When it comes to dressing for a big event, a dress code that reads “black tie” can easily send you straight into a panic. Because what does that actually mean these days? With colorful sneakers and athleisure essentials popping up on the red carpet and runway, styled alongside glamorous gowns and tuxedos, the line of what is and is not appropriate has become somewhat blurred. But if you’ve been panicking about what to wear to your BFF’s wedding or that swanky work event, just breathe. We’re helping you bust through that downright confusing dress code with the easy-to-follow guide below.
WHAT IT IS
If you see that dreaded black tie designation on an invite, be prepared for an elegant evening — this isn’t just some backyard shindig. It’s the type of event where a tuxedo would fit in, so as a rule of thumb, stick with floor-length frocks, formal cocktail dresses or a really dressy suit (sequins, anyone?). If black tie isn’t indicated for a formal soiree, you can be a bit more lax, but the long silhouette or elevated cocktail dress formula still applies. On the accessories front, statement heels and a fancy clutch would be downright DDG, while glamorous makeup and elegant updos are a must for any upscale event.
1. Free People Jaded Gown ($550): Silky fabric, dazzling embellishments and a vintage-inspired silhouette — this gorgeous gown was made for Champagne and schmoozing. Team it with silvery ankle-strap sandals and a lucite box clutch for a Gatsby-glam soiree or big-time event at a historic venue or museum.
2. Laundry by Shelli Segal Shirred Metallic Strapless Gown ($395): Hello, gorgeous. If this gilded gown doesn’t scream glam, nothing will. Take it there with a bold red lip and a sideswept chignon for major red-carpet appeal.
3. BCBGMAXAZRIA Kylee Ruffle-Trim Maxi Dress ($338): LBDs don’t have anything on this ethereal number. Upgrade your tried-and-true frock when the fancy invites start rolling in with this lace- and ruffle-trimmed beauty and proceed to make jaws drop as you enter the room. For a minimalist muse aesthetic, style it alongside streamlined black heels and a next-level choker necklace.
4. Keepsake True Love Lace Strapless Dress ($280): Short and sweet never looked so good. Graphic lace and a timeless silhouette make this strapless stunner a straight-up win, whether you rock it at a sophisticated dinner or your own reception.
5. Anthropologie Lore Dress ($380): Prepare to swoon hard for this ladylike number that will have you dreaming of garden parties and al fresco affairs at old-world estates. Give it a modern edge with mismatched earrings and gold booties, or pair it with a glitzy collar necklace and pointed-toe pumps to play up its flirty, feminine feel.
LENGTH DOESN’T MATTER
Floor-length gowns definitely have a formal feel, but they aren’t the be-all-end-all of black-tie dressing. Midi and short dresses are fair game too, so why limit yourself? If you’re stepping out of the proverbial floor-length box, just keep the following in mind: Short or cocktail dresses shouldn’t be more than an inch or two above the knee, opt for classic silhouettes (think: A-line) and look for details like embellishments or metallic fabrics that lend a more glamorous aesthetic to your overall look.
6. Anthropologie Blaise Dress ($350): Less is definitely more. A shortened hemline and plenty of glitz make this number ready to party — and still appropriate in the eyes of more conservative guests. Go all out on the accessories front for extra style cred.
7. & Other Stories Pleated Dress ($125): Minimalists, eat your hearts out! Silky champagne fabric turns an otherwise understated dress into an after hours-approved essential you’ll reach for again and again. Pull out all the stops with embellished heels, statement earrings and a one-of-a-kind clutch for that obligatory pop of color.
8. Keepsake Take Me Over Maxi Dress ($230): If you hate the thought of donning a full-blown gown, but don’t want to step on any toes, this is the dress you need in your life. The layered look gives you the best of both worlds, while the unexpected silhouette will earn you some extra style points with your crew.
9. & Other Stories Maxi Sequin Dress ($195): Life of the party? That’s this number right here. We’re diggin’ this shimmery midi for non-traditional brides who really want to stand out. Whether you rock it at the after-party or for the main event, you’re guaranteed to keep all eyes on you all night long. Keep add-ons low-key to keep the focus on your dress’s best feature — those show-stopping sequins.
LOOK BEYOND BLACK
Just because there’s black in the name doesn’t mean you’re stuck sporting the classic hue (although it is an easy, foolproof option) for a black-tie event. Just look at the red carpet — it’s a technicolor dream. Do like the celebs do and strut your stuff in a vibrant shade of canary yellow, a stunning floral print or an ethereal gown in siren red. Anything goes.
