Fashion Etiquette

In 2023, two researchers out of Canada published a work specifically about dress as a fundamental component of how a person is perceived. They proposed that four types of information were gleaned from the way a person is dressed: social identity, mental state, status, and aesthetic taste. This is where it gets fun.

To employ an overused buzz phrase, fashion etiquette directly relates to your “Personal Brand.” You walk, talk, and wear your brand. You cannot escape it, so be intentional about it. The memorable The Devil Wears Prada scene of 2006 holds true: Andy’s simple cerulean sweater reflects a decision train that brought it into focus and acutely demonstrates the consequence of that choice on young Andy’s (unrealized until that moment) personal branding.

To quote one of the wisest men in my life, my father, “People don’t know what you don’t know until you open your mouth.” This was his way of saying listen more than you speak. Grand advise. However, in the case of the approach, people know what you do and don’t know immediately by what you wear and how you wear it. The research tells us what we already know when judging everyone else. It’s eye-opening when applied to the self. Aesthetic taste and status? Obviously. Mental state? Definitely.


Burberry strawberry jacquard silk cotton dress
Burberry strawberry jacquard silk cotton dress and London shield-heeled loafer. (Photography by Nobody Studio)

The Rules of Fashion Etiquette

These, dear friends, are the guidelines to learn. Knowledge leads to opportunity. Opportunity leads to exposure. Exposure leads to relationships. Relationships build rapport. I encourage you to learn all, adhere to most, and break a very strategic few once you’ve mastered them. Except for the first rule — never break this one.


1. Show Up with Cultural Respect and Sensitivity.

Learn the appropriate clothing for cultures and subcultures. Traveling abroad? Ask questions, watch some local news, and observe. Americans are notoriously oblivious travelers. I love my wonderful country; however, this is not stereotypically our strong suit. A well-heeled traveler dresses appropriately for the country they are traveling to, not the one they are arriving from.

As for subcultures, this is particularly relevant for gatherings you plan to attend. Do your plans include weddings, country clubs, or a dinner party at someone’s home? Find out the attire from the invitation, or by asking the host at least a week in advance.

Some common scenarios to consider: Is the wedding in a church? Ladies, toss a fashionable accent around your shoulders so your sexy little cocktail dress is respectfully subdued inside the place of worship. Attending a party in someone’s new home? Find out if they allow shoes inside their home or not and dress those feet accordingly. Headed to a social club for dinner? Skip jeans altogether and ask if there is a dress code. Gentlemen, arrive with a jacket. You can always shed it.

In short, nothing about respecting cultural norms imposes on your own personal style. Strengthen your position by arriving ready to play the role of respectful guest.


2. Mind the Weather.

No one is suggesting you can predict what the meteorologists have yet to master, yet do your part to be aware. Wearing a sultry little number that shows your beautifully bronzed skin—covered in goosebumps because it’s forty degrees—probably isn’t the look you wanted after all. Lacking clothes appropriate for the weather presents you as unprepared. 


3. Stylish Subversions.

Are you a summer black, winter white kind of player? They’re great choices when the fabrics follow the season. Heavy fabrics that don’t tend to breathe are tied to winter, while light, airy, breathable fabrics belong to warm weather. When you mix, be sure to balance. This is where getting advice from a stylist comes in handy. 


4. Day Dress. Night Dress.

Traditionally, sparkles belonged to the night and big bags (like that tote with your entire life hiding in it) belong to the day. In most cases, they should remain in their respective zones.


5. Patterns, Texture, and Color, Oh My!

This is where breaking the rules can be brilliant or tragic. The typical advice is to choose one statement piece and let the rest of the attire act as a neutral canvas showcasing your choice. The lack of restraint or decision-making when dressing — especially for a job interview — may translate into the perception of this lack in other areas of your life.


6. Trendsetter or Trend Victim?

Wear the fashion, don’t let the fashion wear you. Buy trends that look great on your frame and make you feel good. And like the above, don’t wear more than one or maybe two trends at once.


7. Maintain or Move On.

Holes in your favorite dress? Scuffs on your comfiest heels? Repair or replace. Last season’s pants feeling a little too tight? To quote a dear friend whom I will not out in this article, “Just because it buttons doesn’t mean it fits.” 


