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How To Wear Evening Dresses: A Guide For Your Next Formal Affair

How to wear evening dresses for your next formal event
If the mere mention of attending a black-tie event has you feeling equal parts fear and excitement, you’ve come to the right place. Attending a formal event can be a lot of fun, and for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, there more than a few unspoken rules when it comes to dressing for these sorts of things,

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If the mere mention of attending a black-tie event has you feeling equal parts fear and excitement, you’ve come to the right place. Attending a formal event can be a lot of fun, and for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, there more than a few unspoken rules when it comes to dressing for these sorts of things, and oftentimes dress codes are less than specific. Basically, there’s a lot more to wearing evening dresses than meets the eye—you need to consider everything from the dress code of the event to your shoes and outerwear. So, whether you’re attending a charity gala, formal work event or making an appearance on the red carpet—here are some tips and tricks on how to wear evening dresses.

How to wear evening dresses for every dress code

The first step in dressing for a formal affair is to consider the nature of the event. Black tie, black tie optional, creative black tie, cocktail, and white tie are all common formal wear “dress codes” that carry with them a unique set of spoken and unspoken rules and expectations. We know that there’s nothing quite as frustrating as seconding guessing what “black tie optional,” “dressy casual” and “cocktail attire” really means, so we’ve done a little bit of hard research to uncover the facts. To kick off our How to Wear Evening Dresses guide, we’ll quickly delve into the true meaning of each of these standards.

Black Tie

The epitome of a formal event. Formal, floor-length evening gowns are the standard; however, you can get away with a cocktail dress if it’s extra snazzy.

Black Tie Optional

Pretty much the murkiest of dress codes, ‘black tie optional’ can be extremely tricky. Because the dress code for men is more open, women have more freedom as well. While most opt for a formal evening gown no heads would be turned if you choose to wear a cocktail dress or LBD.

Creative Black Tie

As a rule of thumb, think of it as ‘black tie optional’ but with a smidge of playfulness thrown in. While the other black tie events are generally thought to be more conservative, creative black tie is all about the trends. There can also be themes attached to the event, such as ‘1920s’ Black Tie or ‘Christmas Black Tie.’


A relatively easy one to interpret, short but sophisticated dresses are the way to go for cocktail events.

White Tie

The most extravagant of all the dress codes. Think Met Gala and Academy Awards Red Carpet. Nothing short of a floor-length evening gown is acceptable, while elbow-length gloves are optional but highly encouraged.

Dress for your body type

formal dress

Before purchasing your evening gown it’s important to consider your body type. Chances are it’ll be a long night, so you want to make sure you’ll be comfortable and confident all night long.

If you have a larger bust, you might want to steer clear of backless dresses. Backless bras are unlikely to offer the support you need which will leave you constantly tugging at your dress all night long. Believe you me, no one wants that.

If you’re more pear-shaped, look for evening dresses that highlight your upper half. Try a deep V-neck or some sparkling accessories to draw the eye upward, away from your fuller bottom half.

For you petite ladies, the name of the game is creating the illusion of height. Avoid gowns with a long train or full skirt. Too much material will weigh you down and envelop you in a sea of fabric. Opt for a fitted gown with a slight thigh slit to elongate your frame. Those of you with an hourglass shape, the goal is to show off your natural curves. Opt for a gown that hugs your shape and a slight flare at the base.

Consider the shoes

shoes for evening dresses

When choosing your evening dress, it’s important that you keep in mind the kind of shoes you need to wear. If the dress is too long or too full you’ll have to wear really high heels to keep it from dragging on the ground. Before going with the 4-inch heels, make sure you can stand in them for long periods of time. Chances are there will be a lot of standing, waiting, and even dancing at your formal event, so be sure that you’re realistic about your shoe choice.

The shoes you wear also need to fit the nature of the event. While you can get away with flats or even sandals at some cocktail events, black and white tie require ladies to wear high heels. Before choosing the dress, make sure the matching shoes are comfortable as well as appropriate.

Don’t forget about the accessories

accessories to wear with evening gown

Accessories to wear with evening gowns are often an overlooked aspect of dressing for formal affairs. However, proper accessories, such as jewelry and handbags, can make or break your evening dress look. A good rule of thumb is to go with one piece of bold jewelry and choose the rest of your accessories from there. For example, if you’re wearing a low neckline, a bold necklace is all you need to make a statement. In this case, it’s best to skip earring altogether or ensure that they’re subtle enough not to clash with the necklace.

