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What You Should Wear to a Formal (or Black-Tie Optional) Wedding

A man in a suit carrying a coffee, a woman in a gown wearing a grey shawl, and a man in a tuxedo.

Like so many things in our modern world, the word “formal” doesn’t mean what it used to. If you’ve been invited to a wedding or special event that specifies formal or black-tie optional attire, we’ll explain exactly what that means. We’ve also included some suggestions that would be suitable for both men and women.

Previously, the word “formal” probably gave you visions of bow ties, tails, and evening gowns. These days, however, if that’s what the hosts intend, they’ll usually specify an event as black or white tie. A formal or black-tie optional dress code is a bit more relaxed. Let’s delve into the details and find you something to wear!

What Does Formal or Black-Tie Optional Mean?

A man and woman dressed in formal attire at an outdoor wedding.

The term formal or black-tie optional essentially means tuxedos and floor-length gowns aren’t required, but they’re still appropriate.

Most likely, though, you don’t even own any truly formal clothes because, for most of us, these types of events are few and far between. Luckily, this dress code gives guests some welcome flexibility when it comes to what they wear. Essentially, your hosts expect you to look your best, but you don’t have to run out and buy a formal dress or rent a tuxedo.

Black-tie optional overlaps a bit with cocktail attire. However, when in doubt, it’s always best to go a bit dressier. The following are all occasions that might require formal/black-tie optional attire:

  • Weddings
  • Fundraisers
  • Galas
  • Dinner parties

If the dress code for an event isn’t specified, you’re usually safe showing up in cocktail attire. If it’s one of the events listed above, or if it seems like it might be quite a classy affair, going formal is usually a safe bet.

Formal/Black-Tie Optional Wear for Women

A woman in a charcoal grey formal gown with lace bodice, a woman wearing a light grey lace shawl, and a woman wearing silver Mary Jane shoes.

Generally, a floor-length gown is the norm for ladies at these types of events. However, tea-length (meaning the skirt falls below the knee to mid-calf) is also a safe choice. A glam suit or jumpsuit will also work if you prefer slacks.

All of the following are appropriate for women attending a black-tie optional event:

  • Tea-length cocktail dresses
  • Evening gowns
  • Suits
  • Lower necklines
  • Luxurious fabrics, like velvets, satins, and silks.

Heels or fancy pumps are the ideal footwear for women at such events. However, especially with a floor-length gown, dressy flats are fine.

Plus, as formal events like these are typically held in the evening, you can go big with the accessories. Think sparkly, chunky jewelry and heavier evening makeup. Just remember to keep it classy.

Don’t forget a pretty clutch or even some evening gloves if you prefer. Again, you don’t have to get this fancy, but you can if you want to.

Let’s take a look at some examples to give you a better idea:

A woman showing the front and back of the beaded bodice chiffon ball gown in charcoal gray.

If you want to go for the full formal look without breaking the bank, this beaded chiffon gown by Xscape will do it. It’s available in four colors has a back zip and a built-in soft-cup bra.

A model showing the front and back of the DKNY Tie-Waist Surplice Dress in Navy.

If you’d prefer something a bit more casual and versatile, this navy tea-length tie-waist dress from DKNY is perfect. Suitable for a black-tie event or any evening on the town, it features a permanent-wrap skirt and removable belt.

A woman displaying the front and back of the Marina Sequin Split-Back Jumpsuit

For ladies who prefer pants, you can’t go wrong with something like this gorgeous sequined-top jumpsuit by Marina. Featuring dolman sleeves and a sexy split back, you’ll be comfy and formal.

Finally, don’t forget the accessories! We’ve included a few recommendations below:

DREAM PAIRS Kucci Classic Pointed Toe High Heel, Silver/Glitter

Silver is always a safe bet for a wedding, but these come in a variety of colors.

IDIFU Jessy Dress Mary Jane Heels

For those who prefer something a bit funkier (and easier to dance in).

Naimo Flap Dazzling Small Clutch Evening Bag, Silver

Your purse should match your shoes.

RIIQIICHY Women's Floral Lace Shawl

For those windy days or chilly evenings.

