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 savvier (or simply wealthier) friend or Love Interest to provide some assistance because I Want My Beloved to Be Fashionable.
Sometimes invoked intentionally in an 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 are accompanied by a woman 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 overdressing (by arriving in costume when everyone else will be in normal party attire). 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. A character attempting to leave the house under-dressed is a common cause for a Parental Fashion Veto.
- An ad for an Australian hotel chain has tennis player Pat Rafter being reminded that he is supposed to be at a particular hotel tomorrow. Thinking he is there for a break, he turns up in singlet, shorts, and thongs, only to discover that he is supposed to be addressing a business council lunch. The ad then shows the lengths the hotel will go to for its guests by having the concierge loan Pat his suit and shoes, with him later being shown standing behind the desk in Pat's casual clothes.
- In one episode of Hana Yori Dango, Tsukushi shows up underdressed 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 shopping for a suit and tie, which she forces him to wear when he accompanies her.
- In My Daddy Long Legs, this trope shows up in a nightmare Judy has in which she goes to New York to see Jervis Pendleton, only to be laughed at by his date, who tells her that she needs to change her clothes for the party. When Judy looks down, she's wearing her old orphan clothes from the first episode. It's a pretty good indicator of her anxieties about her socioeconomic class.
- In Candy Candy, Candy once shows up in her uniform to class... but it's the wrong uniform, since her Boarding School has a normal white one and a black one for Sundays. She gets mocked by the other students, and the nuns punish her by not letting her go back to the dorms top change.
- 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.
- Subverted in Titanic, as Jack plans to show up to an upper-class dinner in his grungy clothes; a kind-hearted friend lends him some formalwear.
- What a Girl Wants: Daphne Reynolds is convinced by her almost-stepsister Clarissa Payne that the fashion show they are going to is informal, while it's 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.
- In First Kid, Sinbad's character Sam Simms is refused entry to a black tie event.
Sam: I know, sir, and I've got it covered: I'm black and I'm wearing a tie.
- In 2012, the Chiwetel Ejiofor character arrives at a formal White House event in casual clothes (having rushed back from the other side of the world, discovering the world is going to end). He needs to speak to powerful government people there. At first, he's not allowed in, but then he is after someone finds a suit jacket for him to wear.
- In My Cousin Vinny, this is a recurring point of friction between Vinny and Judge Haller.
Judge: Mr. Gambini, didn't I tell you that the next time you appear in my court that you dress appropriately?Vinny: You were serious about that?
- Once inverted by Dave Barry on the subject of men and women's clothes: where women need several matching outfits for every occasion (and don't get started on the shoes), men only ever need one suit in their lives for work, church, formal events... and when they die they can be buried in it.
- 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.
- In the later Discworld City Watch novels, Vimes deliberately tries to be underdressed 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 Dresden Files: In Summer Knight, Harry Dresden goes to a White Council meeting wearing a bathrobe because his cat decided to use his proper robe as a litter box. Given that the White Council is meeting to discuss the war Harry started with the Red Court of vampires, most of the assembled wizards believe he is deliberately insulting them.
- 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 E. F. 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 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 Noël Coward, they should have said so.
- Vorkosigan Saga: In Cetaganda, Miles and Ivan are told that the laws of Cetagandan court fashion are so complicated that it would be best if they just wear their uniforms to everything to avoid this trope — it is almost always appropriate for a serving officer to wear his uniform to a formal occasion, and when it isn't, he can honestly claim that it isn't his fault.
- In the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace admits that he hadn't seen the point of bringing a tuxedo on a Caribbean cruise, even though the cruise line recommended it, and that he had brought along a "tuxedo"-design T-shirt basically to show what he thought of the suggestion. He quickly saw that the recommendation was completely serious, as meals at the ship's restaurant were a formal, black-tie affair, and he was quite embarrassed when he saw literally everyone else wearing formalwear at the first dinner. He never wore the "tuxedo" T-shirt after the first day, opting for a button-down shirt and sport coat, and feeling rather sheepish about his state of undress.
