How to dress formally

Closeup of a man tidying a bow tie

Cover all the basics of dressing formally
Image: Shutterstock

What should I wear? It’s the thought that runs through the mind of many a man when they’re invited to charity events, seasonal parties or other dressy occasions.

Formal dress codes can be a sartorial minefield.

But fear not. With a little guidance, you can avoid faux pas and master formal dress codes with aplomb.

What is formal dress?

Handkerchief in a suit pocket

A crisp handkerchief is the perfect accessory
Image: Quality Stock Arts

Formal dress is the name given to the clothing you need to wear to attend certain formal social events, including weddings, state events, charity balls, and the races. It can take many forms

White tie is at the top of the formal dress spectrum. It typically entails a black tailcoat, and black trousers with a braid or strip of satin running down their length. Wear these with a white shirt with detachable wing collar and a white bowtie. Finish the look with either a cummerbund or waistcoat – but never both.

Black tie is more common for formal events. But, as Grey Fox says, in an article written with Sarah Gilfillan of SartorialLab, even with this dress code “there’s little room for alteration”. It requires a black dinner jacket and trousers, a white evening shirt, and a black bowtie. A hand-tied bow tie is classier. Black tie is generally finished with a cummerbund.

Add a white pocket square to your breast pocket for a little extra flair.

There are even national variations on formal attire. Highland Dress is an appropriate mode of formal dress for both white and black tie events (as well as ceilidhs and Scottish reels) in Britain. Anyone can wear a kilt, and if your family doesn’t have its own tartan, there are universal patterns you can adopt.

But whatever event you’re attending, spare a thought for your shoes. At a formal event, there’s no excuse for a scuff. Highly-polished black Oxford shoes are appropriate for almost every occasion. For highland dress, a pair of black ghillie brogues are the best choice.

Morning dress is less commonly worn in the 21st century, but still makes the occasional appearance. It’s the most formal daywear, consisting of a morning coat, formal striped trousers and shined (but not patent) black shoes. A morning coat is a tailed jacket, and tends to be of a heavier cloth than the white tie tailcoat. A grey tie worn over a stiff white is traditional, but coloured ties are more recently acceptable.

What happens when formal and casual meet?

Tailored navy suit with black lapels

Subtle changes makes all the difference in ‘creative black tie’
Image: ABGJ

Many charity events, such as auctions, can be looser and more relaxed in their attitudes towards dress. Your invitation may say “black tie optional” or “lounge suits” for men. Essentially, this means a smart, dark coloured suit, which is ideal if the event takes place after work.

You may even be able to get away with what Debretts calls “Hollywood black tie”. This gives you licence to wear a black tie, rather than a bow tie.

Creative black tie is another trendy variation on the theme. With this dress code, you could consider adding a colourful handkerchief to your breast pocket. Or a cummerbund that matches your bright bow tie. As Menswear Style points out, creative black tie gives you:

“more leeway to experiment and come up with a style that will make your personality shine the whole night.”

But there’s one basic rule of thumb: dress smartly. The Unknown Male has it right when he says that “it’s better to overdress than underdress”. He goes on to explain:

“it’s much easier to dress down from a formal outfit than it is to go all the way home and put on a tuxedo.”

You can always make your outfit more casual by removing your tie and unbuttoning a top button if the event proves to be more laid back than anticipated. But you can’t, on arrival, suddenly polish your shoes or find a well-fitting black dress jacket.

When is it appropriate to wear formal dress?

Formal dress is always appropriate when the invitation calls for it, as this shows good manners and respect for your host. But, to that end, you should feel free to ask your host what they wish their guests to wear, if you’re in any way unsure.

There are also times when the dress code will depend not so much on the host, but on the other attendees. Morning dress is often called for at daytime events where HRH The Queen is in attendance, like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. It’s also worn at weddings, formal memorial services and official events.

Should I hire or buy formalwear?

Man looking in mirror tying bowtie

Image source: Shutterstock
Owning black tie means it’s there whenever you need it.

Formal dress is an expression of classic elegance. The benefit of owning your own formal outfit is that you can choose a suit that fits you perfectly (either tailored or off the peg), and is made to last.

It makes sense to own your own black tie outfit. It can be dressed up and down. And it doesn’t hurt to have that kind of sartorial firepower waiting in your wardrobe whenever the need should arise.

White tie, on the other hand, might be better hired. Unless, of course, you know you’ll be attending numerous high-society events. There are numerous accoutrements (including a black tailcoat and a wing collared white marcella shirt with double cuffs) that are easier and more cost-effective to opt for in a rental package.

White tie events are normally planned well in advance. So you’ll generally have plenty of time to visit a top-quality merchant to rent your tails when your white tie invite lands on the doormat.

Aficionados of highland dress often buy their own outfit, because it generally revolves around a family tartan. And, it’s made to last a lifetime. After all, the kilt’s pleats do allow for waist adjustments to be made over time…

How often do you dress formally? What are your top sartorial secrets? Share them with us on our Facebook page.

Posted in How To - Style.