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Whether all your friends are suddenly hosting formal weddings or you’ve snagged an invitation to a swanky red carpet event, you’ll likely need some black-tie formal wear—or at least know what it is—in the future. 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 isn’t going to work, obviously, but is a cocktail dress going to cut it—or do we need something that’s worthy of the Oscars? It’s all a little bit (OK, a lot) confusing.
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 *literally* anything else that calls for black tie attire. Whether you’re someone who loves to get dressed up in a gown or chic suit or you prefer to stay home in jeans and a tee, you’ll feel like a formalwear pro after perusing our little guide. Though some of the terms might come from traditions that we don’t necessarily adhere to anymore, there are still ways to follow them so you’re dressed appropriately—no matter your personal style.
So next time you get a fancy invitation in the mail with the words “black-tie formal” printed on it, you’ll know exactly what to wear. Keep reading to learn what black-tie formal really means, whether or not some etiquette rules still hold up and everything else there is to know about dressing for a formal event. You’re welcome.
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Black-Tie Formal Wear: What It Actually Means
Black tie is a dress code for social functions that start after 6 PM, and basically translates to, “This party is fancy and you should dress accordingly.” Because traditional gender norms have changed through the years, the term is a bit outdated. Originally, when an event was black-tie formal, it meant that men should wear tuxedos. Of course, anyone—no matter their gender identity—can wear a suit or a dress, so the functionalities of the term are a little different. We’ll get into the details below.
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 those who wish to wear a dress, it’s customary to wear floor-length gowns, though 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, you 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 or an elevated suit (if you’d rather skip the tuxedo), work too.
Depending on the event, you might want to opt for a more neutral tone, but if the soiree is bit on the fun side, we love this Rebecca Vallance pink silk dress.
This v-neck sequin gown is another fun option—and gives us total Gatsby vibes. Pair it with some gold or black pumps and simple jewelry, and you’re set.
Though this Badgley Mischka blazer is covered in sequins, it’s totally elegant and ready to star at your next formal event.
Black Tie Optional: What It Means
If you receive an invite with the term “black tie optional” know that it mostly applies to folks (typically, but definitely not limited to, men) who may or may not own or want to wear a tuxedo. For those who prefer dresses, it means you have the option of wearing a full-length gown, or choosing a cocktail dress—so long as the style is relatively conservative. This often means that longer hemlines are preferred, and long slits are not. Essentially, if you choose to wear a shorter or cocktail dress, make sure it’ll hold up in a room full of formal tuxedos and gowns.
Wearing Red To A Formal Affair: What’s The Deal?
This dated fashion rule was originally put into place during more conservative times when red was thought to be a way-too-sexy, attention-stealing color. Sure, you might want to stay away from wearing a skin-tight red plunging spandex gown to a wedding or black-tie affair, but in this case, the color isn’t the reason why. These days, there are plenty of high-style red dresses that are perfectly acceptable as formal wear. Celebrities often wear red gowns that look elegant and classic, so go ahead and don a red hot look yourself.
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.
The ’90s slip dress is back, folks, and it looks absolutely gorgeous in red. You can’t go wrong with the Bardot Jassie Slip Dress for any formal occasion.
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 most folks are usually clued into the fact that wearing white is a don’t, it might 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.
Covering Up: Jackets, Coats & More
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.
A classic gray overcoat is perfect for throwing over your formalwear in the winter. If you don’t have a lot to spend, this Missguided pick is a game-changer.
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.