- In the pilot of Bewitched, the snobby Rich Bitch Sheila Summers pulls this on Samantha Stephens, telling her to dress casually for a formal party. This is subverted in another episode four years later when Sheila invites the Stephenses to another party, telling them again it was casual. Samantha dressed formally only to find out that it actually was casual.
Samantha: Oh, that — that little double-crosser!
Darrin: She said casual.
Samantha: Well, she knew darn well I'd expect her to lie!
- Alluded to in Borgen, where one of the ways that civil servants apparently undermined an unpopular working class minister was to let him keep thinking that "black tie" just meant "wear a black tie" and not "evening dress".
- Doctor Who: "Tooth and Claw" has the Doctor and Rose landing in 1879 at a house where Queen Victoria will be staying. Rose is wearing a denim miniskirt and a tight-fitting, low-cut shirt. Throughout the episode, she is described by other characters as being naked. In fact, she gets called a feral child.
- For reference, they were aiming for 1979, when an outfit like that would be acceptable. The Doctor is infamous for rarely arriving where (and when) he intends.
- Played with in Downton Abbey, where the distinctions between black tie, white tie, and merely "wearing a tie", are terribly important to the characters, but can seem opaque to the viewers. Tom can show up to dinner very well-dressed by 21st century standards but is treated like he's in a t-shirt.
- 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 on which the wedding was being held cast off before she could leave.)
- In the Firefly episode "Shindig", the local ladies treat Kaylee's store-bought dress like this, though it seems to be more a matter of latching onto an excuse to act bitchy than any fault in the garment.
- On Frasier, Martin is humiliated when Frasier and Niles take him to a fancy restaurant, only for him to be 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.
- In one episode of Friends, Rachel is wearing a skimpy nightgown in an attempt to seduce her Love Interest. Said love interest walks into the room with his parents and tells her they've been invited to dinner. Rachel tries to play it off as a foreign dress.
- In the Goosebumps episode "A Night In Terror Tower", Eddie and Sue aren't allowed to wait in the hotel restaurant because Eddie isn't wearing a dinner jacket, which is the dress code. The waiter does actually fetch one for him, though Sue is also wearing casual clothes and they don't have a problem with hers.
- 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 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.
- In another episode, in what seems to be based on a Liaisons Dangereuses storyline, Mac and Dee show up underdressed at a formal party thrown by Dee's rich well-groomed love interest.
- This is also cited in an episode of Just Shoot Me!, where Nina gets genuinely ticked off about how more and more often she sees people dressed casually for fancy events—theatre, church, etc.
- Inverted in the New Tricks episode "The Rock, Part 1". An increasingly unstable Brian steals a tuxedo from a hotel to infiltrate a casino and confront a suspect. However, he is the only one wearing a tuxedo and sticks out like a sore thumb.
- Inverted in an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch in which Harvey is going out with Sabrina and her father. He shows up wearing a suit and tie with his hair slicked into a short-back-and-sides. Sabrina and her father are dressed casually.
- An episode of Seinfeld that had the gang going to the opera had Kramer showing up in his usual casual wear, much to the tuxedo-clad Jerry's annoyance.
Jerry: I thought you said people dress up for the opera!
Kramer: People do. I don't.
- In the "A Scandal in Belgravia" episode of Sherlock, the title character shows up at Buckingham Palace clad only in a Modesty Bedsheet. Admittedly he was brought there in a hurry, but he declines to change into more appropriate clothes when they're offered. (Though that's at least partly to annoy his brother.)
You are at Buckingham Palace - the very heart of the British nation. Sherlock Holmes, PUT YOUR TROUSERS ON!
- Interestingly, the men in suits refuse to tell him where he's being taken. Naturally, after a quick Sherlock Scan, he figures it out, but still refuses to dress for the occasion.