Formal/Black-Tie Optional Wear for Men

Different solid-colored pocket squares fanned out, a burgundy bow tie and matching pocket square on a mannequin, and four sets of black and silver cufflinks.
Jeatonge/Barry Wang/ORAZIO

Leave the light-colored linen suits at home, gents, and opt instead for something in charcoal grey or black. If you have a tuxedo, you’re done! However, you don’t have to rent or buy one if you don’t.

You’ll want to lose the colorful, short-sleeved dress shirts, as well, and pick up a formal, long-sleeved version (French cuffs with cufflinks are ideal, but not required).

For men, all of the following are acceptable at a formal or black-tie optional event:

  • Tuxedos
  • Dark-colored suits
  • White, long-sleeved dress shirts
  • Regular or bow ties

Your tie should be conservative and in a solid color (sorry—that tie covered in beer pints your kids got you for Father’s Day will have to stay home). When it comes to footwear, a pair of shined leather dress shoes will do nicely—just make sure they’re comfy enough to boogie all night in!

You’ll want a belt that matches your shoes, and dress socks that match your suit. A pocket square that matches your tie, cufflinks, and/or tie clip would all be nice touches.

To help you narrow down your selections, here are some examples:

A man wearing the Calvin Klein Slim-Fit Shawl Color Tuxedo Jacket.
Calvin Klein

If you don’t own a tuxedo, one thing you could do to instantly upgrade your formal look is to get yourself a tuxedo jacket, like this shawl collar option from Calvin Klein. You can simply wear it with a pair of black dress pants you already own or pick up a new pair for the occasion.

A man wearing a black suit jacket and a man wearing black dress pants.
Haggar/Pronto Uomo

Again, tuxedos aren’t required for a black-tie optional event. If you already have a suit in black or dark grey, that will work just fine. However, if you need to pick up a new suit jacket, this classic-fit option by Haggar would make a nice addition to your closet.

And an affordable pair of Pronto Uomo dress pants in black would pair perfectly with your new jacket if you want to complete the look. These modern-fit pants are more comfortable than the slim-fit style, and ideal for receptions and events where dancing will be a major part of the evening.

A man wearing a white dress shirt with French cuffs and a white, ribbed tuxedo dress shirt with a black bow tie.
Alimens & Gentle/Milani

For your dress shirt, any long-sleeved white option you have in your closet will work. Just be sure to iron it or have it pressed before the big event. Again, for a more formal look, you can opt for French cuffs with cufflinks, like this option from Alimens & Gentle.

Or, if you’re wearing a full tuxedo or a tuxedo jacket, you can opt for the classic ribbed tuxedo shirt, like this one from Milani—it even comes with a bow tie.

Milani Tuxedo Shirt with French Cuffs and Bow Tie

Comes with the tie, so that's one thing less you have to buy!

When it comes to accessories, again, you’ll also want to keep it conservative, but you can add a splash of color. For example, you might want to choose a tie or pocket square that matches what your spouse or date will be wearing.

Below, we’ve included a few suggestions to put you on the right track:

Barry Wang Paisley Woven Silk Necktie Set w/Pocket Suqare Cufflinks

Three for one: tie, pocket square, and cufflinks!

Barry Wang Pre-Tied Silk Bow Tie Set w/Pocket Square & Cufflinks

Prefer a bow tie, but can never tie it right? Not a problem with this pre-tied set.

MOZETO Tie Clip Set

Four solid colors to match any of your ties.

Pocket Squares, 20 Pack

You'll have a pocket square to match all of your ties with this handy 20-pack.

ORAZIO Cufflinks, Four Pairs

Simple, elegant, and perfect for any occasion when you need to look your best.

Clarks Men's Tilden Cap Oxford Dress Shoe

Keep it simple with the shoes--just make sure they're shined.

Men's Genuine Leather Dress Belt

Your belt should match your shoes.

Easton Marlowe Dress Socks, Six Pack

You guessed it--your socks should also match your shoes and belt.

Dress codes for events can be really confusing now, especially since certain classifications don’t mean what they used to. If you’ve been invited to a formal or black-tie optional wedding or special event, these suggestions will help you dress appropriately from head to toe!

Amanda Gambill Amanda Gambill
Amanda is the Managing Editor for LifeSavvy. She’s been writing and editing professionally since 2004. In her spare time, Amanda reads stuff no one else does (classics and historical bios), watches documentaries that put others to sleep (ancient cookware archaeologists found under a McDonald's), and writes stories about things that go bump in the night. Read Full Bio »
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