Getting invited to a swanky affair means that you'll be expected to look the part. When formal dress is requested, there are a few different ways to interpret the directive. By knowing the theme and atmosphere for the event -- hint: check the formality of the invite for clues -- you can match your outfit to that of the party's dress code. When in doubt, call the event planner and ask for suggestions to make sure you're dressed to impress.
Black or White Tie
If you're invited to a white or black tie event, the mood will be especially formal, so dress accordingly. The most formal of all dress codes is the white tie. White tie requires men to wear full black tails, with a white shirt, white bow tie and white vest. Black socks and shoes are preferred, along with white or pearl cufflinks. For women, white tie most definitely requires a full-length formal gown. However, if the formal dress request is for black tie, men can choose a more classic tux, while women can wear a full-length gown or special occasion cocktail dress.
Creative Black Tie or Black Tie Optional
Formal dress etiquette relaxes a little if you see either black tie optional or creative black tie as the dress code for an event. Black tie optional means men can choose either to wear a tux or a conservative dark suit and tie. Women can wear full-length gowns, cocktail dresses or even dressy separates. For creative black tie, men are still expected to wear a tux, but can have a little fun with the tie color or pattern, shoes or cufflinks. Women should understand creative black tie to mean formal cocktail dress or dressy separates worn with eye-catching shoes or a flashy bag.
It's time to loosen up the tie: Semi-formal events mean you have a little more wiggle room in what you're required to wear. For men, semi-formal should mean a suit and tie or pants and a dinner jacket. Women can go for cocktail wear or the old standby of the little black dress, accessorized with dressier jewelry. Separates are permissible as well, as long as you nix casual fabrics like denim. Instead, stick with silk, chiffon and satin.
The least formal of all the formal dress codes is business formal. If you're invited to a business formal event, wear what you would to a formal office. Think suits and conservative ties and shoes for men or modest cocktail dresses or separates for women. Or, women can also opt for a suit and even pants as long as they're well-cut and professional enough to be worn in a business setting.