The Style Blog

What Is the Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Attire?

By Lily Ertischek on 2024-04-08

Couple in black gown with fur shawl and black tuxedo at formal wedding and couple wearing green suit and pink slip dress for semi-formal event

Dress codes dictate what you should wear to different events, and formal and semi-formal attire are two of the most common and important dress codes to know. When choosing wedding suit styles or event outfits, it's important to understand the dress code to ensure you're arriving fashionably and, more importantly, dressed appropriately.

Formal signifies especially fancy attire and the dressiest style, reserved for events like weddings, upscale fundraisers or ceremonies, and black-tie galas. 

For men, formal attire often means donning a tuxedo or dark suit paired with a white dress shirt, a conservative tie or bow tie, and dress shoes. Typical women's formal attire translates to wearing floor-length gowns or elegant cocktail dresses with sophisticated heels or flats. 

On the other hand, semi-formal attire is a bit more of a relaxed look, but it still requires sharp dressing. You'll see it requested for occasions like fancy dinner parties, some elevated work events, and weddings that are little more laid back or colorful while maintaining the fancy feel. For semi-formal occasions, you want to look elevated, but the dress code offers more flexibility in clothing choices.

Men might go for a suit or a nice blazer with dress pants and a tie, plus matching dress shoes and belt, probably in either black or brown leather. For women, it's great to wear a stylish cocktail dress or a smart pantsuit, keeping it classy but not too overdone. Regardless of gender, there's no need to be afraid of a little color with semi-formal dress codes!

Comparing semi-formal vs. formal attire can help you choose the right outfit for different occasions so you'll always show up best-dressed. In this guide, backed by our wedding style experts, we're unpacking all the details about these two different dress codes, what to wear, and where you'll likely wear them.

Key Takeaways

  • Formal and semi-formal attire are dress codes to help you decide what to wear to different events. 
  • Formal attire is reserved for fancier and especially elegant occasions like black-tie galas, while semi-formal attire is a bit more relaxed and versatile. 
  • Men typically wear tuxedos or dark suits for formal events and suits or blazers for semi-formal events. 
  • Women often opt for floor-length gowns for formal events and stylish cocktail dresses or pantsuits for semi-formal events. 

What Is Semi-Formal Attire for Men?

Semi-formal attire for men serves as a middle ground between casual and formal attire, so it necessitates a look that's polished but not over the top. An appropriate semi-formal outfit typically includes pieces like men's suits or suit jackets, sports coats, or blazers paired with dress pants and dress shoes and a matching belt to create a coordinated look. 

Along with the right shirt, the suit ensemble is cocktail-ready. Choose a crisp button-up or patterned dress shirt to complement the jacket and pants. Depending on the color or print of the dress shirt, you can add sophistication and interest to the outfit.

When it comes to the specific footwear, dress shoes like Oxfords, loafers, or brogues are the preferred choice, ensuring a polished finish. 

Classic suit accessories are your best bet to enhance the semi-formal look. Options like ties, tie bars, pocket squares, cufflinks, and dress socks make for stylish touches and lend a hint of personality.

Semi-formal attire is suitable for a variety of occasions, including: 

  • Weddings
  • Holiday parties
  • Dinner parties
  • Graduations
  • Corporate events

For semi-formal wedding attire and beyond, flaunt your personal style from the suit to the small details while maintaining a refined appearance. When it's time for one of these semi-formal occasions, just remember the goal is to look sharp without being overly formal, which is what makes the attire appropriate for so many social and professional settings.

Men’s semi-formal vs formal attire

What Is Formal Attire for Men?

Formal attire for men showcases the epitome of elegance and refined style, typically reserved for the most elevated events and black-tie affairs. Formal attire ensembles include a tuxedo or dark formal suit with a great cut and fit, paired with a solid white dress shirt for a timeless and stepped-up look.

Dark-colored dress shoes–most often, black–complete the outfit, adding a polished finish to the look. 

The accessories are also an important part of formal attire. Try the classic black bow tie, dark dress socks, a pocket square for some color or added texture, or cufflinks and jewelry to distinguish your style. 

Formalwear is appropriate for fancy, luxurious occasions, such as: 

  • Black-tie events
  • Formal or evening weddings
  • Charity galas
  • Opera or ballet performances

For these formal occasions, sophistication is key. By adhering to this dress code and accessorizing thoughtfully, you can confidently embrace the elegance of formal dressing to make an impression at any upscale event.

What Is Semi-Formal Attire for Women?

Like semi-formal attire for men, semi-formal attire for women keeps things dressed-up and fancy while avoiding excessive or stuffy outfits. This dress code typically includes wardrobe staples like the little black dress (LBD) or colorful party dresses–stylish and fun–that can be easily dressed up or down. 

You can also consider midi or maxi dresses, chic women's suits, or trendy jumpsuits for a contemporary and equally appropriate look. 

Complete the style with footwear like high heels, pumps, or flats, depending on your comfort, taste, and the rest of the outfit.

Accessories are also important, so don't forget to make use of sleek clutches or shoulder bags, layered necklaces, bold earrings, or even a red lip to add personality and flair. 

Semi-formal attire is appropriate for events ranging from weddings and holiday parties to dinners, graduations, and corporate events. With the right combination of clothing and accessories, you can make semi-formal dressing suit your style and make a statement, whatever your event.

Women’s semi-formal attire vs. formal attire

What Is Formal Attire for Women?

Formalwear for women is defined by special pieces and a sophisticated feel. Women's formal looks typically feature a floor-length gown in luxurious fabrics and styles that emphasize glamour. Alternatively, a chic and tailored women’s tuxedo offers a unique, cool alternative if you want a modern twist on formal attire that's still absolutely appropriate. 

