gala attire

What is gala attire?

It’s not every day you get to go to a gala, so if you find yourself with an invitation to such a coveted affair, you may be wondering what to wear. Fret not. That’s where we come in.

A typical gala is a formal affair, often held to support a worthy fundraiser, charity event, or other special occasions. Generally speaking, gala etiquette calls for an evening dress, sleek heels, a small clutch bag, and statement jewellery. In addition to following the dress code, though, it’s just as important to feel comfortable in whatever you choose to wear.

For most of us, gala invites don’t come around all the time. And while it’s exciting to get all dressed up for a fancy night out, the prospect of choosing a look that’s appropriate for this type of special occasion can feel a little daunting — but it doesn’t have to be. We should probably first figure out what a gala is.

What is a Gala?

The general gala definition is a formal occasion, often with entertainment, that typically marks a special event or is held to fundraise for a charitable cause. Whether the dress code denotes black-tie, black-tie optional, or semi-formal attire, you want to look elegant and appropriate, without blowing your entire paycheck on your look. Now that we know what a gala is, we can move onto the outfits. Luckily, evening-worthy rental options from dresses to jewellery abound, ready to fully outfit you for the fanciest of festivities. Scroll on for your stress-free guide to what to wear to a gala.

So, if you just aren’t a dress person, swap in a sophisticated jumpsuit. The same goes for heels. Don’t get caught wobbling in über-high stilettos if you aren’t used to wearing them; opt for embellished flats instead. No matter what you decide to wear, this is your chance to go all-out with the glamour. (Just think Met Gala on a smaller scale.) How much is too much, though? We’re here to help you figure out what to wear to a gala with our favourite styles to help guide your search.

Whether the invitation is for a charity event, fundraiser or auction, you were fortunate enough to get an invite to an upcoming formal gala. Cheers to you! Attending such an event could very well be the highlight of the year. But what should you wear to a gala dinner? Is it a black-tie event, black tie optional or semi-formal? What shoes and accessories should go with the dress to make you stand out from the crowd? No need to fret we have just the advice to help you impress everyone the moment you walk through the door.

What to expect at a Charity Gala?

There are so many wonderful charities that host a gala dinner or ball throughout the year to raise funds for those in need. In most cases, gala events will demand a semi-formal or black tie dress code. If you have never been to a charity gala before, you can expect to enjoy; champagne, dinner, dancing, and a charity auction. If you’re planning to head along in a larger group, book an entire table. Or there is also the option to buy individual tickets where you will get the opportunity to meet other guests attending. 

Some galas such as Fashion Aid or the Heart Foundation Winter Ball are also themed so that you may find yourself at anything from a masquerade ball to a James Bond 007 themed event, or some events might revolve around a colour such as blue or red. It is encouraged to wear a splash of this colour to fit in with the theme. 

Be Aware of How Much Skin You Show

This is an event where you may run into your co-workers, organizational partners, or potential future employers, and it’s crucial to establish and maintain a strong reputation through your personal style. As much as I’d die to wear half of the dresses presented at the Met Gala (who doesn’t want to wear a custom gown at the most high profile fashion event in NYC?), those outfits usually aren’t the best fit for DC galas due to the artistic elements and how much skin they show. Be mindful of shoulders and cleavage, how tight the dress is, or how much leg there is with high heels.

Consider this: It’s okay to show some skin, but it should be balanced. If you choose to wear a strapless dress with a lower neckline, then ensure it covers a bit more leg. The reverse is also true.

Flatter Your Figure

We come in all colours, shapes, and sizes, and this is something to be celebrated. Everyone deserves to feel and look amazing in what they decide to wear. When searching through your closet (or someone else’s) or the aisles of stores for that perfect piece, make sure you know your size. Have someone take your measurements to get an accurate fit from an online store, such as Rent the Runway. Finding an outfit that accentuates your favourite features in the best way and camouflages “trouble areas” will help you feel confident, strong, and attractive at any event.

Consider this: A-line dresses look great on most people; certain jumpsuits can elongate your figure; sweetheart necklines are flattering, and jewel tones work for all skin tones.

What Dress to Wear

Before picking out a dress, find out the dress code. The invitation should say whether it is a black-tie gala, black tie optional or semi-formal event. If the invitation doesn’t give you any clues, give the host or another invitee a ring to gather the gala details. Here’s an easy guide to formal dress traditions:

Black Tie Gala: A black-tie event is a dressier affair where men wear tuxedos or formal suits. Women should wear long formal gowns. Rich, bold colours for dresses work for this as the Short Sleeve Beaded Blouson Gown embodies elegance and luxury. If you desire for something with a bit more sparkle, the Scoop Back Sequin Gown allows you to compliment your date’s attire without overpowering it. Shop our curated black-tie dress collection here.

Black-Tie Optional Gala: If the invitation says optional black-tie gala, this is a less dressy event where a tuxedo is optional for men as they can opt for a dark suit with a black tie. Women can still wear formal evening gowns or a dressy cocktail dress if they so desire. You may consider the One Shoulder Flutter Jumpsuit to make a great impression.

Black Tie Creative Isn’t Strict

Unlike other lavish events, black tie creative is, well, creative. For example, a few years ago, I attended a military ball where I wouldn’t be caught dead in a short dress. However, you can wear a short dress to the AFF Gala. Think of all the items you could add to an otherwise simple outfit that may be appropriate for other events.

