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!
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:
- 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.
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
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
Alimens & Gentle Men's French Cuff Long-Sleeve Dress Shirt, Regular Fit
Will look perfect under any black suit jacket.
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!