Stylish footwear options, such as pumps, strappy sandals, loafers or embellished heels, complete the ensemble and can dictate which style the overall look leans towards. 

Accessory pieces like timeless pearl, diamond, or precious metal jewelry can add sparkle, extra fun, and higher formality to the outfit. Think statement earrings, delicate necklaces, and sleek clutches or small handbags.

To add coverage or warmth, along with some extra elegance, go for a pashmina or shawl over your shoulders. For ultra-formal events, consider adding a pair of evening gloves to land that old-world glamor. 

As with men's attire, women's formalwear is appropriate for a variety of elevated occasions. You'll find these dress code guidelines perfectly suit formal wedding attire and dressed-up special moments alike. You can also wear formal wear to black-tie events, galas, and opera or ballet performances. Embrace the elements of formal attire to walk into any formal situation with confidence and poise.

Formal vs. Semi-Formal Attire: FAQs

What are tips for dressing appropriately for an event?

Dressing appropriately for an event can help you make a good impression and feel comfortable throughout the occasion. Whether it's a formal event or a casual gathering, understanding the dress code and considering various factors can help you nail your outfit choice. Here are some tips to guide you: 

  • Read the invitation: Take note of any dress code mentioned in the invitation. Whether it's black-tie, semi-formal, or casual, the dress code provides valuable guidance on what attire is expected and ensures you dress appropriately for the occasion. 
  • Avoid over or underdressing: Strike the right balance between being too overdressed or underdressed by considering the formality of the event. When in doubt, it's better to err on the side of slightly overdressing than feeling out of place in a casual setting or underdressed at a formal affair. 
  • Pay attention to fit: Regardless of the dress code, wearing clothes that fit well is essential for a polished look. Ensure your outfit is tailored to your body shape and proportions, avoiding garments that are too tight or loose. Look at your suit sleeve length and ensure it's neither too long nor too short. Use our Fit Guide to find your perfect size. 
  • Consider cultural norms: If attending an event in a different cultural setting, take into account any cultural norms or traditions regarding dress. Respectfully incorporating cultural attire or adhering to specific dress codes shows sensitivity and appreciation for diversity. 
  • Incorporate personal style while adhering to the dress code: While following the dress code is essential, don't be afraid to infuse your style into your outfit. Choose colors, patterns, or accessories that reflect your individuality while still aligning with the event's dress requirements. 

Is semi-formal attire the same as cocktail attire?

While semi-formal and cocktail attire share similarities, they're not entirely the same. One key difference is the time of day when you might wear them. Cocktail attire is typically reserved for evening events, whereas semi-formal attire can be worn throughout the day or evening. 

Additionally, while both dress codes require a polished appearance, cocktail attire tends to be slightly more formal than semi-formal attire. Cocktail attire often features more glamorous and sophisticated elements. On the other hand, semi-formal attire is more subdued and understated, with a focus on classic and timeless elegance. 

Cocktail attire generally has more specific guidelines, particularly for women. It may include instructions to wear a cocktail dress, while semi-formal attire allows for a broader range of options like dresses, pantsuits, or dressy separates. Cocktail attire for men typically includes a suit and tie. 

Are jeans considered semi-formal attire?

Jeans are not considered semi-formal attire. Instead, jeans typically fall under the casual dress code and are not appropriate for semi-formal events. Semi-formal attire has a more polished and refined look, often involving items like suits, dresses, or dressy separates. Jeans ultimately do not meet the level of formality required for semi-formal occasions. 

Do semi-formal dress codes vary by season?

Weather and seasonal trends can influence dress codes and color palettes for semi-formal events. During the summer and spring months, semi-formal attire tends to reflect these seasons' lighter, brighter, and more vibrant aspects. For women's wedding guest attire, lighter shades and breathable fabrics are favored. Women may opt for pastel-colored dresses or floral prints, while men may choose lighter-colored suits or blazers paired with dress pants. 

In contrast, fall and winter semi-formal events call for a shift toward heavier fabrics and darker hues to suit the cooler temperatures and more subdued atmosphere. Darker shades like navy, burgundy, or emerald green are commonly seen, along with richer fabrics like velvet, wool, or tweed. Women may opt for dresses in deeper colors or elegant evening gowns with heavier fabrics. At the same time, men's wedding guest attire may lean toward darker suits or men's tuxedos paired with warmer accessories like scarves or gloves. 

Dressing for the Event: Semi-Formal vs. Formal Dress Codes

Formal and semi-formal dress codes are two different dress codes that tell you what to wear to an event. As a quick recap, formal attire is the dressiest, while semi-formal attire is a bit more relaxed–but still sharp and chic. Understanding the differences between formal and semi-formal attire can help you choose the right ensemble for any occasion. 

Dressing well makes you feel good, whether it's for a formal affair or a semi-formal gathering. SuitShop makes it easy to find well-fitted and stylish suits and tuxedos for any occasion. So, whether you're attending a special event or simply want to look your best, we have everything you need. Use our Fit Finder to achieve your best fit, and browse our collection today and get fast, free shipping.

About the Author

Lily Ertischek

Having always been obsessed with storytelling, Lily graduated with degrees in English and French from the University at Buffalo Honors College. After completing a publishing certificate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she began her career in books and editorial. Lily joined the SuitShop team as the Content Specialist and Customer Communications associate, building out the copywriting program, growing and developing brand voice, editing, ideating alongside marketing, and working to maintain supportive communications with our customers. Lily is constantly reading, keeping up with the latest TV series, redesigning her apartment, and seeking out the best bites. She lives in New York City.