Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style

It’s easy to think that special occasion dressing is easy: just throw on a suit, right? Well, whilst you can’t go too far wrong if you’re wearing your favorite suit, the subtle details involved in formal and semi-formal dressing are actually a little more complicated than that.

Once upon a time, guests would be sent a formal invitation ahead of any special occasion. This invitation would outline whether black tie or white tie attire was required. Men didn’t have to worry about whether they would be dressed appropriately for the occasion: all the hard work was done for them.

Now though, sartorial elegance for any occasion is a little harder to achieve. But don’t worry, because we’re here to help! Here’s everything you need to know about identifying the differences between formal and semi-formal outfits, and ensuring that you are appropriately dressed for every occasion:

Dressing for Formal Occasions

At its heart, formal dressing requires either black tie or white tie outfits. The key piece that every man should have in his armoury if he wants to nail formal dressing is a well-fitting tuxedo jacket. This should always be paired with coordinating trousers and a crisp white shirt.

Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion |

You should always buy your tuxedo: never rent it. There is nothing worse than an over starched and poorly fitting tuxedo jacket that has been hastily grabbed from a rental: if you attend a lot of formal occasions then take the plunge and make the investment. When buying a tuxedo jacket off the rack, the fit is everything. Here are our top tips for ensuring your tuxedo jacket fits you perfectly:

  • Have your tuxedo jacket tailored in key areas such as the shoulders, chest and waist. You should also pay particular attention to the sleeve length, which is incredibly easy and inexpensive to alter, but will make a huge difference to the way your tuxedo looks and fits.
  • Check that the back of the jacket falls neatly, straight down your body, and that it lies smoothly when the jacket buttons are fastened. Although you are unlikely to fasten your jacket, it’s important that it fits just as well closed as it does open. The fabric around your stomach should fit close to the body, but it should never stretch or strain.
  • Work with your body shape, not against it. If you carry any excess weight then look for a tuxedo jacket with a peaked lapel: this will help to elongate and flatter your body shape.
  • Never wear a white tux. They might look good on James Bond: but you’re not James Bond! White tuxedos look dated and old-fashioned, and they’re hard to gain a flattering fit in too. If you only have the budget to invest in one tuxedo, then you should always opt for a black tuxedo.
    Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion |

Choose the Right Accessories

Despite the fact that they aren’t considered to be particularly fashionable nowadays, cummerbunds and waistcoats remain incredibly popular accessories to pair with a tuxedo.

A cummerbund can be a very useful tool if you carry any extra weight around your middle, as it can help to balance your physique: choose one that has pleats which will draw the eye down your body, helping to further elongate your frame.

Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion |

When it comes to choosing a waistcoat, you can be free to inject a little more personality here. Don’t be afraid to experiment with colours and textures to add depth and detail to your outfit. A contrasting waistcoat in a rich shade of emerald green, burnt burgandy, or midnight blue will instantly add elegance to your look. However avoid anything to vibrant and be wary of patterns, unless you want to look like an 80s throwback or a circus clown. Bright patterned waistcoats are very difficult to pull off.

Now it’s time to talk bowties. Many people believe that you should wear a white bow tie to a ‘white tie’ event and a black bow tie to a ‘black tie’ event, but actually this is a myth. You can wear whichever colour bow tie you prefer, or even opt for a different colour tie if you’re feeling bold, provided the rest of your outfit is suitably formal.Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion |

Finally, it would be impossible to talk about the perfect formalwear look without mentioning cufflinks. If your tuxedo jacket has been tailored correctly then you should have half an inch of white shirt cuff sitting underneath it. This is the perfect place to inject a little extra elegance and style by adding a pair of cufflinks. Silver, gold, or muted matte cufflinks in simple square, circle or oval shapes are the easiest to wear. However, if you want to add a little extra head-turning personality, don’t be afraid to experiment with unusual shapes, patterns, or even coloured silk French knots. The only limit is your imagination here!

Dressing for Semi-Formal Occasions

So you’ve established that the dress code for an event is semi-formal? That means that you can put your tuxedo and bow tie back in your closet. But it doesn’t mean it’s time to break out the jeans and sneakers! Semi-formal is a dress code all of its own, and because the rules of semi-formal dressing are less clear, it can be harder to get right than a traditional formal occasion.

Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion | https://www.royalfashionist.comHere are some top tips for dressing for semi-formal occasions, to help ensure you never put a sartorial foot out of line:

  • Stick to a suit. You can’t go far wrong with a well-fitting suit, which will draw the eye across the body in an unbroken line. Choose dark wool, gabardine or cashmere suit that has just enough weight to hang effortlessly, and won’t crease when you’re wearing it. Unlike with a tuxedo, you can be a little more free with colour here. Grey, blue, checked and even rich dark red suits are bang on trend and sure to make a statement.
  • Ditch the tie. Do you hate the formality of the tie? Feel uncomfortable wearing one? The good news is that you can ditch the tie! Wear a shirt with a crisp collar and embrace your understated style instead.
  • If in doubt, dress up! It’s always better to overdress than underdress, so put your best suit and tie on, and your best foot forward. If you find that you have overdressed a little, you can always remove your tie and unbutton a button or two to lend your outfit a more informal air.
    Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion |

Put Your Best Foot Forward

It’s time to talk about shoes! It might be a cliche that the first thing a woman notices about a man is his shoes, but it’s a cliche for a good reason: because it’s true! The shoes you wear can make or break your outfit. So choose the right ones.

Unless you’re a rap star or an off-duty model with an attitude, you should never pair a tuxedo with sneakers, Chelsea boots, or any other traditionally casual shoe. Instead, you need a black patent leather model that suits the formality of the occasion.

Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion |

The most commonly worn tuxedo shoes have a rounded toe and minimalist details, complementing the rest of the outfit by creating understated, clean lines. However many modern men opt to pair their tuxedo with a more fashionable pointed toe or square toe dress shoe. These will make the foot look longer, which in turn will make your body look longer: narrowing and elongating your frame to create the lithe look that is so on-trend right now.

For semi-formal occasions, your shoes should still be leather and formal, but they do not have to be patent. A highly polished black or dark brown brogue or derby will look great and will provide a wonderful opportunity to show off your style credentials.

Style Guide: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal Style : Fashion | https://www.royalfashionist.comOur black leather Wyatt Chelsea boots would be the perfect piece to choose for semi-formal occasions. In high shine black leather, with a subtly pointed toe, these boots are an affordable alternative to the  Saint Laurent boots that have been so popular with the fashion set, and will hint at your high fashion credentials without being too garish and inappropriate for the occasion.

Your accessories, including your shoes, are a great place to hint at your unique personality, no matter how formal the occasion is, so think carefully about the pair you choose.


Understanding the differences between formal and semi-formal dressing is one of the most important life lessons any sartorial minded man will learn. Dressing for the occasion will earn you respect, and ensure that people view you as someone who understands and adheres to societal rules.

If you have any doubts about a dress code, the most important things to remember are that it is better to be overdressed than underdressed and that you should always wear a suit. Even if the occasion is a little more informal than you had expected, most women love a man in a well-fitting suit, so you are sure to turn heads and attract attention all night anyway. It’s a win-win situation!

Tor Brierley is a writer and editor from the UK whose love of writing about fashion has taken her all over the world. With a passion for tailoring, Tor often looks to menswear for inspiration, and believes that fashion should be accessible to everyone. Tor has three main obsessions: red lipstick, her kids, and finding the perfect leather jacket.

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