Decoding Formal Dress Code

The change in seasons marks an increase in events that require formal attire such as Senior Ball, graduation, graduation receptions and formals. Dressing up in formal wear can be tricky. You do not want to underdress for the event but overdressing is equally problematic. How do you know when your outfit fits the formal dress code adequately? How do you know if you’re overdressed or underdressed? Questions like these arise as we attempt to pick out our outfit for the event. Formal wear is also one of the most constricting forms of dress with all of its specific rules. However, with the right amount of knowledge and some creativity, one can achieve a balance between meeting the dress code and expressing some personality. Here is a comprehensive list that will provide you tips on what to wear for specific formal events and how liven these outfits up. 

Rules for Formal Wear:

Formal Wear and “Black Tie” 

Events that ask for formal attire typically expect males to wear collared shirts with ties and suit jackets with matching pants. However, if an event is classified as “black tie,” it is especially fancy, so a black tuxedo instead of a suit jacket is preferable. Wearing a collared shirt with a pleated front, vest and a black bow tie or tie can help elevate the level of typical formal wear. Females have the option of wearing a long evening gown, a dressy suit or a dressy “cocktail” dress. A cocktail dress is essentially an elegant dress that is around knee-length. It is hard to narrow down your ideal type of cocktail dress because of the infinite number of styles available. A good place to start is by figuring out what goes with your body shape. Heels are also a staple at formal events. If the event is “black tie” a floor-length gown with a matching clutch is more appropriate.


The biggest thing to keep in mind when figuring out what to wear to these types of events is that semi-formal does not mean casual. Even though ties are not necessary at semi-formal events, you still need to project sophistication through your attire. While wearing a tuxedo is considered going overboard, do not underdress by not wearing a suit jacket at all. A tailored dark suit with a collared shirt is expected at these events. At semi-formals, females are given a bit more leeway. The restriction to just gowns and cocktail dresses vanishes because the option to wear dressy separates is available. The term dressy separates refers to pairing a formal blouse with trousers, cigarette pants or a knee-length skirt. 

Ways to Liven up Formal Attire: 

Statement jewelry

A nice classic watch, tie clip or cuff links can help elevate a simple suit from basic to intricate. Wearing fun but sophisticated accessories such as dangling earrings, a bracelet cuff or a choker necklace with multiple layers and geometric designs helps to add layers and personality to an outfit. 

Complementing tie and pocket square

If you want to stand out a bit, wearing a tie paired with a pocket square will help. The tie and the pocket square do not have to match each other perfectly but the colors should be cohesive. Pocket squares are available in a wide variety of different colors and patterns. There are also many ways to fold a pocket square. 

Dress Shirt with an Unexpected Collar 

If the event you are attending provides a little bit more freedom, wearing a collared shirt that has a collar with a different color or a design on it is a bold choice. Collars that contrast with the color of the shirt or have some beading on them can add flair to a bland outfit for both males and females.  

Explore with Fabrics

Even when you are restricted by the dressiest of dress codes, the option to experiment with fabrics is always open. For example, for a black or dark colored bow tie or tie it can vary from silk, velvet, satin or twill. Evening gown and cocktail dress fabrics can vary from chiffon, lace, mesh, crepe, velvet and satin.

Contact Angie Diaz at [email protected].