How to Dress for a Formal Event

Deciphering the invite-only dress code

If you’re new to formalwear, you may not know the difference between black tie, white tie and semi-formal. That’s where our editors can help. Put aside those memories of the rented tuxedo and the one-size-fits-all groomsman suit. We’ll show you how to prep for a black tie affair with ease.


This is the most common dress code you will see on an invitation. Just like your RSVP, a suit and tie are definitely required. You can have fun with the rules, but within reason. Make sure you choose a dark suit and a crisp white shirt (no button-down collar, guys—think spread collars). Opt for a solid-colored tie in subtle shades of navy or black. A silk tie is au courant, but a knit tie can enliven the look. Mandatory are a pair of lace-up captoe or wingtip shoes in brown or black leather, but they must match the color and finish of your belt. If you choose to wear a French cuff shirt, wear cuff links that match the hardware on your belt.


Tuxedo required. There’s little room for deviation with black tie events, which lessens the chance for a sartorial misstep. Before you try to pass off a black suit as a tuxedo, please note that a tuxedo jacket has satin lapels (sometimes with grosgrain detail) and a one-button closure. Tuxedo pants will have a satin stripe along the side and either a plain or pleat front. A tuxedo shirt is also pleated, and has a spread collar to showcase a tie. You may opt to wear a vest instead of the classic cummerbund, but be sure it extends to your waist without showing your shirt beneath. Your tie should be made of satin and obviously black. Do wear black patent leather lace-up shoes with black socks. No exceptions. If you choose to wear a pocket square, be sure it is white and crafted of silk.


Rarefied and refined, white-tie events are the most formal. From society and inaugural balls to the the Met Gala, this is not the event to do your own thing. Tuxedo jackets should have a peak lapel with tails. Your dress shirt should be without pleats and bow tie should be a white cotton piqué. The quintessential white-tie accessory is the waistcoat. It should be made of cotton piqué and should cover the waistline, although occasionally it may be cut to extend neatly beneath the jacket. Black patent leather shoes as well as black socks are a must. For accessories, the white silk pocket square is essential, as are mother-of-pearl button studs and cuff links to keep everything unified and white.