What Is Formal Dressing for Men?

Chris Clinton/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Getting invited to a formal event sounds like fun -- until you realize you have no idea what to wear. When you start hearing about suits vs. tuxedos, along with bow ties and cummerbunds, it can get confusing. Black and white tie rules are timeless, so learning them now will help clarify what to wear to your sister's wedding, the opening night ballet gala your girlfriend wants to attend and everything in between.

White Tie

Think of white tie as the fanciest category of formal wear. If you get invited to opening night at the opera or the theater, chances are you'll have to spring for white tie. Note that white tie doesn't require wearing white other than your shirt. Tuxedos are the only real option here, so if you don't happen to have one in your closet, go rent one from a reputable shop. A classic black tux with a matching vest or cummerbund, and a white or black bow tie fits the bill. Coattails are a bit outdated but still appropriate for some occasions. Make sure your shoes are black leather oxfords or wing tips.

Black Tie

When style icon and Project Runway host Tim Gunn was asked if there were any exceptions to wearing a tux for black tie events, he said, "I'd like to say no. There are men who can pull off their own personalization of black tie, but it still means black in some form." So trust the expert. If you really can't get your hands on a tuxedo before a black tie event, make sure your nicest black suit is tailored to perfection. If it's a three-piece, that's even better. Dress it up with a black bow tie and black patent leather oxfords.

The Event

It can be appropriate to get creative with your formal attire -- depending on the event. As long as it's a personal event like a wedding rather than public or corporate, it doesn't hurt to add some color. Black tie dress code is common at weddings, so if you know the bride and groom are more laid back, pair a brightly patterned bow tie or fun cuff links with your tux. A matching pocket square in a bold color is another way to personalize your black tie look. Keep it more traditional for public events like galas and charity benefits.

The Season

Formal wear in the summer may seem a bit heavy, but there are ways to lighten up your look. In lieu of harsh black, opt for a midnight blue tuxedo paired with a white bow tie. Choose a white lightweight cotton buttoned shirt to stay cooler. In the winter or during the holiday season, be daring and break up your tuxedo ensemble by pairing the pants with a velvet dinner jacket. The rich fabric still looks formal, especially if you stay with black, or go for another deep hue like burgundy or midnight blue. A metallic gold or silver bow tie is another seasonal option.