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formal wedding attire

Understanding Formal Attire for Weddings

Have you gotten an invite to a wedding and were confused about the dress code? If you aren’t familiar with the terminology of formal attire, labels such as white-tie, black-tie, and semi-formal may seem alien to you. Luckily, this breakdown of formal wedding attire will help you choose the perfect outfit for when you attend a wedding. 

Along with clear definitions of each kind of dress code most popular at weddings, you can find examples of each formal attire that may inspire you on your shopping day. In no time, you will come to understand what formal attire means and what outfits best fit the wants of the marrying couple. 


What is Formal Attire?

Formal attire typically consists of a range from a flowy gown to an elegant cocktail dress and even a stylish pantsuit. Men are generally limited to tuxedos and bow ties unless it is specifically stated otherwise, which will be covered below. 

If you want a more in-depth understanding of what you need to wear for a wedding, it is best to research the wedding venue and location to grasp the scenic vibe of the area. For example, you wouldn’t want to wear a tropical dress inside of a ballroom hall since you will stand out against the venue scenery. 

Otherwise, you can learn about the differences between the various types of formal attire and seek inspiration for your outfit through these wonderful ideas for each category. 


White Tie Formal

white tie formal attire

When you see the words “white tie” on a wedding invitation, then the dress code is pretty much as strict as it comes. It is the highest on the list of formal attire that a person could get. If one could describe it, the dress code is simply ballroom attire. Other names for it may include “full dress,” “evening dress,” or “tails.” 

Generally, men would wear a black jacket with a tail, a white pique vest, a bow tie, and black formal shoes. If you want to dive more into the style, you can even wear white gloves for an added touch. 

Women would wear floor-length ball gowns. Paired with glamorous jewelry, elegant makeup,  a top-notch hairstyle, and gorgeous heels, the white tie dress code should have you feeling like Cinderella at the ballroom party. 


white tie men formal attire

Men’s White Tie Essentials

  • Black single-breasted tailcoats made of barathea (wool) or ultrafine herringbone worn unbuttoned.
  • White pique shirt with detachable wing collar and double cuffs. The shirt may close with white or decorative studs and be paired with cufflinks. 
  • White marcella waistcoat topped with a white marcella bowtie. 
  • Black trousers and polished, laced black shoes with black socks. 


full length dress

Women’s White Tie Essentials

  • Long, full-length evening gown with (traditionally) exposed neckline. 
  • Short or tall heels that coordinate or accent the color of the dress. 
  • Flashy jewelry such as jews and gems. Tiaras can be worn only by adults. 
  • Elbow-length gloves are accepted but not required. 
  • Handheld purse or a small purse with a long, thin strap. 


Black Tie Formal 

black tie wedding attire

Only one step less formal than white tie, black tie is one of the most popular formal attire for ballroom-like weddings. You may also see the words “dinner jacket” or “tuxedo” on the invitation that indicate that black tie will be the dress code for the wedding. 

Men would typically wear tuxedos with a black bowtie. Black pants and black leather shoes are also a popular choice for men’s black-tie attire. Unlike white tie, gloves are not a usual addition to the get-up for black tie. 

Women have a bit more freedom with the dress length in this dress code. You may wear a full-length evening gown or a cocktail dress. Talk to the couple or people who are associated with the wedding party committee to get information about the exact length requirements for the dress. 


wedding tuxedo

Men’s Black Tie Essentials 

  • Black wool or ultra-fine herringbone jacket with covered buttons. White jackets may be accepted during warmer seasons. Tuck a white handkerchief in the left pocket for a fancy touch.
  • White shirt with a turn-down collar paired with cufflinks and black or decorative studs. Another option is a white silk shirt without any frills or ruffles. 
  • Black bow-tie. It is best to tie the bow yourself to match the proportions of the bow to your body. 
  • Cummerbunds are an optional addition to your tuxedo but should be dark shades like burgundy or black. Waistcoats can be worn as a replacement for cummerbunds.
  • Black trousers with patent leather dress shoes and black socks. 


cocktail attire

Women’s Black Tie Essentials

  • Flowing gown that avoids princess-styled, voluminous skirts. In contrary to the “black tie” name, the dress does not have to be black. In fact, black is a color that is not always accepted at weddings. 
  • Another dress option is a cocktail dress. Be sure that the dress does not come above the knees. The neckline may be exposed but avoid leg slits and deep cleavage exposure. 
  • Great materials for the dresses include silk, crepe, or chiffon. Tights should be worn underneath. 
  • Trousers may be worn as a pantsuit option, but they should not be tight-fitting. 
  • Jewelry, handbags, and heels or flats are great additions to your attire. Avoid tiaras for black tie. 


Black Tie Optional

black tie optional formal attire

When the invitation says “black tie optional,” that means that the wedding dress code does not have to incorporate tuxedos and long gowns but these options are still fitting. Basically, the guests will have the option to dress for a black tie wedding or a bit more casually. 

Men can wear a tuxedo or a black suit. The suit should be formal, matching with a black tie and trousers. Tailcoats, cummerbunds, and waistcoats are not required but still accepted with tuxedoes. 

Women can wear anything from a long gown to a cocktail dress to a jumpsuit. The attire should still be classy, but you are not pressured to dress to the full nine yards. Natural makeup is very much accepted. 


black tie optional man's suit

Men’s Black Tie Optional Essentials

  • Tuxedos that match the description of black tie attire. 
  • Black suit consisting of a black jacket, a white buttoned shirt, black trousers, and patent leather dress shoes.
  • You may choose to wear a black bowtie or a business tie. 


formal jumpsuit

Women’s Black Tie Optional Essentials

  • Long, floor-length gown of any color.
  • A cocktail dress that does not exceed above the knees. You may consult the marrying couple or party planners for appropriate dress measurements. 
  • A fancy jumpsuit that is not tight-fitting. 
  • Handheld bags, decorative shoes, and classy jewelry. 


Questions Also Asked

Answers to all of your questions about formal wedding attire!


Is a short dress okay for a formal wedding?

As a precaution, you should avoid short dresses when attending formal weddings. The most accepted dress lengths would be from the knees to your ankles.

If you are still unsure about the dress code, contact the marrying couple or the party planners to get an exact estimate of how long your dress should be. 


What colors should you not wear to a wedding?

All shades of white are unacceptable to wear to a wedding as it is the color for the bride. Pastels are also rejected as they can be quite close to the color white.

Black is a color that some people avoid for weddings as the happy day may call for happier colors, but it’s acceptable.  Neon colors, red, and gold (metallics) should be avoided to keep all attention on the happy couple. 


What is meant by formal attire?

Formal attire typically means black tie optional, where men can wear tuxedos or suits and women can wear gowns, cocktail dresses, or jumpsuits. Unless stated otherwise, formal attire is more casual than white tie dress code but classier than semi-formal or casual attire.  



There are many different types of formal attire for weddings. Understanding the terminology of each dress code will help you determined the style of dress or suit you may wear as a guest to a friend’s or family member’s wedding ceremony. 

Of course, these are just the basics of different formal attire. To know exactly what is required for a wedding, ask the couple or party planners for specific restrictions concerning the dress code. Also, research the wedding venue and previous ceremonies that have taken place at the venue to get an idea of the type of vibe the area has in order to dress for the occasion. 

If you follow the basics for the types of formal attire, you will be able to find your perfect formal wedding attire in no time. Soon enough, you will feel classy at your next wedding appearance.

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Morgan Wilson

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