Just about every cruise line has a dress code of some type. (Except for the occasional nudist charter, they all at least agree that clothing is required!) But, from there on, dress codes range from those where dressing for dinner means putting on a clean T-shirt to those where any male passenger not in a tuxedo might as well be wearing nothing at all.
And for every dress code, there are those who try to bend the rules. Those who follow the dress code to the letter often complain of lax enforcement, and truth be told, many cruise lines do seem loath to turn people away, especially for minor infractions. There are plenty of stories of people in shorts and T-shirts when at least a suit and tie is supposed to be required, but lax enforcement isn't universal; at least on some ships, people do get turned away from the dining room.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to predict just how much you'll get away with on a particular night on a particular ship, or exactly what your fellow passengers will actually be wearing. Enforcement really comes down to the whim of whoever is standing at the door at that moment, and as for others' dress, it depends on the passenger mix on your particular cruise. What we can tell you is what each cruise line says you should wear.
The Code: "Casual resort wear" is appropriate, except for formal evenings when men are required to put on suits or jackets and ties, and women cocktail dresses. In addition, passengers who would like to participate in theme nights are encouraged to dress according to a specific theme. Examples include White Night, Tropical Night or 60s/70s/80s Night.
Number of Formal Nights: There's one formal night on four- to six-night cruises, two on seven- to nine-night cruises, three on 10- to 14-night cruises and four on cruises of 15 nights or longer.
Nightly Casual Option: The standard Lido buffet (and room service) will serve passengers seeking a more low-key dining experience.
Written Restrictions and Jeans: After 6 p.m., jeans, T-shirts and shorts are not permitted in the ships' public areas. No swimwear is allowed in main dining rooms. Jeans are allowed on casual resort wear nights, as long as they aren't torn or ripped.
The Code: Norwegian has no formal dress code. Cruise casual is acceptable most of the time and includes summer and casual dresses, skirts, regular or capri pants, shorts, jeans and tops for women, and khakis, jeans, shorts and casual shirts for men. For dinner, collared shirts and pants or "nice" jeans are suggested for men, and slacks or jeans, dresses, skirts, and tops are standard for women. Suggested dress applies to dinner in all restaurants, although upscale specialty restaurants like Cagney's and Le Bistro do require passengers to dress a bit more formally. Referred to as smart casual, this includes slacks or jeans, dresses, skirts and tops for women, and jeans or slacks with collared shirts and closed-toed shoes for men.
Number of Formal Nights: There are no official formal nights, but "Norwegian's Night Out" is the line's freestyle (and optional) version of a formal night. Cruisers might also want to pack an all-white ensemble for the line's signature White Hot or Glow parties.
Nightly Casual Option: It's all casual, save for fancier specialty dining venues (specified above).
Written Restrictions and Jeans: Swimwear is fine at the buffet and outdoor restaurant -- so long as you put on a cover-up. Jeans in the main dining room and specialty restaurants are acceptable as long as they aren't overly faded, with holes or tears, or worn below the hips. Tank tops for men, flip-flops, baseball caps and visors are not permitted in the main dining room or any of the specialty restaurants.
The Code: Royal Caribbean has formal, smart casual and casual nights. Formal attire includes suits and ties or tuxedos for men and cocktail dresses for women. Smart casual attire includes jackets and ties for men and dresses or pantsuits for women. Casual attire includes sport shirts and slacks for men and sundresses or pantsuits for women.
Number of Formal Nights: Three-, four- and five-night cruises have one formal night; six- to 11- and 13-night cruises have two formal nights; and 12-night, 14-night and longer cruises have three formal nights.
Nightly Casual Option: The Windjammer cafe is the laid-back evening choice -- though tank tops and caps are not allowed during dinner.
Written Restrictions and Jeans: No caps, tank tops or bathing suits are permitted in the dining room. Shorts are not allowed during dinner. "Tasteful" jeans (with no blemishes, tears or mis-sizing) are permissible, according to a Royal Caribbean spokesperson.
The Code: The atmosphere onboard is casual. Most nights are informal, with "resort wear" appropriate. A jacket or shawl, though not required, is recommended.
Number of Formal Nights: There are two gala evenings per Caribbean cruise and one or two per European sailing, depending on length. Suits for men and cocktail dresses for women are recommended.
Nightly Casual Option: For diners wishing for an even more relaxed vibe, a nightly buffet is offered.
Written Restrictions and Jeans: In restaurants, the cruise line asks passengers to not wear beach clothes (shorts, sarongs or flip-flops); shoes are required. Though Costa does not reference jeans directly in its written policy, denim is allowed in the dining room, according to a spokesperson.
The Code: Azamara's dress code is "resort casual"; acceptable attire includes sportswear, golf shirts, shorts, pants and jackets (if desired, but not required) for men and sportswear, shorts, casual dresses, skirts and pants for women.
Number of Formal Nights: The line says "Formal evening wear is not expected nor required. If you prefer to dress more formally, you are welcome to do so," but there are no formal nights. Also, tuxedo rentals are not available onboard.
Nightly Casual Option: All restaurants are "resort casual," but Windows Cafe (the buffet option) allows for an even more relaxed option.
Written Restrictions and Jeans: No bare feet, tank tops, caps, bathing suits, shorts or jeans are allowed in the dining room or specialty restaurants. It's in writing. No jeans in the dining room or specialty restaurants, but jeans are OK in the buffet.