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What to wear, what to wear? Choosing the right outfit can be tricky, particularly when you're headed off to an important party, a Fancy Dinner, or a hot date. Sometimes, making the wrong decision can lead to public humiliation . . . especially if you failed to realize just how formal the event was going to be.

Showing up underdressed for a formal event can simply be played for comedy: it's frequently invoked in romantic comedies as part of a disastrous date. As such, it functions as a minor obstacle on the path to romance. However, being underdressed can also be used dramatically. Arriving underdressed to a party or other social event often signals that the underdressed character is in some way an outsider. Frequently, the underdressed character is of lower class status than the rest of the guests. A poverty-stricken character may be underdressed due to an inability to afford formal wear. Alternatively, failure to adhere to dress codes indicates ignorance of the social code. Especially when this is part of an In with the In Crowd situation, some of the humiliation stems from the way the character is displaying that he or she is not yet able to navigate these social waters. It's not uncommon for a more savvy (or simply wealthier) friend or Love Interest to provide some assistance, because I Want My Beloved to Be Fashionable.

Sometimes invoked intentionally in implicit symbolic rejection of whatever group is being intruded upon. The James Dean effect is popular for this. Much easier for men to pull off, especially if they have romantic possession of a female who does belong in the setting and is dressed like it.

Contrast with It's a Costume Party, I Swear, where someone else deliberately tricks a party-goer into wearing a costume. See also Dress Code, which tends to apply to work or school, but can also apply to restaurants or bars. Not to be confused with Birthday Suit Surprise Party.


Anime and Manga

  • In one episode of Hana Yori Dango, Tsukushi shows up under-dressed for a party at the Domyoji estate. In this case, her wearing an inappropriately informal dress is a reminder of the class difference between her family and the Domyoji family.
  • In an episode of Monster, Eva refuses to allow her bodyguard to come into a hotel with her because he doesn't meet the hotel's dress code. She subsequently takes him shoppping to get a suit and tie, which she forces him to wear when he accompanies her.


  • In As Good as It Gets, Melvin Udall shows up inappropriately dressed for a restaurant with a dress code. It's not a matter of money here--he could afford a suit and tie--but his failure to realize that the restaurant had a dress code might serve as a reminder that he doesn't go out on dates all that often.
  • The Sting. Henry Gondorff (going under the name "Shaw") shows up to join a poker game on a train.

 Lonnegan: Mr. Shaw, we usually require a tie at this table. If you don't have one, we can get ya one.

  • Top Secret. Nick Rivers arrives at a fancy restaurant for dinner.

 Nick: A table for two, please. The name is Rivers.

Maitre d': Ah, yes. Mr Rivers. I have it right here, but we require a jacket and tie for the dining room. We will be very happy to provide you with one.

  • What a Girl Wants: Daphne Reynolds is convinced by her almost step-sister Clarissa Payne that the fashion show they are going to is informal, while its just the opposite. Much to Clarissa's dismay, everyone thinks that Daphne's one of the models, and she steals the show.
  • Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Jules wear some very casual clothing to a meeting with their boss Marcellus, because they had to change out of what they were wearing due to the old clothes having Marvin's brain matter splattered all over them.
  • Real Genius: Chris shows up to his job interview wearing deelyboppers and an "I Heart Toxic Waste" T-shirt. In this case, it's meant to establish the character as a Bunny Ears Lawyer.
  • In I Heart Huckabees, one of the weird coincidences that kick off the plot involves Albert finding a business card in the pocket of a jacket loaned to him by the restaurant where he tries to dine without one.


  • Subverted in Little Women. Meg makes a better impression at a gathering of wealthy socialites when she's wearing her own simple and rather worn out party dress than she does when she borrows a more expensive gown.
  • In EF Benson's Queen Lucia, Lucia gives a party and raises the dress code to "Hitum," the highest possible level, at the last minute when she realizes that visiting opera singer Olga Bracely is going to be there. Olga herself, though, shows up in a simple blue dress that is barely "Scrub" (informal)--but she still comes off as more naturally sophisticated than Lucia and the other residents of Riseholme.
  • The parable of the Wedding guest in Matthew 22:1-14 makes this trope Older Than Feudalism. The punishment for failing to come to the wedding feast in proper attire was unexpectedly harsh, too. Weeping and gnashing of teeth, indeed!
  • In the later Discworld City Watch novels Vimes deliberately tries to be under-dressed for social occasions. He feels the official dress uniform of his rank is both impractical and insulting to watchmen everywhere. Plus he likes to intimidate and upset the nobs by wearing a nice set of battered armour to remind them they aren't above the law (anymore).
  • The Red Dwarf novel, Last Human states that at some point before the accident, Lister was somehow invited to the officers' summer ball. The invitation told him to dress informally, so he turns up wearing football shorts. He is turned away by a suited officer. He laments that if they wanted him to dress like Noel Coward, they should have said so.
  • Inverted in The Chronicles of Narnia--when Aslan magically summons soon-to-be-Queen Helen (a London cabbie's wife until that moment) to Narnia she is described as looking beautiful in her simple attire. The narrator informs us that if she had known this was going to happen and had put on her best outfit, she would have looked tacky.

Live Action TV

  • How I Met Your Mother: The gang goes to a funeral, and Barney, who at all other times advocates wearing suits, shows up in sweats because he believes that a suit is only for happy occasions.

  Barney: A suit is the sartorial equivalent of a baby's smile.

  • On Frasier, Martin is humiliated when Frasier and Niles take him to a fancy restaurant and is rejected for not wearing a tie. He gets even by taking the boys to one of his favorite eateries, where the host cuts off Frasier's tie to enforce their casual dress code.
  • Jennifer does this in Exes And Ohs, ending up staying through her ex's wedding wearing a sweat top. (In her defense, she hadn't meant to be there - the boat the wedding was on cast off before she could leave.)
  • On It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia the gang shows up at a funeral in their everyday casual wear because Frank told them they were going to a barbecue.
  • Played in reverse in an episode of The Wizard: the central characters are invited to an afternoon garden party, and Tilly (a working-class woman in her sixties) embarrasses herself by coming tricked out in full evening wear.
  • In the first episode of Bewitched, Samantha is led to believe a gathering at Darrin's ex-fiance's house will be casual and dresses accordingly. She ends up looking plain and simple compared to all the fancily-dressed guests, especially the ex who takes smug pleasure in Samantha's discomfort...leading Sam to take a little magical revenge to make her look foolish.


  • Used very seriously in this Casting Crowns video, around the 2:30 mark.
    • Casting Crowns made a similar reference to being under-dressed in church in their song "If We are the Body."

Web Comics

  • In Freefall, when Winston goes on his first date with Florence, he's wearing a T-shirt with "Cyber-Rap and the Philharmonic Orchestra" on the back. Florence has booked them in on a fancy, french restaurant. When she sees the T-shirt, she (rather insistently) offers to buy him a new shirt, since she had to borrow one of his on their first meeting. Winston readily agrees, mentally commenting "I don't know much about fashion, but when a dog is embarrassed to be seen with you, it's time to change clothes."

Real Life

  • When Harpo Marx and his future wife had their first date they went to a restaurant which required men to wear ties. Harpo wasn't wearing one, so he took off one of his socks and tied it around his neck as a tie. Every year on their anniversary he came down to breakfast wearing a sock-tie.
  • Also a potential problem for service members due to the wide variety of uniforms one has to choose from. Showing up in the wrong uniform (say, camouflage fatigues for a formation requiring service dress uniform) at best shows that your chain of command is poor at communicating, and at worst that you didn't care to find out what uniform you should have been wearing.