- 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.
- Used very seriously in this Casting Crowns video, around the 2:30 mark.
- Casting Crowns made a similar reference to being underdressed in church in their song "If We are the Body."
- Garth Brooks's "Friends in Low Places": "Blame it all on my roots/I showed up in boots/And ruined your black tie affair/The last one to know/The last one to show/I was the last one you thought you'd see there..."
- In the Mark of the Assassin DLC for Dragon Age II, bringing Varric and Circle!Bethany along as companions will result in Bethany lamenting her outfit as being this since they're at a very formal party on a lavish estate with wealthy nobles. Varric puts her at ease by pointing out that she wasn't given a choice in what to wear, but it doesn't matter anyway, because "you could make a burlap sack look good" and adds that if she had worn the height of fashion, other guests would have died from sheer envy.
- A Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse short has Barbie's rival, Raquelle, trick Barbie and Nikki into wearing casual outfits to a formal dress party. Barbie and Nikki then reveal that their outfits can transform into ballgowns, so Raquelle has all the other guests put on bikinis to make those two seem overdressed.
- 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."
- In Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, J wears a t-shirt and sweatpants on her first date with White Jay, because Cece told her that white people are very casual and they're probably going to go outdoors. Unfortunately, White Jay is wearing a button-down shirt and khakis. He calls her out on her outfit at the end of the episode.
- In the Animaniacs episode "The Party", Robert Patrick shows up to the titular event in a cop uniform. When Ralph points out this is a "black tie affair", Patrick silently morphs T-1000 style into a tuxedo.
- The opening of Daria features the family attending a wedding. Jake is in a tuxedo, Helen is wearing her work suit with a pillbox hat, Quinn is wearing a fancy dress, and Daria... is in her normal outfit.
- On Gravity Falls, Pacifica's family allows Dipper, Mabel, Candy, and Grenda to come to their fancy party in exchange for Dipper getting rid of a troublesome ghost. While the girls are excited and dress up, Dipper is reluctant and comes in his normal clothes. Pacifica frets about people seeing him and gives him a formal outfit to wear instead.
- In an episode of Sabrina: The Animated Series, Gem tells Sabrina the event at her house has a country & western theme. Sabrina conjures up an appropriate outfit only to discover the event was actually a formal ball. Ironically, before magicking herself the country outfit, she dismissed a red evening gown thinking it wouldn't be appropriate.
- 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.
- 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. It gets better when certain uniform combinations involve mostly the same uniform, but with slight differences. The US Air Force Semi-Formal Dress Uniform is essentially the Service Dress Uniform, minus the name tape and cap, and with a white dress shirt instead of the blue uniform shirt worn underneath, and can be worn by enlisted men only (officers must pony up the cash to purchase a Mess Dress Uniform, which is a military tuxedo.)
- According to legend, Edgar Allan Poe was once invited to march in a parade. The dress code simply stated "White cuffs and boots, under arms" - and he showed up naked except for white cuffs and boots. He was kicked out.
- Australian comedian Charlie Pickering tells the story of how his father wound up in Hawaiian dress at a black-tie event no, not merely "Hawaiian dress", but the most truly dreadful Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and hat imaginable. (In his book Impractical Jokes, he includes a picture, and Pickering's descriptions do not do justice to how mind-bendingly awful it is.) His unfortunate decision was the result of a prank.
- Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, invited to a "white tie" White House dinner, deliberately wore the black business suit he was wearing when he arrived in the US, to send a message that he wasn't elitist.
- In the early years of the Consulate and the Empire, wearing simple uniforms could be a Republican statement from generals who protested Napoleon's restoration of monarchic forms. General Saint-Cyr, whose austerity had made him one of the "Spartans of the Army of the Rhine", was especially famous for this.
- Woody Harrelson once went to a movie premiere wearing a T-shirt, pajama pants and socks without shoes.