Formal attire is clothing that is appropriate for extremely formal events, such as weddings, dances, and other special occasions. This type of attire can generally be broken into two categories: white tie and black tie. Determining what to wear to a formal event also depends on the time of day and context of the event. Unless an invitation specifically states otherwise, formal attire usually means a tuxedo and black bow tie for men and an evening gown or very smart cocktail dress for women.
White tie is the most formal of formal attire. When an invitation states white tie or evening dress, a man is expected to wear a black tailcoat with black trousers with a stripe of black satin down the outside seam and white suspenders. Under the tailcoat, he should wear a stiff fronted white shirt with a wing collar, white bow tie, and white waistcoat. Shoes should be black patent leather.
Shirt studs and cufflinks should be white or silver. Optional accessories include a white pocket square and white boutonniere. White evening gloves may also be worn, although they are uncommon for most events. A black top hat is also traditional for white tie formal attire.
For women, the appropriate accompaniment to white tie formal attire is the ball gown. Depending on the event, it may be inappropriate to wear a gown that does not cover the shoulders. Although a ball gown is most appropriate, the strict requirements have relaxed somewhat, and a floor-length evening dress is often acceptable. Cocktail or tea-length dresses are really not suitable.
Long gloves, usually in white, are also common; they are removed when seated for dinner. Jewelry is typically made of precious metals and stones, and diamonds are always a popular choice. Bracelets should be worn over the gloves. A wrap or shawl and appropriate dress shoes should complete the outfit.
Technically, white tie should only be worn to events held after 6 PM. For daytime occasions, the equivalent formal attire is a morning coat.
Black tie or "dinner jacket" is slightly less formal than white tie. It requires men to wear a standard tuxedo consisting of a black short coat or dinner jacket and matching black pants, usually with a stripe of black satin down the outside seam. A white dress shirt with a plain or pleated front and a wing or turndown collar should be worn, along with black cummerbund or evening waistcoat. As the name would suggest, a black bow tie is also required; a white pocket square can also be added. Shoes should also be black, usually in patent leather.
Modern black tie does offer some variations for men. Midnight blue is often an acceptable alternative to black, for example, although any other color is not appropriate for most formal events. Jackets may be single- or double-breasted; single-breasted jackets usually have one or two buttons, while double-breasted may have up to six. The lapel can be shawl, peaked, or notched. A touch of color in the vest, cummerbund, or pocket square can also personalize a look, although it should be subtle and limited to just one accessory.
Women generally have a larger choice of formal attire for black tie events than they do for white tie. While a formal evening gown is most traditional, a dressy cocktail dress or tea-length dress may also be appropriate. Jewelry choice should be still the best a woman owns, and shoes should be appropriate to the dress. When dancing is a part of the event, a woman should choose a dress that will allow for this; a skintight gown might not be the best option if a woman does not feel comfortable moving in it.
Daytime Formal Attire
The most formal daytime events usually require a black frockcoat or morning coat, accompanied with standard elements of white tie. Sometimes, particularly at daytime weddings, the morning coat or frockcoat is colored; light grey and white are occasional choices. At a wedding, men may not be required to wear white tie even with the groom and groomsmen are wearing white tie morning dress. Most guests at a formal day event can wear black tie formal attire, though the morning coat is more traditional wear.
For most formal events, some variations on the standard white/black tie options are possible. The national costume of the wearer's country may be worn to white tie occasions, when specified. Military mess dress may also be worn to most formal events. Heads of state and other government officials may wear additional accessories, such as sashes or medals. During the summer, a white dinner jacket can be worn for a black tie event in warm climates.
Formal vs. Semi-Formal
Traditionally, formal attire referred only to white tie; semi-formal indicated black tie dress. In modern times, however, a man would probably be overdressed if he wore a tuxedo to a semi-formal event. If in doubt, a guest should consider the nature of the event and contact the host or hostess if the invitation is unclear.
I have never worn a ball gown and would love to have the opportunity to dress up like this. I would want everything from the fancy dress to the long white gloves and the expensive jewelry.
Maybe I am just a hopeless romantic, but I think this would be so much fun. I dress up more than most of my friends, but I feel so much more confident when I have nice clothes on than when I am running around in sweats and a t-shirt. I am not talking about wearing formal business attire all the time, but looking classy and professional instead of sloppy.
@icecream17 -- I agree that we seem to be moving towards a more casual society. My son was recently complaining because he was an usher in a wedding and had to pay $150 to rent the tuxedo. He said all he did was seat a few people and felt like it was a lot to pay for just a few hours.
I told him it was appropriate to wear formal wedding attire for this occasion and he would probably do the same thing when he gets married some day. If the people in the wedding party showed up with regular clothes on it just wouldn't be very appropriate.
I have seen some pretty casual clothes at weddings lately. I know some wedding are more casual than others, but if it is taking place in a church I don't think a person should wear blue jeans. You would be surprised how many times I have seen this recently.
I love to get dressed up for events such as a wedding or a party. I have a black cocktail dress that is perfect for occasions like this. Once I put this on with the right accessories I feel so dressed up and feminine.
Our company has an annual Christmas party which most people dress up for. While you are not required to wear formal evening attire, most people are much more dressed up than what they wear to work every day. I also enjoy seeing what everyone else is wearing to this event. Some people look quite a bit different than they do at work, especially if they go get their hair done as well.
I have never attended a white tie event, and would not even know where to begin dressing for an event like this. I don't think I have to spend too much time thinking about it because I doubt it will ever happen in my lifetime. I don't even own anything that would be considered formal wear attire. While it may be fun to be a part of something like this once in my lifetime, I don't really ever see it happening. I will just enjoy watching what other people wear to events like this.
@suntan12 - That is so true. It is sad when people don’t take the time to dress up anymore. Many women think that wearing a simple dress that they would wear to work at a formal dinner, is acceptable, but it really makes a negative impact. We are becoming more casual as a society but is that really a good thing?
Thanks for the great article. More and more people should be educated on what formal attire means. When a function calls out for formal attire the guests should respond with the appropriate attire. The lack of respect demonstrated by the seemingly casual dress not only detracts from the event but really makes a negative impact on the festivities. When people go to a formal function and do not dress to the occasion, it says a lot about them. If a person does not make the extra effort to secure the appropriate attire for that one evening, then when will they ever?
The frock coat's heyday was many decades ago -- it diminished in popularity through the twenties and thirties, finally dying a peaceful death in 1936. The morning coat is the most formal outfit worn today.
Daytime formal-wear is _never_ worn with white-tie accessories -- I have no idea where that idea came from. The (black or grey) morning coat is worn with grey striped trousers, a grey or cream/buff vest, a wing collar shirt and ascot tie (alternately a turn-down collar and necktie), optional top hat, and black dress shoes and socks (preferably black oxford shoes.) The stroller jacket, which is the day equivalent of the tuxedo, is worn with the same accessories, except that the turn-down collar and necktie are standard.
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