Wedding season is almost here, which means you might be faced with more formal attire than average. We’re not sure about you, but when we open our mailboxes and find an invitation to a black tie function, our thoughts immediately turn to what that dress code actually means. Casual wear is out, obviously, but is a cocktail dress going to cut it, or do we need to Rent the Runway?
That’s why we compiled a guide to black tie formal wear that’ll help you navigate what to wear to a wedding, event, gala, or anything else that calls for black tie attire.
Black-Tie Formal Wear: What It Actually Means
Black tie is a dress code for social functions that start after 6 p.m., and basically translates to “this party is fancy and men should wear tuxedos.” While the intricacies of black tie formal wear applies more to men than to women, it’s still important to understand that your attire should definitely be appropriate.
Gown or No Gown: Do I Have an Option?
Apart from white-tie affairs—which aren’t common—black tie is the most formal dress code you’ll probably face when to comes to weddings or galas. For women, it’s customary to wear floor-length gowns, but exceptions can be made.
Don’t own a gown and don’t particularly want to buy one for a one-off occasion? It’s perfectly acceptable to wear a cocktail dress you already have. However, if you do go this route, just make sure to keep the colors rich (black, jewel tones, chic metallics, brown) so as not to look too casual.
Conversely, women can wear a floor-length gown in a lighter shade, since the silhouette is inherently dressy. Another acceptable option for black-tie affairs: Chic separates, such as a silk blouse with a full satin skirt.
Black Tie Optional: What it Means for Women
If you receive an invite with the term “black tie optional” know that it mostly applies to men who may or may not own or want to wear a tuxedo. For women, it means you have the option of wearing a full-length gown, or opting for a cocktail dress, so long as the hemline isn’t too short or the style isn’t too revealing.
Essentially, ladies should choose a dress that’ll hold up alongside a room full of men in formal tuxedos, and women who potentially have chosen to wear gowns.
Wearing Red to a Formal Affair: What’s the Deal?
This dated fashion rule was put into place during more conservative times when red was thought to be a way-too-sexy, attention-stealing color. Yes, you might want to stay away from wearing a skin-tight red plunging spandex gown to a wedding or black-tie affair, but you probably don’t want to wear that in any color.
These days, there are tons of high-style red dresses that are perfectly acceptable as formal wear. Celebrities often wear red gowns that look elegant and classic, as opposed to tawdry.
A good rule of thumb: Choose red gowns that are made from rich silky fabrics like chiffon or organza, as opposed to shiny satin or anything too stretchy, and always keep embellishments to a minimum.
Wearing White to a Wedding: Yes or No?
Despite the fact that etiquette books say it’s perfectly fine to wear a white dress to someone else’s wedding so long as it’s not overtly “bridal,” we say proceed with caution. It’s become a pretty big no-no in modern times, and you could run the risk of offending the bride—even if it’s a given that you won’t take away any of her attention. Since every woman under the sun is clued into the fact that wearing white is a don’t, it’ll look like you made a conscious effort to cause some drama.
Your best bet: Save that ethereal white gown for another formal event that’s not a wedding.
Since several formal events take place in colder weather, you’ll need something to keep you warm. However, leave those cardigans, denim jackets and everyday puffers at home and invest in a fur (or faux-fur) jacket or classic overcoat, and a chic shawl or cashmere wrap in case you get chilly inside, or for spring and summer affairs.
After-Party Etiquette: Should I Stick With My Formal Wear?
Occasionally, the festivities won’t stop when the clock strikes midnight, as many couples organize after-parties when it’s a hotel wedding. Is it acceptable to change into jeans, or is keeping your formal wear on a must? This really depends on the location of the wedding. For example, if your hotel room is easily accessible, a lot of people do change.
But if it’s another venue, most people won’t. Feel out the situation to see what others are doing—you certainly don’t want to be the only one in jeans when others are still wearing gowns.
A version of this article was originally published in March 2016.