A handbag is also an important element of your overall look that should be more than just an afterthought. You probably won’t have it with you all night, however, your evening bag should complement your gown. Make sure it doesn’t clash with your other accessories, and whatever you do don’t carry your everyday handbag to a formal event. Even if you plan to leave it in the coatroom, an evening bag is vital to wearing evening dresses.

Wear a good coat over your evening dress

Throwing your casual trench over an evening dress simply won’t do, even if you plan to remove it as soon as you walk in the door. When attending a formal event, you want to look polish from head to toe… and that includes your outerwear as well. If you’re wearing a floor-length evening gown, avoid coats that stop about mid-thigh. You’ll look cut in half and awkwardly bulky from the leg down. Instead, opt for a fur shrug or bolero. The short shape will perfectly accentuate your long evening gown, while still keeping you warm.

Pink cocktail dressElegant, sleek & suitable for semi-formal to formal occasions – Put simply, a cocktail dress is typically a knee-length party dress to wear at a cocktail party. There are many different styles of course, and here we attempt to feature some of the more popular ones. But first, let’s take a look at the do’s and don’ts when dressing for a cocktail party.

Things To Remember

  • Go for high heels. Avoid flat shoes unless completely unavoidable.
  • Choose the right dress line. Go for a full length dress for a black tie (formal) event, knee-length or slightly lower for semi-casual event, and knee-length or higher for casual event.
  • Wear hosiery. Sheer black or a nude colour will suffice for the occasion.
  • Both open and closed-toe shoes are acceptable for a formal or informal event. If the shoes are open-toe then go for seamless hosiery.
  • Avoid wearing skirts or suits (unless your invitation states casual or semi-casual).

Common Questions

What’s a good sleeve length for a cocktail dress?

There are no general rules for the appropriate sleeve length, so wear whatever you’re most comfortable in. Click here for help choosing the right sleeve types.

Do I bring a coat or cover up?

For a late finish cocktail party a coat would be prudent but bringing something as simple as a wrap or light formal jacket would be fine too – you’ll enjoy the party more if you’re not shivering from the temperature.

What necklace goes best with my dress’s neckline?

For V-line dresses – wear a longer necklace with a simple drop for a flattering affect that doesn’t take away from the look. For round neck dresses, a 15 inch or less chain with a decorative pendant or charm works well.

Sleeve Types

Loose fitting down the arm, but gathered at the wrist, to allow flowing motion, yet control of the sleeve.
Fitted much of the way down the arm, but opening into a large bell shape at the bottom.
These are typical sleeves that will just cover the top of the shoulder.
Full at the top, but gradually tightening in to a perfectly snug fit at the wrist.
These sleeves are perfectly fitted from top to bottom and do not have any open space.
These sleeves are full all the way down and are sometimes made to look fuller through the use of a puff at the top.
Juliet sleeves are mostly fitted down the arm, but have a puff of fabric at the shoulder.
These come three-quarters of the way down, ending just below the elbow, and are often relatively tight as well.

Black dress

Which sleeves are right for you?

If you have attractive arms, you may want to show them off and emphasise them through the use of a cap sleeve that shows your skin, or fitted sleeves, that will show the shape of the arm. If your arms are a little lankier than you would like them to be, you can give them more oomph through the use of a Bishop, Dolman or Gibson sleeve.

Have a little extra weight on your arms than you would like? Juliet or Bell sleeves may be your better options. The Juliet sleeves will let the poof at the shoulder pull eyes away from the rest of your arm that you may not want them to see. Likewise the bell at the bottom of the bell sleeves will make the rest of your arm look smaller, in comparison.

Cocktail Dresses for Your Shape

It’s sleek, sophisticated, and sexy. “But how will it look on me?” you ask. Good question. Before purchasing that perfect cocktail dress you’ve always wanted, there are a few things you may wish to consider. So we all can’t have that ‘model perfect’ body that seems to grace the pages of most magazines these days, but is that any reason not to look your best? Of course not! With a few handpicked tips and tricks, you can emphasise the positives, and downplay the negatives.

Identify your body shape

The most important factor is to choose the right cocktail dress for your shape. While most individuals can identify attributes that will fall into more than 1 category, choose the category that best describes you overall;

Pear attributes
What is it? Slender/elongated upper body – Smaller bust – Hips and thighs larger than upper body.