8. Fidgetless Fashion Only.

That top or dress you keep pulling up. Those pants you always have to adjust. That skirt that somehow always twists sideways — toss them all. When you fidget, you send an unflattering message and distract from what’s relevant at a given moment. Even subtle adjustments call negative attention to yourself. You’re worthy of better.


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What does your personal brand say? (Chanel fantasy cotton tweed dress $8,800, at select Chanel boutiques,

The Refinement of Your Personal Brand

You realize that fashion etiquette plays a large role in cultivating and building the image you wish to project. Professionally, your interpretation of your culture’s dress code and how it applies to you enhances credibility, competence, and trustworthiness, or does the opposite. As long as you are seen, there is no getting around this cause-and-effect scenario. Master it by having some basics on hand. Choose pieces that project what you like about yourself and make your case for competence. If you want to be taken seriously, dress the part. 

What does your look say? Here are a few stereotypes that still work:

Old money is subtle and refined. Know brand looks but steer clear of big labels. 

Trendsetters. Influencers get big money for a reason. There are so many to choose from. Don’t get overwhelmed. Follow your bliss instead of the numbers. Trends come and go and have a very different role in 2020’s culture than they did in 2010’s culture. If you like to follow trends, knowing your culture is key. The Texas trends, East Coast trends, and European trends for this year, for example, are all very different. Dress and pack to travel accordingly.

Creative Strategists dress the part. Far be it from me to say what a creative wears—but the why certainly matters. Want to be seen as effectively creative (not a sloppy artist)? Guesswork doesn’t work. Learn something from your community. Guys, I’d never leave you out. You’re finally in an era where creative dress can take you far.

Age-conscious style is much sexier than squeezing into a look that only accentuates what you’re trying to convince us you can still rock. That doesn’t mean octogenarians are relegated to turtlenecks and maxi dresses. It does mean, however, that as styles evolve and you emerge timeless, fashion has much to do with keeping your fabulousness front of mind.


Private Club Fashion Etiquette

You’re invited. Exclusivity has its perks and its fashion obligations. Where private clubs are concerned, fashion etiquette is arguably less about your personal style and much more about your education, exposure, self-awareness, and respect for others. Private clubs maintain a high standard in attire for many reasons, not the least of which is the vetting and serving of a respectful clientele. While an outsider might judge these rules as snobbery, an insider understands the guidelines as part of the structure that benefits the group as a unified organization. In this environment, attire is the first indication that you know the code, starting with how to be respectful of others. Jeans have almost always been excluded from private club fashion, especially in the evenings. Jackets for men are common. For some more professionally focused organizations, a tie may be mandated for gentlemen. If you are headed to a private club, ask your host or a club manager what the dress code is and arrive in sync. 



The Etiquette of Fashion Shows and Haute Couture

In the market to buy Haute Couture? For some insight into the evolving world of fashion exclusivity, I called on Cameron Silver. The celebrity stylist, fashion historian, author, and founder of LA’s beloved Decades vintage couture boutique has some helpful advice.

“First,” he shares, “wear the brand that you are attending.” He also strongly recommends buying your piece directly from the brand as opposed to a third-party store selling the brand. His advice, although he admits it is not so popular with the big fashion resellers, “If you want an invitation to attend a show, that starts with building a relationship directly with the brand.” Yes, it comes with a hefty price tag. No, buying profusely does not guarantee a seat at the edge of the runway.

Silver also offers this to the budding fashionista, “trust the process.” He advises, “Don’t be offended if your invitation arrives late or doesn’t seat you in the place you envisioned.” He also suggests using WhatsApp to communicate with European brands. If you want to be invited back, the fashionable investment is in the relationship. Flexing your etiquette prowess here is developing this relationship much like you would build any relationship. Be curious and learn. Don’t act entitled. Communicate as the culture dictates. Never underestimate the value of an expert. A good stylist will make worthwhile introductions and be a confidant to help you invest wisely—and have fun.

As it turns out, fashion etiquette is at the forefront of your communication. Develop an educated insight as to what to wear for different occasions. Make bold choices with confidence. Arrive subtly sophisticated and feel like anything but a wallflower. Help a friend do the same. There is great power in knowledge. Even—and especially—in the disciplinary field of stocking your closet. 


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