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How to Dress Semi‐Formal As a Teen

Co-authored by wikiHow Staff Updated: January 14, 2020

The term “semi-formal” is pretty flexible so, while that means you have a lot of options, sometimes it can be difficult to know exactly what to wear. Whether you are trying to get an outfit together for a wedding, school dance, or some other event that requires a semi-formal dress code, these tips can help you dress right for the occasion.


Knowing What Constitutes a Semi-Formal Dress Code

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    Consider what kind of event you’re going to. The type of event will likely determine how to dress, such as weddings, parties, school dances, and the like. Oftentimes different events will call for “semi-formal dress” but the actual expectations may differ depending on the type of event, time of day, and so on.

    • If the event is in the daytime, you should expect to dress slightly less formally and in lighter colors than for evening events. Girls can wear skirts and a dress shirt for day events while guys can wear a light suit jacket paired with suit pants, khakis, or cotton twill pants.
    • If the event takes place in the evening, “semi-formal” generally means more formal. One helpful rule to stick by is “the later the event, the darker and dressier.”[1] Therefore, guys should wear darker colors, such as a dark suit and tie. Girls should wear a cocktail dress, slacks and a dressy blouse, or a little black dress.[2]
    • If in doubt, ask the organizers of the event.
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    Consider where the event will be held. The location of an event can help you dress appropriately since, again, the definition of “semi-formal” actually changes quite a bit depending on these variables.

    • If you’ve been invited to a garden party in the middle of the afternoon, you don’t want to sweat through your clothes, so you can likely wear lighter fabrics and slightly more revealing clothing (such as knee high skirts or dresses for girls). However, if you’ll be indoors for a more conservative event, such as a bar mitzvah in a synagogue, you’ll want to cover up more and also perhaps have a couple layers to adjust to the temperature as needed.
    • Another possible consideration is where the event will be held in terms of region or even country. The concept of semi-formal is different not only for each event but also for different groups of people. For example, a semi-formal event at a beach in Southern California will likely include sundresses and flipflops while expectations may be different at an event on the East Coast. If you are going to an event in a different country or a foreign cultural event, be sure to ask ahead of time for more guidance on what to wear.
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    Understand what separates semi-formal from casual and formal dress. There are some key ways to avoid the mistake of drastically under- or overdressing. Knowing some of the basic ways in which these three categories differ from each other will help you dress appropriately for every occasion.

    • Semi-formal dress tends to be more comfortable and flexible than formal dress. However, many people (girls and guys alike!) think that means anything goes when there are some key rules. For example, for girls, a golden rule of wearing a semi-formal dress is that it can go to the knee or lower but it should not touch the ground. A floor length dress would be considered formal and you would probably be considered overdressed for the occasion. Of course, you don’t want to wear simply any dress based on length so go for dresses that are made of fancier fabrics, such as silk, satin, or velvet.[3]
    • For guys the expectation of semi-formal dress is a bit more straightforward: wear clothes that are just slightly less formal than a tuxedo. Dress slacks, jackets, blazers, and suits are all good starting points. The colors, thickness of fabric, and level of accessorizing is up to individual taste as well as the event details (location, time, etc).

Assembling Your Outfit

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    Go to your closet. Many people feel as if they need to go shopping but you most likely already have clothes that can work as semi-formal. Because these articles of clothing likely won’t be what you wear on a day to day basis, be sure to dig in the back of your closet or even go through boxes of old clothes, if you have them. What you find may surprise you!

    • If you are a girl, the phrase “semi-formal” is more flexible[4] so you can include nice button down shirts and skirts as possible options (particularly for a daytime event).
    • For boys, look for long sleeve button downs, nice pants, and suits.
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    Pick out your base outfit. Once you have looked through your clothes, pick one main piece to base your outfit around. For boys this will be relatively simple as all you need are some conservative clothes in good condition. For girls, the main piece will generally be a dress or a fancy shirt and skirt.

