From a corporate gala or charity fundraiser to an evening wedding, formal events vary in type. Likewise, formal attire encompasses a range of distinct dress codes, so understanding the differences among these dress codes is essential. Choosing the right outfit on the broad spectrum of formal attire ensures you’ll enjoy the event without ever second-guessing your outfit.


Levels of Formality

Understanding the dress codes defined broadly as formalwear helps you determine what attire is most appropriate for your event.

White tie is the most formal dress code. Men wear tuxedos featuring a black jacket with tails, white bow tie and optional white vest. Women opt for floor-length evening gowns in dark colors.

Black tie calls for men to wear a black tuxedo jacket and black bow tie with an optional cummerbund or vest. Dressy cocktail dresses, along with the classic floor-length evening gowns, are appropriate for women.

Black tie optional is a notch below black tie, meaning men can wear black tuxedos or dark suits. Cocktail dresses are the typical choice for women.

Factors to Consider

The event specifics dictate the type of formal attire you should wear.

Dress code — Check the invitation to determine if your host specified a formalwear dress code, which can guide your attire choices.
Event time — Evening events are typically more formal than daytime ones, so an evening event calls for more formal attire, such as black tie.
Event location — The event location gives you a hint of the level of formality. A gala in an upscale ballroom will likely be more formal than an outdoor garden wedding, for example.

Formal Looks for Men

Because formal dress codes vary, men have several choices when choosing the right outfit for the occasion.

Tuxedos should be paired with a starched and pleated shirt. White or black bow ties are appropriate, depending on the dress code. If the event’s dress code is creative black tie, a patterned bow tie, non-white shirt or patterned vest or cummerbund is appropriate.

Dark suits with conservative button-down shirts and ties are acceptable for formal events not specified as white tie or black tie.

Well-cared-for leather shoes pair well with formal outfits. Wear patent leather shoes with a tuxedo.

Feminine Styles

Women can choose either gowns or separates depending on the formality of the occasion.

Floor-length evening gowns should feature a dressy fabric, such as taffeta or satin. Choose dark colored evening gowns in hues of black, navy and gray for evening affairs. Daytime events during warm months call for lightweight but luxurious fabrics such as silk chiffon or silk crepe.

Knee-length cocktail dresses or the classic little black dress are also appropriate for formal occasions. For black tie optional events, dressy separates are another choice — for example, women can pair a silk blouse with well-tailored pants and a pair of pumps.