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Playing Dress-Up How to Dress for a Formal Event

Receiving an invitation to a formal event can make you feel like Cinderella…. until you have to figure out what to wear. No need to panic. Here’s how to interpret formal for men and women so you can feel like royalty but still feel comfortable with your own style. 

Black tie is often requested for an evening wedding reception, a gala charity event, a formal business party, an awards ceremony, etc. Men are expected to wear tuxedos and women customarily wear long gowns.

“Formal” is not as specific. It means just a dark suit, tie and white shirt for men, long or short fancy dresses for women. Relax, however. Most black tie events these days really mean “formal”. If in doubt, check with the organizers. 

Black Always Works

You can’t go wrong with black (dress or suit) at a formal occasion. When your dress is black, and especially it is long, it always says “formal”. Men also can’t go wrong with a dark (black or navy) suit, white shirt and dark tie.  

Shine and Texture

Choose fabrics that “shimmer”, like silk and satin, or those rich with texture such as velvet.


Yes, shoes matter, but you don’t have to choose stilettos. Just no sneakers or hiking boots. Also avoid carrying a heavy purse. Find (or borrow) a “clutch” bag to hold a few essentials, such as your phone! If your dress is sleeveless, you’re best to bring a dark jacket or shawl in case the air conditioning is on high. 


For men:

  • Younger men, a patterned jacket with dark pants, tie and a white shirt
  • A dark velvet jacket, white shirt, tie and black pants

For Women:

  • You actually have more choices than just a dress: 
  • Chic separates like a long or short skirt and fancy top/blouse
  • Formal jumpsuit
  • Wide leg pants and fancy top (think Julia Roberts at the Golden Globes)
  • Formal pantsuit or female “tux”

Add Some Sparkle

Go ahead and wear some sparkle but don’t overdo it to the point of tacky. This is the time for classic elegance.

  • Add a bit of sparkle through some dangling earrings, a necklace or bracelet, shoes and/or your clutch
  • Men, add a single piece of jewellery, ideally something in a shiny metal

Formal “On-a-Budget”

Getting dressed up doesn’t have to cost a lot! 

  • Most people have a few formal items in their closets, and are happy to lend them to you. 
  • Visit your local second hand shop. You’ll be amazed at the selection of slightly used formal wear. If you can’t find a dress, pick up a long black skirt and just invest in a fancy top. 
  • Various places in Toronto rent “frocks” at much, much less than the cost to buy.