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Cruise Wear ~
Cracking the Cruise Lines’ Dress Codes

by Linda Coffman

On Embarkation Day...

By the time I take those last few steps and disappear into the ship's hull, I'm taller, blonder, richer, and thinner. Okay, not really, but I feel that way.  Cruising is glamorous... just look at the brochures. Those beautiful svelte models are having a wonderful time. Who wouldn't have a great time standing around smiling in chic designer clothes?

So, your closet isn't full of designer outfits and matching shoes? Not to worry, neither is mine. The reality is that you don't need to max out your credit card to fill your suitcases with new cruise duds. Despite your fashion anxiety you probably have almost everything you need. Cruise wear falls into three categories:

Casual -- Informal -- Formal

Your cruise documents should include information indicating how many evenings fall into those categories. You'll know when to wear what by reading your ship's daily newsletter—each day's dress code will be prominently announced. First and foremost, there is...

Casual Wear

This is exactly what it implies—clothing to be comfortable in. Your plans for the day will dictate what you should wear. For warm weather cruises you'll typically need swimwear, a cover-up, and sandals for pool and beach. Time spent ashore touring and shopping calls for shorts topped with tee shirts or polo-style shirts and comfy walking shoes. Conservative is a rule to live by and mix-and-match will save room in your suitcase. If you plan to purchase souvenir tee shirts, make them a part of your cruise wardrobe and pack fewer tops.  

Evening casual does not mean short-shorts. For men it's Dockers-type slacks and nice polo or sport shirts. Ladies' outfits will be sporty dresses, skirts and tops, or pants outfits. By sticking to two colors and a few accessories, you can mix up tops and bottoms for a different look every night.

The first and last nights onboard are always casual for obvious reasons—you may not have your luggage before dinner that first night and you've already packed for home on the last night. A word about jeans... personally, I hate them but many people consider them casual wear. Some cruise lines discourage them in the dining room. Use your own judgment and keep in mind, denim is hotyou might want to wear a lighter fabric.


This one's a little trickier—it only applies to evening and can mean different things, depending on the cruise line. Informal for women is a dressier dress or pants outfit and for men it usually, but not always, includes a sport coat. Often, but not always, it also means a tie for him. Check your documents carefully. In most instances, the Informal category has been dropped in favor of "resort casual" attire—a step above Casual, but not quite a coat-and-tie.


Formal night is a fantasy time for women and torture for men... from the sounds of male complaints, that is. This is your night to shine and you'll see ladies in everything from simple cocktail dresses to elaborate glittering gowns. Tuxedoes (either all black or with white dinner jacket) or dark suits are required for gentlemen.

Ladies, have you been a "Mother-of-the-Bride" lately? Chances are your outfit for the wedding is just perfect for formal night.

Looking So Luxe in a Rented Tux

After deciding to go all out, whether to buy or rent a tuxedo is up to the individual. As a rule of thumb, if a man is going to wear a tuxedo more than two or three times, it makes economic sense to purchase one. Some cruise lines make it easy to rent the entire outfit, though—and if you do so, it will be waiting for you when you board. Be sure to make these arrangements in plenty of time—your travel agent can get the details from the cruise line.

Even if you are renting, by all means buy your own studs. You don't have to spend a fortune on them, just get some that look classy. Why? A sure fire way to spot a rented tuxedo is by the inexpensive studs that come with them.

A word about vests... many men with a little "girth" consider them more comfortable than cummerbunds. 

And finally—I've heard that a "tuxedo" is a rented suit and a "dinner jacket" is the formal clothing owned by the gentleman wearing it. Whatever the definition or terms of ownership, men look stunning in "black tie."

Which Formal Night is "Most" Formal?

Every woman wants to know the answer to that question because we all have a dress we think is more stylish, or maybe we just feel more beautiful wearing it. Ladies, unless you eat like a bird or never gain an ounce... save your roomiest formal outfit for the second formal night. I have a friend whose daughter spent the second formal night of a cruise crying her eyes out in her stateroom because her dress was difficult to zip.

How glittery can you get without being mistaken for a Vegas showgirl?  I have to admit, I have owned dresses that are totally sequined and beaded but that style isn't as fashionable as it was in years past. When selecting formal outfits, I like to think simple. There's nothing more elegant than a well-cut, simple, black dress. But there's nothing more fun than a flashy or sexy dress that turns heads. It's totally up to you!

"Cocktail" Pants

One of the most practical and useful garments any woman can own is a pair of black, silky "cocktail" pants. They take up no room at all in the suitcase and don't wrinkle. Best of all, with two dressy tops you have two different formal outfits with a minimum of fuss. No, I take that back—BEST of all is that they usually have elastic waistbands.

Last, but not Least...

After all this obsessing about clothing, consider the unthinkable—what if your luggage is delayed?  Or doesn't show up until the end of the cruise? It happens. And if it happens to you, do like one of my favorite fellow passengers last summer... don't stress out. Shop here and there and pick up what you need—your luggage could appear in the next port. Avoid some of the anxiety lost luggage can cause by carrying on your essentials when you board. I always have a garment bag with our formal clothing and at least a couple other casual outfits just in case.

If "formal" just isn't in your vocabulary or your lifestyle, consider booking on one of the cruise lines that have modified it or done away with it altogether.  Norwegian Cruise Line 's "Freestyle Cruising"  offers passengers either the traditional cruise dining experience or a more resort-style open dining schedule. On Oceania Cruises and Windstar Cruises every night is "country club casual."

And, last thoughts about cruise wear—be a considerate cruiser, adhere to each evening's dress code and don't ignore the suggested attire for dinner. It's an insult to your fellow passengers.

To help you avoid any FASHION FAUX PAS at sea, Royal Caribbean explains How On Board Apparel Has Changed with the Times.


For more wardrobe and packing suggestions AND the packing lists for women and men, don't miss the Cruise Diva Packing & Lists section.

Trim Your Wardrobe and
Pack Light—Be Fashionable & Practical!

Mainstream... Premium... Luxury...
What's your Cruise Lifestyle? Find out!

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