How to differentiate the dress code of formal events


GUEST BLOG Makenzie Way, 2L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Barristers Ball, Law Prom, and a wide range of formal events such as Law Review Banquet, are fast approaching on many of our calendars. How do you differentiate between the dress code on these formal events? And more importantly, where do you find outfits that match the dress code without breaking the bank?!

In a previous article, Happy hours to formal balls: Decoding law school attire, I broke down dress codes ranging from casual to black tie. For the purposes of today’s article, I’ll skip straight to the more formal end of the dress code range.


The most casual of the formal events, and likely the most commonly encountered as well. Unbeknownst to many, dress codes are broken down into two categories, (1) cocktail, and (2) cocktail formal.

  • Cocktail:
    • Men: should opt for a full suit in a neutral color. Dress shoes are must and of course, the belt should match the shoe color. Cuff links and ties are optional.
    • WomenKnee length to mid-calf length dresses in neutral colors or calm patterns are always safe options, though suits are of course permissible. Heels, flats, or loafers are appropriate footwear, while a clutch and complimentary jewelry are optional but recommended.
  • Cocktail Formal
    • Men: full suits are again a must, though you should feel free to expand beyond neutral colored suits into patterns and textiles. Dress shoes and statement loafers are common, as are flashy ties, cufflinks, and other accessory pieces.
    • Women: knee-length dresses can be traded in for more fashion-forward midi to maxi dresses (think short bridesmaid dress, fashion-forward pantsuits or jumpers). Again clutches are appropriate, as are heels or statement loafers. Jewelry is generally worn, and makeup and hair can be more done up.

Black Tie

  • Men: Typically black tie attire requires a black tuxedo, tuxedo shoes, bow tie, and cuff links.
  • Women: Long gowns with heels, clutches, and complimentary jewelry are generally the preferred outfit choice for black tie events. Dresses should be hemmed tailored.

White Tie

  • Men: For the most formal of formal events, men should wear a tailcoat, white tuxedo shirt, waistcoat, and a white bowtie with tuxedo shoes and pants.
  • Women: Similar to black tie, women should wear a floor length formal gown with heels and a clutch, often paired with elbow length gloves.

Shopping Tips

Tuxedo and tails rentals are common for men and can be found at most local Men’s Warehouse, or similar, stores in your local shopping district. For online tuxedo rentals, The Black Tux, and Menguin come highly recommended!

Formal gowns are slightly harder to find than your average tuxedo. Of course, you can head to your local bridal or prom store, but be sure to give yourself 2-3 months for ordering and fitting time. If you’re more pressed for time (or cash) try websites such as Hello Molly. If you don’t want to take up precious closet space, turn to Rent the Runway for a quick rental option.

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