What Is the Difference Between Formal & Semi Formal?

By Marie Sporich

From white tie to black tie and cocktail, dress codes can be confusing. We all want to respect the host's wishes when we attend an event, so it's crucial to know your dress-code guidelines. Formal and semi-formal dress codes are often utilized for similar occasions, so keep options on hand to suit both. White and black tie are slightly different formal dress codes, while semi-formal or cocktail require essentially the same attire. To be properly dressed for an occasion, learn the differentiating factors between these styles.

Portrait of a Smiling Ballroom Dancing Couple Sitting at a Table
credit: Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
An elegant white evening gown makes a beautiful complement to a white-tie tuxedo.

Formal White Tie

White tie is the dressiest option in formal wear. Often employed at weddings, galas and charity balls, this dress code is the most strict. Men are expected to wear a black tuxedo jacket with tails and matching trousers. A white, spread-collar shirt and waistcoat are other staples. A black or white bow tie is a must, while gloves are optional. Shoes should be black patent leather cap-toe or wing-tips. Ladies should wear their fanciest evening gown with a floor-length hemline. Embellishments like beading and sequins add drama, as does statement costume or fine jewelry. Shoes must be a pump or evening sandal with a heel, but gloves are optional.

Formal Black Tie

Black tie dress code is also formal, but more commonly utilized. Guys must still wear a black tuxedo and white collared shirt, but can forgo the waistcoat for a cummerbund. A long tie and bow tie are suitable options, but should be black to match. Wing-tip or cap-toe shoes should be black patent leather, while suspenders and cuff links are optional accessories. Today, women aren't required to wear a floor-length gown, though it is the traditional attire. Fancy dress options with a hemline between knee and mid-calf length are also acceptable. Choose luxurious fabrics or embellishments to dress up a higher hemline. High heels are necessary, and jewelry adds elegance.

Optional Evening Formal

Semi-formal attire for evening events like weddings can also sometimes say black tie optional. This leaves certain details at the discretion of guests, like whether to sport a suit or tuxedo. In lieu of a tux, a black or navy two- or three-piece suit is an option. Ties should be kept more conservative, and matching the suit adds formality. Shoes should be black patent or leather oxfords. Ladies can opt for an evening gown or cocktail dress, but heels are a necessity. Short dresses get more glamour in metallic hues or rich fabrics like brocade. If you choose a long evening gown, keep the accessories minimal.

Semi-Formal Cocktail

Semi-formal occasions range from cocktail parties to corporate events and holiday gatherings. Guys should wear their highest quality business suit with a dark silk or knit tie. A white dress shirt is still the standard, but a vest is optional. Shoes can be black or brown leather oxfords, but make sure they match the leather of your belt. Ladies can go for anything from a little black dress to fancy separates like androgynous tuxedo pants and a sequinned blouse. A short cocktail dress and pumps are a sure choice, but if you choose flats, make sure they are shiny patent leather or have extra embellishment.