    • For boys, a potential danger in dressing semi-formal is going overboard and looking too formal for the occasion.[5] Avoid tuxedos and go for a matching suit instead.
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    Choose the right accessories. This step applies more to girl than boys, although boys can accessorize with a nice pair of socks or a watch if desired. For girls, semi-formal accessories can include dainty jewelry and a nice pair of stockings (with no runs in them!).

    • For girls, go for tasteful jewelry that isn’t too big or loud. Opt for small earrings or a simple chain necklace that complements rather than competes with your outfit.
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    Wear the right shoes. Shoes are crucial in bringing an outfit together so don’t forget to put some thought into which shoes you’ll wear for your semi-formal event. This is not the time for sneakers or sandals. Instead, both genders should wear closed toed shoes that are in good condition.

    • For boys, a nice pair of loafers or boat shoes should do the trick. If you don’t have any dress shoes, you can compensate with a pair of nondescript dark canvas shoes.
    • For girls, go for kitten heels or ballet flats. High heels are not only bad for your body[6] but are often considered a bit too formal, especially for teens.
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    Decide on hair and makeup. This step applies more for girls than boys although boys should be sure to brush their hair and practice good hygiene. For girls, there are many options of different hairstyles and makeup but an upside of semi-formal events is that nothing too time consuming or dramatic is necessary.

    • For girls, makeup is not a requirement, especially if you don’t already wear makeup. However, if you do choose to do your makeup, less is more in this situation. A little mascara and lip gloss can go a long way. Avoid copious amounts of eye makeup and bright lipsticks as these can make you look more ready to go to a nightclub than a semi-formal event.
    • In terms of hairstyles for girls, go for a simple but elegant look. Pinning back a few strands with some nice hair clips or sweeping your hair into a classic bun area both great options.
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    Check yourself out in the mirror. After you have completed your look, ask yourself a few questions to see if the outfit is appropriate. A semi-formal look should be tasteful and classy. Semi-formal outfits should be less dressy than what you would wear to prom, but more formal than what you would wear to school.

    • Some questions you could ask yourself are, “Would a parent approve?” and “Would you wear this to church?” If the answer is no, you may be wearing something too casual or revealing and may want to go back and try on another outfit.

Investing in Semi-Formal Attire

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    Figure out what you’re missing. As a teen, you will likely start going to more semi-formal and formal events so it’s best to start figuring out some key articles of clothing that will help round out that part of your wardrobe. Most children are allowed to wear just about anything, but as you get older, having more than just casual clothing will be necessary for jobs, parties, and other important functions.

    • If you’re a boy, start looking into some clothing articles that you may not already have, such as ties, leather shoes, and nice belts. Ask an older male relative or friend for guidance. Your parents may also be willing to buy you some of these items.
    • If you are a girl, consider whether you have some of these basics: sensible, low heeled shoes, blazers, or cocktail dresses. A little black dress is also a great option that’s appropriate for many semi-formal events.
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    Go to the mall. There are many stores that sell semi-formal attire for relatively cheap, such as Gap and Forever21. Feel free to ask the store employees for help and some stores may even have specific sections for semi-formal attire.

    • Knowing what you’re missing from your wardrobe ahead of time will help you while you’re shopping as you’ll have a specific goal instead of wandering around aimlessly.
    • Always browse the sale section as you never know what you’ll find.
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    Check out vintage or secondhand stores. These stores are often cheaper than malls and you can often find great, unique pieces at a low cost. Sometimes you can even find interesting items such as slacks and suspenders which are now worn less often but can really add a fashionable edge to your semi-formal wardrobe.

    • Just be sure to buy clothes that are still in good condition and aren’t worn out or misshapen.

