Style Dilemma – Evening Wear and Dress Codes Explained

This week I received a Style Dilemma question from a reader called Kim. She asked:

“I have a ‘Black and White’ Christmas Ball to go to. I really would like to wear white if possible and am looking for some suggestions without looking like a bride. The outfit can be long or short but needs to be at least knee length (military rules!). Can you help please??”

As there are likely to be many of you going to events that have a dress code I thought it might be useful to review what they actually mean and answer Kim’s question at the same time.

So first of all  – Is it better to be over-dressed or under-dressed? Dress codes are not always clearly spelt out and getting it wrong, whether you are over-dressed or under-dressed, usually means the evening is ruined as you just feel uncomfortable. I’d usually say it’s better to be overdressed but I remember going to a 40th birthday party and the host kindly (!) forgot to tell us the party theme. As I didn’t know anyone other than my husband at the party I erred on the side of caution and wore a LBD and heels, you can imagine how silly I felt seeing everyone else in jeans, check shirts and cowboy hats and boots – needless to say I didn’t join in with the Line Dancing! And no I haven’t been to one of their parties since.

So I would always suggest if you are in any doubt and it is an important event, call the host or hostess for clarity.

Here’s a quick guide to dress codes:

White Tie
Wear a long evening gown. 
White Tie is the most formal of dress codes and full length evening gowns are required. Ball gowns will always have a full skirt. Take an evening clutch or evening bag.

Black Tie
It typically means a long evening gown, cocktail dress, LBD and dressy evening separates, sometimes even trousers. I recommend heels with knee length dresses and skirts. With a full length dress you could get away with lower shoes, carry an evening clutch bag. Black tie invitations are usually for evening events but evening wear has relaxed these days so if in doubt, it pays to check if long gowns are preferred or if cocktail wear to the knee is acceptable. A good tip is to find out what the hostess is wearing: long or cocktail.

A cocktail dress – usually to the knee, LBD, or dressy separates is expected. Usually worn with heels and an evening bag.
 Again with more relaxed codes, dressy trousers are often acceptable too worn with a silk, satin blouse or sparkly top.

To answer Kim’s question – Black and stark white isn’t really flattering on most women so you will definitely need more makeup and I’d suggest picking a really great lipstick. Choose a brick red if you are warm skinned (peachy cheeks) or a raspberry red if you are cool skinned (pink cheeks).

I’ve found a selection of white dresses which I don’t think are bridal, but my first option is actually a bit of a cheat because it’s slightly more silver than white, but it’s full on glamour and would be acceptable for White and Black Tie!

dress codes, white tie

Dress Coast, Shrug Coast, Sandals Miss KG

My second option is actually a skirt and top so both could be worn with other pieces in the future – you know I like to get cost per wear. I’ve kept it modern by adding a pair of silver court shoes.


Dress codes, Black tie

Skirt and Top Coast, Shoes Boden.

My final white option is accessorised with black – it is a Black and White ball after all and this stops the long white dress from looking at all bridal.

Black Tie, Dress codes

Dress Aidan Mattox, Shrug Coast, Bag Dune, Earrings Carolee.

Now for some options that combine black and white in the dress. First a very simple style that has all the drama at the back.

Black Tie, Dress Codes

Dress Coast, Shoes, bag and shrug as above.

And finally two cocktail options.

Dress Codes, Cocktail

Both dresses lefticon and righticon from Hobbs.

I hope this has helped you Kim and anyone else who has a dressy event coming up.

If you have a Style Dilemma and would like some help just fill in this form. Or get me to find the complete outfit just right for you with the Make Me Fabulous service.