What to look for:

  • Find an empire waistline dress or an A-line skirt. These help to de-emphasise your lower half, making the body look more proportional.
  • Two-toned dresses with light colours on the top and darker on the bottom will accentuate your torso.
  • Padded shoulders will balance the top and bottom.
Straight attributes
What is it? Petite chest and bottom – Few visible curves – Slender legs

What to look for:

  • A dress that incorporates a multitude of layers that gather
  • A surplice tops or wrap accentuates the waist with a flowing skirt
  • A cocktail suit with a peplum jacket
Round attributes
What is it? Waist curved outwards – Thick or thin legs – Wider appearance

What to look for:

  • V-shaped necklines
  • Empire waistline dresses
  • Eye catching accessories
Inverted Triangle
What is it? Broad Shoulders – Narrow waistline – Petite hips

What to look for:

  • Asymmetrical hemlines
  • Flair skirt with a neutrally coloured top
  • Wide legged cocktail suit
Oversized Hour Glass
What is it? Tiny waist – Large chest and hips – Small bone structure

What to look for:

  • Monotone colours
  • Looser fitting clothes
  • Flashy accessories to divert attention from curves

Remember that beauty comes not only from style but also from self-confidence. When you feel good about the way you look, it shows. Spend a little time planning and shopping to find that perfect cocktail dress and you’ll be well on your way to turning heads in no time at all.

Black and white dress

Casual Wear

If you’re going to a ‘casual’ cocktail party but you don’t want to appear underdressed or overdressed for the event – how do you know what’s appropriate as well as in style? Here are a few options:

  • Cocktail Suits- If it’s not new then try it on beforehand. Nothing is worse than having a distracting conversation due to someone fidgeting with their clothes
  • Skirt and Blouse- A knee length seasonal skirt and a wrap top will definitely do the trick
  • Dress – A knee length cotton dress is nice and fun

Stay away from

  • Skin tight pants – no matter what kind of get together you’re at tight pants gives the impression that you are wearing an everyday outfit.
  • Long dresses – long dresses are usually associated with formal events. If this is a casual get together then you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
  • Tank tops and t-shirts – why? This is a cocktail party. Even if the invite says “casual”, a tank top or t-shirt is pretty inappropriate to wear.

Plus Sized Dresses

If you need a dress for that special event, but are afraid you aren’t going to find one that compliments your body shape, you aren’t alone. There are a lot of women who experience stress when it comes time to buying a dress, because of a little extra weight they are holding on to. But this kind of shopping doesn’t have to be stressful. Arm yourself with the knowledge you need so you can shop with confidence.

  1. Firstly, you need to know the look you want. Fashionable clothes are made in all sizes. Just because you are a little larger, don’t think you can’t find pieces that are stylish. Look through current magazines at the fashion trends.
  2. Do you need shape wear? Some women like to use undergarments that have some support and help to tuck that tummy when you wear it, if you are going to use these items, you need to have them on when you go shopping.
  3. When you do find items of clothing that you think may work, try them on. A lot of people like to guess that something will fit. There is no way to know for sure other than to put it on your body. Once it is on take some time to really look at yourself in the mirror. Look specifically at the areas on your body that you know are the trouble spots and see if the dress is flattering.

Tip! One of the best dresses you can get is the proverbial ‘little black dress’. Black is a flattering colour for plus sized women and a little black plus sized cocktail dress can be worn to almost anything. Just dress it up with some jewellery and you’re ready to go.

Cocktail Dresses for Weddings

A cocktail dress is a very versatile dress that can be suited to a number of occasions, so unsurprisingly a wedding is pretty high up on that list of occasions. When it comes to attending weddings, there are a few rules to keep in mind when choosing dress. If your dress is white, forget it. Only the bride gets to wear white. This is her day and no one gets to take that colour except her. Black cocktail dresses are also out at weddings. Black is a bit sombre of a colour for a wedding.

Dressing for the Occasion

Now that you know what colours not to wear, you can focus on what you can wear. If the wedding is semi-formal or an informal evening event, a regular cocktail dress will do just fine. If it’s a formal evening event, you can still wear a cocktail dress, but it needs to be very dressy (think beaded or heavily accented with a wrap and stunning jewellery.

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