Dressing For A Formal Event: How To Know What To Wear

Formal events are always going to be a part of our lives at some point or another, and in many cases, dressing for these formal events is surprisingly easy. If an invitation indicates black-tie attire, then it is assumed that you must wear a tuxedo. The same goes for white-tie events; while less common today, this is considered the most formal of all dress codes, and there are very specific things that one would need to wear for an event like this.

However, since the universe sometimes likes to entertain itself at everyone else's expense, many invitations to formal events only imply a particular dress code, and it is not always clear what is appropriate and what is not. Even the terms "formal" and "semi-formal" mean something totally different now than they did in the past, where the terms were used to describe white-tie and black-tie events, respectively. Even funerals, while not usually described as formal events in the traditional sense of the word, imply a particular standard of dress; while a black suit is certainly appropriate, wearing a tuxedo might be taken as tasteless or offensive. But for a good portion of events, the definition of what is acceptable attire can get a little muddy.

While it's a common belief that you wouldn't wear a tuxedo in a church, what happens when you have to show up to a black-tie wedding? Is it appropriate then? How much can you bend the rules at a black-tie-optional event? Do they mean "semi-formal" in the casual sense or the older black-tie meaning? Is there really a difference between country-club casual and informal? If you are as confused as we sometimes are, have no fear. This article will help to decode the etiquette surrounding proper attire for any event that requires more than just a shirt and a pair of shoes.


As we've said before, many dress codes are pretty straightforward, but other times they can be a bit tricky. To start, we'll look at the white-tie dress code, which is considered to be the most formal of all dress codes. While black-tie has mostly replaced this style for even the most rigidly formal events, it does pop up in certain regions, social circles, and is especially used with more frequency during weddings and state dinners. It is quite rare these days, but it's still helpful to know the basics if you're ever in the position of having to attend a white-tie event.

The most prominent white-tie features are a tailcoat, a low-cut white waistcoat, and a white bow tie worn with a wing-tipped collar. Many decades ago, white top hats, canes, and scarves were common, but today these accessories are very rare—almost nonexistent—as they are considered to be over the top by even the most formal circles. Think of the white-tie dress code as black-tie on steroids; chances are you will never have to worry about it, but knowing the basics will keep you ahead of the game if you're ever invited to a "formal" formal event. 


Although black-tie dress code tends to be the most rigid, there is still room for some variations. Collars can be wing-tipped or forward-point, and your cufflinks and studs can generally be of your choosing so long as they are subtle and tasteful. Waistcoats, or vests, can be worn with or without suspenders underneath, but cummerbunds should never be worn with suspenders. It is also more common today to forego the waistcoat or cummerbund in favor of just suspenders or sometimes nothing at all. Just make sure to always wear a black bow tie.

Black-tie is likely the most formal dress code you will encounter. In some circles, this dress code is still referred to as "semi-formal" but this has fallen out of common usage, as that term oftentimes applies to casual dress. Black-tie, as you may know already from reading our previous articles on the black-tie dress code and the difference between the suit and the tuxedo, requires a jacket and pants with satin trim, as well as a cummerbund or waistcoat, a black bow tie, and patent leather shoes. In short, black-tie is the most formal dress code for most events, most of the time.

Black-Tie Optional

This is a slightly less formal spinoff of the black-tie dress code. While it is perfectly acceptable to wear a full tuxedo at a black-tie optional event, there are certain liberties you can take that don't necessarily conform to rigid black-tie fare. For example, a slim necktie with a forward-point collar would be perfectly acceptable to wear with a tuxedo at a black-tie optional event, and you may want to get a little more creative with your pocket squares, cufflinks, and the color of your bow tie if you decide to go that route.

In some instances you may opt to wear a suit in lieu of a tuxedo, but if you decide to do this just make sure that the suit isn't too bright or loud. Subdued, subtle classic colors like black and charcoal grey will be more favorable than bright reds and pastel shades. These brighter colors, however, might be acceptable if you choose to wear a tuxedo. A tux in a color other than standard black will certainly help you stand out, and you shouldn't hesitate to try this so long as you feel comfortable with it. Many people enjoy the added flexibility with a black-tie optional dress code, but when in doubt, it's best to err on the side of formality.

Formal, "Formal," Semi-Formal, or "Semi-Formal?"

When it comes to formal and semi-formal attire, context is going to be more important than anything else. Another point to keep in mind is that even if you don't quite exactly pull off the look that you were looking for—or what was expected from the event's host—a tailored custom suit will always compensate for a suit that is ill-fitted or frumpy. If you end up in a suit that looks very sharp and contoured to your body shape, you will be able to bend the rules on dress codes a little bit more than you would if you rushed in choosing an off-the-rack option. The term semi-formal has also come to mean something dressier than informal rather than the traditional black-tie meaning. A semi-formal event might expect guests to wear at least a sport coat, but a full suit and tie may not be necessary. While this varies by region in the United States, the difference in what these terms mean becomes more prominent when you're dealing with other countries. As a general rule, North America tends to be more informal than Europe, and the terms formal and semi-formal will likely be seen as dressier on the latter continent. This is where most people get confused about dress codes. As we mentioned earlier, formal and semi-formal can refer to white-tie and black-tie occasions, respectively. But this meaning is starting to fall out of favor. These terms can also vary greatly by region; what is considered formal in Connecticut might be vastly different from what formal means in New Mexico. If you receive a wedding invitation and formal attire is indicated, this generally means that wearing a suit is expected at the very least, as white-tie weddings are exceedingly rare these days.

Cocktail Attire

As cocktail attire is a very common dress code term, it is also one of the most broadly encompassing forms of attire. In many circles, formal, semi-formal, and even black-tie optional often fall under this broad category. In the traditional sense of the phrase, cocktail attire generally suggests that a dark suit and a tie should be worn. But as you will notice as you attend cocktail parties and evening events, this is almost never uniform. Cocktail attire normally includes "formal" dress, the upper end of what would be considered "semi-formal," and elements of the black-tie optional dress code, only slightly less rigid. When preparing for a cocktail party, a black or charcoal suit with a white shirt and a necktie with a darker shade will normally put you right in the center of what is appropriate for this attire. If you decide to sport a pocket square, you can get a little more creative with the patterns and colors as opposed to black-tie or black-tie optional. The best way to think of cocktail attire is in terms of what you would normally wear to an office and what you would put on before heading out to a formal evening awards ceremony; anything between these assumed standards, with a slight preference for the formal side, will give you the happy medium you're looking for. Just always make sure that your waist matches your feet, and for cocktail attire, black is always the preferred choice for belts and shoes.

With all the different dress codes that exist, and the variations each one has, it makes the most sense to have a variety of clothing options in your wardrobe, and Enzo Custom can make this happen. Whether you need a tuxedo for a black-tie event or pastel suits for more informal events, especially during the summer months, our clothiers can get you into an ensemble that will best fit your style and personal comfort level. By visiting our online store and using our custom suit builder, or experiencing one of our immaculate showrooms in person after you book your private appointment, Enzo Custom can get you into your next suit, tuxedo, or blazer for your next formal or not-so-formal event. If we know anything more than suits, tuxedos, accessories, and custom shirts, it is certainly dress codes and when they should be applied.

1 comment

  • I’m thankful that your article mentions the importance of determining what style of dress is acceptable for the event in question. My spouse is having a formal event in a few weeks. I’ll look into purchasing a dress shirt for the occasion. https://bradleyallen.com/product/bradley-allen-physique-tailored-shirt/

    Lloyd Bronson

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