10. ASOS Wedding Pleated Maxi Dress With Drape Back Cape Sleeve ($138): One word: obsessed. A floral print this OMG-worthy must be shown off, and that upcoming gala is the perfect opportunity. For #OOTD perfection, style it alongside red-hot heels and sparkling stacking rings that catch in the light.
11. BCBGMAXAZRIA Secha One-Shoulder Draped Gown ($298): Girl. Consider this turquoise gown your latest hero piece in disguise. Rock it as you stand next to your BFF as she says her I dos, then whip it out for a swanky fundraising event and proceed to style with colorful gems and lace-up heels.
12. Reformation Romanica Dress ($428): Oh, this old thing? It’s just unadulterated sartorial gold. If conservative is the name of the style game, you might want to consider passing on this one (that plunge neckline is on FIRE). Otherwise, team it with a sleek updo and drop earrings, and get ready to blow everyone away.
13. ASOS High Neck Swing Maxi Dress ($73): Yellow is proving to be the next red-carpet darling thanks to the likes of Amal Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Jessica Chastain. And if they can pull it off at Cannes, you can certainly pull it off at your next black tie event. Follow their lead by keeping the rest of your look simple for an intriguing ensemble that doesn’t feel over the top.
14. & Other Stories Frill Dress ($125): Forget frills-free — get ready to ruffle a few feathers (in a good way) with an ultra feminine gown that can do no wrong. When you’re not embracing your inner socialite, take this beauty along on a seaside escape and pair it with slides, a messy topknot and bangles for a laid-back dinner overlooking the water.
15. Jill Jill Stuart Colorblock Popover Crepe Gown ($298): Remember when T-Swift slayed the Grammys red carpet in a two-piece Versace ensemble? Swoon. Recreate the “Bad Blood” singer’s unforgettable look with this Insta-worthy gown that has modern muse written all over it. Minimalist baubles and a killer clutch are obligatory.
DO THE PANTS THING
You’re a woman of the 21st century, which means dresses aren’t the only way to do black tie in style. That’s right — you can do the whole pants thing too. Take a page out of Yves Saint Laurent’s book and mimic the iconic Le Smoking with a sleek suit, jumpsuit or elevated separates. Stick to next-level fabrics and eye-catching embellishments for an elegant look.
16. Mango Palazzo Long Jumpsuit ($170): Keep ’em guessing with a show-stopping jumpsuit that offers the polish of a dress and the practicality of pants. While the dramatic silhouette packs plenty of formal appeal, take it even further with luxe accessories and a perfectly coiffed mane.
17. Steffen Schraut Tokyo Glam Blazer ($405): You don’t do dresses, and that’s totally okay. Opt for an It-girl take on a traditional tuxedo or suit with this shimmery blazer, a pair of silk trousers and to-die-for pumps for an anything-but-average look that will take your sartorial reputation into icon territory.
18. AQAQ Aetha Printed Maxi Skirt ($290): Trousers and jumpsuits aren’t the only way to ditch the dress. Combine a statement-making skirt, like this graphic number, with a fancy-pants blouse or crop top (the more sequins, the better), colorful sandals and a gold cuff FTW.
19. Rachel Zoe Niels Draped Silk Jumpsuit ($278): Sporting a jumpsuit to a formal event might feel totally risqué, especially if you’ll be hanging with a conservative crowd. So if your heart is set on rockin’ a onesie, you’ll have to get a little creative. Enter the game-changing jumpsuit that will pass inspection with flying colors. The luxe silk fabric, flowy silhouette and gathered detailing make it feel like a dress, without compromising on the effortless comfort of a two-legged getup. Because bustin’ a move tops your priority list, and a frock just isn’t going to fly.
20. C/meo for Saint Heron Golden Age Pant ($220): Tuxedo trousers and silk palazzos are a shoo-in for any formal event, but why not branch out? Any excuse to wear these Solange-approved bottoms is a good one, especially if it’s a posh affair. Worn with the matching top and lavish extras (because why not), it’ll earn you best-dressed status like that.
21. ASOS Sleeveless Tuxedo Wrap Jumpsuit ($73): Calling all girl bosses — this sleeveless tuxedo jumpsuit was made with you in mind. When you’re not tearin’ up the dance floor or mixing and mingling, slay your to-do list with this one-and-done piece, menswear-inspired flats and a down-to-business attitude for a killer on-the-job outfit.
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