How to Dress for Cruise Formalwear
Much to the surprise of many first-time cruisers, nearly all cruises have some sort of dress code. The specifics of that dress code, however, can cause much uncertainty. In certain areas and at certain times of the day (evenings, specifically), most cruise lines enact a dress code worth investigating before you pack for your trip.
The last thing you'd want to do is forget your formal wear, and end up sticking out like a sore thumb (or end up incurring unexpected costs to buy a new outfit)! So what exactly does cruise formal wear entail and what should you be sure to include in your suitcase?

The tough answer is it depends. Different cruise lines have different standards for their formal attire, and some don't have formal attire requirements at all. Before you head on your cruise, it'd be best to research the criteria for your vacation.

This is particularly important because some cruise lines who pride themselves on class and tradition will go as far as to turn you away from the dining room if you're not in the appropriate attire. And even in the cases where they do not turn you away, inappropriate dress can draw negative attention from other guests and take away from your ability to enjoy your dining experience. While "dressing up" may seem like a nuisance on vacation, it's all part of the cruise experience and should be embraced. Have fun with it!

Without getting into the specifics of each cruise line's dress code, there are some general guidelines to follow as it relates to the different levels of dress and what areas of the ship are restrictive on attire. At the very least, following these will help you avoid negative attention and embarrassment, and ensure you have the bare minimum required of cruise formal wear.
Cruise/Resort Casual
At first glance, "casual" might imply a liberal dress code that include just about everything. In reality, cruise or resort casual is closer to what one might wear to a country club. Some cruise lines do allow sportswear in this category, which is on the extra casual end of the spectrum. Other cruise lines consider the "casual" category to include more business casual dress—slacks, khakis, long dress shorts, and collared shirts for men; summer dresses, dress skirts or pants, and blouses for women. The quick takeaway is that "casual" attire is more formal than you would think—no jeans or short shorts here. Also, footwear is more flexible in this category, but even some casual dining options will not allow tennis shoes or flip flops for men; women can usually wear dressy sandals, but not flip flops. The specifics will vary by cruise line.
What to Bring: "Smart" Casual
For Men: Slacks, khakis, long dress shorts, button-ups, polos, collared shirts, sport coats, nicer shoes

For Women: Casual dresses, summer dresses, dress skirts, slacks or dress pants, pant suits, blouses, nice sandals, heels, wedges
Formal Attire
Formal wear on cruises ranges from button-ups and cocktail dresses to evening gowns and tuxedos. Most cruises will only have formal nights 1-3 nights during the cruise, depending on the length of the voyage, so you only need to plan for a few days of formal attire. Because of the range of possibilities in the "formal" category, the sweet spot that satisfies the maximum formalness in a more casual scenario and the minimum formalness in a fully formal scenario would be a suit and tie for men and elegant cocktail dress (preferably knee-length or longer) for women. Maxi dresses may also be appropriate, depending on the style. For footwear, men should not wear flip flops, tennis shoes, or "boat shoes." Stick to closed-toed shoes. Women, on the other hand, have a little more flexibility. While sandals are not recommended, wedges and heels (including open-toed) are appropriate. A nice pair of dressy flats would also work for those less inclined to wear high shoes.
What to Bring: Elegant Attire
For Men: The safe bet is a suit and tie, tuxedo optional. At the bare minimum, bring a jacket and dress slacks (with a tie, recommended). Close-toed shoes only.

For Women: The safe bet is an upscale cocktail dress. Consider also bringing an evening gown, though its necessity will depend on the cruise line. Shoes should be nice flats, heels (with a wider heel, so as not to damage the floors), or wedges.
Typical "No-Nos"

Swimwear
On most cruises (though not all), swimwear is not appropriate in any of the dining areas. There are some exceptions where you can wear swimsuits in the buffet or cafes, as long as you wear a cover up. However, in general, it's best to wear indoor clothes for every meal.

Shorts
The same goes for shorts, though most policies are much more lenient when it comes to shorts because of the weather. In casual dress situations, some cruise lines will allow you to wear shorts of an appropriate style and length (no cut-offs, distressed, short-shorts, etc.). Use your best judgment in this area; it might be better to choose slacks or a skirt instead.

Jeans
Jeans are another category with varying degrees of acceptability. Some cruise lines say jeans are okay for dining areas; others say absolutely no jeans. As a general rule, jeans are not recommended for evening dining and should be avoided. If you must wear jeans, consider dark wash jeans, which are typically viewed as more upscale than light wash.
Casual Dress Cruise Lines
If you're simply not interested in wearing formal wear, or would rather not worry about what to wear, there are some cruise lines that are known for having a more lax, casual dress code for the majority of your trip. For example, Carnival Cruise Line is mostly casual. On certain nights, "elegant" attire is suggested, but not at all required. Most people that have attended these cruises admit that the majority of people do not follow this suggestion and stick to casual attire. Plus, if you're really opposed, you can eat at the always-casual restaurant on those "elegant" nights.

Another option is Norwegian Cruise Line, which has no official formal nights, though the specialty restaurants do require "smart casual" dress. On Disney cruises, you may also choose to partake in a formal dress evening, but have the option to dine casually in any of the family dining venues.
Conclusion
What to wear and when to wear is a source of great confusion for cruise goers, especially first timers. And understandably so! With more cruise lines and varieties, the dress codes standards also vary. Heck, if you go on a Disney cruise, you might even need to plan for a pirate or tropical themed costume night, too! It's a lot to consider, but worth checking on before you go. Regardless of which company you choose to cruise with, these general guidelines will lead you on the right path to fashion success on your next (or first) cruise!

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