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Decoding Dress Codes: A Guide to Formal Attire

Man in formal attire attending an event.

From attending black-tie formal occasions to building the right business-casual wardrobe, you want to look your best. The dress code for any situation is built into the very core of the event. What you wear to a wedding, an opera, or a business meeting will display your mastery of the occasion with style and aplomb. Of course, most people don’t grow up automatically knowing the nuances of formal attire.

If you’re wondering about the subtle differences between black-tie events, formal events, and business casual attire, we are here to help. All you need are a few pointers to help you choose the right suit, dress, or ensemble to make a graceful entrance and look elegantly dressed for any occasion. 

This is your guide to formal attire, from black-tie to business casual, including high-end fashion choices for men and women.  

Black-Tie Formal Attire

Black-tie events are exceedingly formal. They tend to involve a dress code of tuxedos and long, elegant gowns.


Gentlemen will wear a tuxedo, featuring a black jacket, vest, and trousers, a pressed white tuxedo dress shirt, and a black bow tie. White-tie events are rare and even more formal, involving a white bow tie and sometimes white tuxedo jackets, pants, and vests.

Not all tuxedos are identical. Most tuxedos have a notch label, but you may notice that some have double-breasted. Your collar may be a traditional notched collar, a peak lapel, or a shawl-style collar.

The accessories worn with a tuxedo can mark your style and make you stand out. These include your choice of shirt, tie, socks, shoes, and cufflinks. Consider the event’s theme and the date when selecting color variations.

Gowns and Women’s Tuxes

Ladies will wear formal gowns at black-tie events, but a women’s tuxedo may also be appropriate, depending on the event and the lady. Gowns tend to be full-length and feature matte or satin fabrics rather than sparkle and flash. Women’s accessories are more noticeable, including a wide range of flattering jewelry, gloves, shoes, shawls or wraps, and handbags to match the occasion.


Both men and women should wear polished shoes appropriate for the occasion.

Formal Event Attire

Most formal events call for dark-colored suits, but ladies may explore a wide range of dresses in styles determined by the season and occasion.

Dark Suits

At this level of formality, gentlemen will select a dark suit, but the color depends on their personality and the event theme. Black, charcoal, and navy blue are all traditional colors. Gentlemen can also match their suit color to the event’s theme or the dress color their date will wear.

Lighter-colored suits are more festive and casual and more suitable for daytime events.

Suit vests are optional and dress shirts, while often white, can also be a pale color that compliments the color of the suit. Gentlemen can be more creative with their choice of tie and socks but should wear formal shoes.

Dresses, Ensembles, and Pantsuits

In a formal event, women are invited to wear gowns, dresses, skirt ensembles, or pantsuits. The available styles vary widely, but fabrics should be smooth and pressed. 

The length of your dress can be determined by the occasion and the time of day. Cocktail parties and afternoon events can welcome shorter, knee-length skirts, while late-night events are more likely to feature full-length gowns. Ensembles of blouses and skirts are acceptable if they are suitably formal in combination, or a lady can choose a formal pantsuit in a similar style to the gentlemen.

Formal footwear also features a wider range for ladies and may include open-toed shoes of suitable elegance.

Business Casual Attire

Navigating business casual offers the most options, but may also be more challenging. Business-causal has similar rules for men and women regarding color, fabric, and the ensembles that can be put together.

Shirts and Sport Coats

Starting with the shirt, business casual attire can include a wide range of fabrics, provided they are tightly woven and well-pressed. Knits, polos, henleys, dress shirts, and modest blouses are appropriate. You can also make a business-causal look slightly more formal with a structured or unstructured sports coat, a vest, or a formal sweater.

Business Casual Pants

The right pants for business-casual attire include trousers, slacks, and (sometimes) nice blue jeans.

  • Trousers – Trousers are formal pants that one might wear with a suit. They are often wool or a wool blend with a quarter top pocket and a crease down the center seam of the leg.
  • Slacks – Casual slacks tend to be cotton, linen, or a nice synthetic blend. They are more relaxed but with a formal cut and style, often with a quarter-top pocket. 
  • Jeans – High-quality blue jeans are sometimes acceptable. Favor darker blues that are undamaged (no holes or wear) and all one color.
  • Skirts – Ladies can combine a blouse or business casual shirt with a nice skirt from knee to ankle length. Pencil and A-line skirts are best, but maxi skirts may be appropriate in some work environments.


Ladies may wear a dress in a business-casual setting, provided the dress is suitably business-like. Pressed fabrics and smooth, professional lines are still appropriate, avoiding more casual or festive styles like sundresses, cocktail dresses, or sequins.


Your footwear should match the style of your clothes. The color of your shoes should match the color of your belt. Leather and solid synthetic shoes are usually appropriate, but some workplaces allow high-end boots or canvas sneakers. Your socks, however, can be entirely original and reflect your style.

The Formal Styles That Look Best on You

Finding an outfit that suits the occasion’s formality is important, but you should also seek out garments that make you look your best. Coordinate colors that flatter your complexion and garment styles tailored to your body’s natural shape. Everyone can look good in formal and business-casual attire with the right styles and a little custom tailoring.

You can find everything you need to build the perfect business-casual and formal wardrobe with made-to-measure tailored garments at Family Britches.

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