Community Q&A

  • Question
    Can girls wear jeans with heels and a dressy shirt?
    Leyla Jeena
    Community Answer
    A dressy shirt and heels are great, but jeans are a bit too causal for a formal event. Perhaps you could wear a skirt or leggings.
  • Question
    Can two-piece dresses be worn to cotillion events?
    Community Answer
    Usually not, as most events like this are more formal than semi-formal. Ask some other people attending to see what they’re wearing.
  • Question
    How do I find the best dress color for me for a semi-formal style?
    Community Answer
    Depending on your skin tone and hair color, you should choose warm colors or cool colors. If you are a blonde, you should most likely wear warm colors, such as red, white, and pastels in general. If you are a brunette you should most likely go with cooler colors such as orange, black, purple and blue.
  • Question
    As a middle school girl, would tights, boots, and a dressy shirt be okay for me to wear to a semi-formal dance?
    Community Answer
    Sure, that would be fine. You could also wear a non-formal dress over the tights.
  • Question
    Would leggings, boots, and a dressy shirt work if I’m trying to dress semi-formal?
    Community Answer
    Absolutely. I might trade the leggings for tights if it’s more formal than casual.
  • Question
    What would be semi-formal dress for a high school homecoming dance?
    Community Answer
    For boys, a suit (but not a tux) is a good choice. If the event is less formal, then you can roll up your sleeves or take off your jacket. It’s something you would wear as a wedding guest or at a friend’s bar mitzvah. For girls, you’ll want a dress, nice jumpsuit, or fancy skirt. It should be shorter than a prom or evening dress, so go for anything higher than calf or knee length as long as you’re comfortable. Your outfit should be something you’d wear to a friend’s bar mitzvah or as a wedding guest. A little black dress would be an example of the type of dress you’d want, or you could wear a dressy jumpsuit with fancy shoes if you want to dress more casual.
  • Question
    Can you suggest a color and style for a middle school girl to wear for a spring formal? I’m 5’9 and have red hair, green eyes and violet glasses.
    Community Answer
    For the beautiful description you gave, you can go with a vibrant colors like lemon yellow, white, peach lime green, etc., as this will go with the spring look. For a pattern, go with either a gown, a long skirt or cotton pants. A buttoned shirt would go with the pant. A ruffled top or a dramatic cut top will look stunning, too. Go easy on the print, since it is for spring formal outfit. Avoid accessories that make you look too dressy.
  • Question
    Will tight things look less semi-formal?
    Community Answer
    Too tight can be uncomfortable and unpleasant to look at. Well-fitted clothes look the best. For instance, wearing a shirt that is about 2 inches loose from the sides can seem better-fitted than one that creases and doesn’t allow easy breathing.
  • Question
    Can I add a cardigan to my skirt and crop top for a semi-formal look as a teen?
    Community Answer
    Absolutely. That sounds like a great look! It’s also is a great option for layering.
  • Question
    I am a girl but I want to wear a masculine outfit. I have never looked into masculine styles so I don’t know much. How do I figure out what clothes to were and where would I find masculine clothes to fit a girl?
    Community Answer
    If you want to wear a suit, I would recommend getting a suit tailored for you, or finding a dark women’s suit that fits your body type. You would want to follow the dress code for boys, since your outfit will be similar to theirs. If you don’t want a suit, but don’t want a dress, I would suggest wearing a jumpsuit. They’re more casual and less feminine than dresses, but still appropriate for a semiformal occasion. Look at dress retailers or online stores to find something nice! If you want to wear a dress but still look masculine, I would try changing up your accessories. Go with black boots, if your dress code allows it, or wear a masculine watch or chain necklace.

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  • If you have an upcoming semi-formal event and don’t have time or money to go shopping, borrow from friends or family. If you have a sibling or friend that is a similar size, you can ask them for help.

  • Keep in mind that events like school dances, weddings, and religious events are usually semi-formal.

  • It’s generally agreed that it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.[7] Always do your best to find out ahead of time what the expected dress code is but if you can’t, err on the side of caution by dressing nicely rather than overly casual.

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