The pencil skirt and matching blazer, the pantsuit, the crisp cotton blouse: if you are a working professional, most likely you have become accustomed to dressing for business from 9 to 5 every day and have the wardrobe to prove it. But what about those occasions which merit something more than the standard office attire? There may come a time when you will have to plan for your after-hours office attire: such as an invitation to a formal evening gala.

A gala commemorates any number of causes or celebrations. One common reason that an organization will host a gala is to raise money and awareness for a charity. Other galas serve as official state dinners or diplomatic events. Or, sometimes a company may host a gala simply as an elegant way to celebrate the holidays with employees. Though every gala is a formal occasion, there are different levels of dress and decorum for each unique event. An evening might be “black tie,” “creative black tie,” or even “white tie,” the ultimate level of formality. What are the subtle differences between these categorizations, and how does one dress for each?

Black tie is the most common category of formal dress. For women, a floor-length evening gown is standard attire; however, a cocktail dress (hanging at the knee or just below it) or a beautiful silk blouse with dressy black pants will also do. (In my previous post on office holiday party attire, you’ll see that relying on a single pair of elegant black pants while donning a new top for each event is a great way to save on formalwear, if you’ve got multiple evening occasions on your itinerary!) Men, a black tie event requires a standard tuxedo, with bow tie, cummerbund, and dress shoes. For the tie, you will have three options: Actual bow tie, pre-tied bow tie or a black tie. The back tie adds a modern touch to any tux and is best for an evening with a younger crowd. Even though you may not have as many options in style and colour as a woman has when choosing a gown, there is certainly still room for creativity in choosing a tuxedo and accessories. When selecting a coat, you can decide whether you would like a double-breasted or single-breasted style – and either the shawl collar or peaked lapel are acceptable collars; the choice is up to you. Accessories, too, are varied; the style of cufflinks, dress watch or pocket watch, and pocket square are all within your range of options, as long as they are discreet and appropriate. The most striking differences are often in the subtle details!

A creative black tie allows for a bit more flexibility. Sometimes these events will be themed – one very unique theme for a gala that I have seen was a “Fitzgerald Gala,” where all the guests dressed in 1920’s-style gowns, tuxedos, and accessories. In other instances, the evening will not have a set theme; rather, it will simply be an opportunity to add spice to an outfit or to include a little seasonal flair. Women can “get creative” by adding a unique and different accessory to her outfit, such as a bold necklace, hairpiece, or scarf. Men can mix it up with a patterned or coloured bowtie and cummerbund that defies the traditional black. Nevertheless, the standard gown for women and tuxedo for men still apply during a creative black tie.

The white tie event is the ultimate level of formality. This dress code is usually reserved for diplomatic events or state dinners, but can also apply to special galas and evening weddings. Women must wear a floor-length evening gown, and long, elbow-length gloves are common accessories. A matching shawl is another piece, which is both stylish and practical in covering the shoulders. The man’s outfit is a very standard set with little opportunity for variation: a black or midnight blue evening coat with tails and cut-away silk lapels, trousers of matching fabric, white waistcoat, white collar, and, of course, a white bowtie. The exception to this rigid standard is if the occasion is a state dinner and allows for national or military dress. A common example of this allowance is in Scottish Highland dress, which includes its own rigid requirements of waistcoat colour, kilt pattern, and traditional accessories.

If you receive an invitation to a gala, make certain that you are aware of its level of formality so that you can adequately plan your outfit. Whether black tie, black tie creative, or white tie, it is sure to be an evening of elegance!

Author's Bio: 

Diane Craig
Image and Etiquette Expert

Diane Craig, President of Corporate Class Inc., is a leading image and etiquette consultant. For over 20 years she has provided corporate consultations, helping hundreds of men and women realize their professional and personal goals. She is a sought after speaker at national business meetings, regularly gives comprehensive workshops to corporate groups, and offers private consultations on business etiquette, dress and dining.