Consider this: Add options like sparkles, rhinestones, sequins, ruffles, colours, shiny textures, bold necklaces, pattern shoes, and more.

Semi-Formal Gala: A semi-formal affair usually involves a party with a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere. Men can wear a nice business suit while the ladies can be a bit more at ease with a cute cocktail dress or midi dress. Floral prints and multiple colours are welcome. The Beaded Cocktail Dress is the perfect styling for a semi-formal or cocktail attire event. Shop our complete, curated cocktail dress collection here.

Have Fun with Trends

Gone are the days where the only option is a floor-length dress for a regal event. Have fun with it! Long dresses, short dresses, tea-length dresses, matching two pieces, tuxedos, and jumpsuits are all great choices. 2019 is a playful and experimental time for fashion, and trends from the past century – even the 90’s – are in today. Wear pieces that reflect your personality and shine. Nothing is more attractive than inner confidence that exudes from an outfit that mirrors you.

What Shoes to Wear

Shoes are the item that can bring your look together with options that will dress your look up or down. Sparkling peep-toe heels are an easy go-to as you can select a colour that matches your outfit; go black or neutral to let your dress do the talking. Consider the Jamie Peep Toe Pump for formal black-tie galas when you want to make a shining impression. You also can never go wrong with straps, as the Halton Sling Back Heel works well for both black-tie and black-tie optional gowns.

Wear a Fun Shoe

I never thought of adding fun shoes to an outfit before adulthood. Perhaps I changed my mind when my youngest sister’s passion for shoes developed at the age of three when she had a meltdown at the store each time she couldn’t get a new pair. I considered that she might have been onto something (minus the tears). A good shoe can make (or break) an outfit. A tailored outfit can be elevated with a sparkly, patterned, or brightly coloured shoe. Shoes add dimension and can also balance an outstanding dress, so the focus is on the right item of clothing.

Consider this: Make sure you know how to walk in heels if you choose to wear them. Flats are a very “in” option today too—ankle straps rock. I prefer at least a four-inch heel, but that’s because I like to feel taller than I am! Plus, I get a good calf workout.

How to Accessorize for a Gala

Never pass up the opportunity to accessorize. Since you are trying to decide on what to wear to a gala dinner, always think about the weather and the amount of time you may be out in the cold. Consider a shawl or wrap for bare shoulders to keep you warm without detracting from your evening gown or being too bulky and cumbersome. Shop Adrianna Papell Jackets and Wraps here. 

When selecting jewellery for gala dresses, always take into consideration the type of neckline which is on the dress. Off the shoulder, strapless and V-neck dresses pair well with a short necklace or choker, while you can go long and extravagant with your necklace for boat necklines. Less is more when it comes to jewellery, so don’t go overboard. Two pieces will suffice, such as a necklace or bracelet with earrings. Go for muted jewellery colours for dresses that have splashy and multi-coloured designs and sparkly and shimmery jewellery for dresses that are more monochrome and neutral. Shop Adrianna Papell Fashion Jewelry Here. 

When you walk into the gala, put your best-dressed foot forward and wow the other guests with your red carpet ensemble. Follow these style tips, and your look is bound to be memorable.

White Tie

A white tie invitation is the most formal type of invitation, and both sexes should take exceptional care when planning their attire. A white tie event is most often a grand affair such as a state dinner, formal nighttime wedding, or a diplomatic ball. White tie may also be referred to as “full evening dress,” “full dress,” or “evening dress” on the invitation. If the event occurs during the day, it may say “morning dress” instead. Men should wear black tailcoat, short or waist-length, with black pants. Pant legs should display a single satin stripe. Pair with a white wing-collared shirt, white bow tie, and white vest or cummerbund. Do not wear a dinner jacket, regular suit, white suit or a tuxedo to a white tie event. Essential accessories include:

  • Braces
  • White gloves
  • Shirt studs
  • Cufflinks
  • Black patent shoes
  • Black dress socks

Accessories like a top hat, boutonniere, and pocket watch are acceptable and optional.

A black overcoat and a white silk scarf can be added in colder temperatures.

For women, full-length ball gowns are de rigueur, and short dresses are not appropriate. Women are expected to wear a dress that displays some décolletage, but you should wear what you feel comfortable in. Accessorizing your outfit with full-length opera gloves is an optional but beautiful touch. The purse should be small and opulent, and jewellery is usually designed to impress. If it’s cold enough, a woman can wear a wrap, shawl or evening coat or cloak to the event.

White Tie and Decorations

If you receive an invitation that states the dress code is “white tie with decorations” this refers to military and civil decorations, medals and orders. Usually, you will only see this type of dress code at diplomatic or government events. In these situations, the decorations are worn on the left lapel of the coat, on a ribbon just under a man’s bow tie or on a sash worn over the shoulder. If one has an abundance of decorations, a miniature version is worn on a bar on the left jacket lapel.

Black Tie

Black tie events are a step-down in formality from white tie events. The dress code for these events is also known as “semi-formal evening dress” or “dinner jacket.” Black tie events are still formal affairs and tend to be events such as galas, charity balls, movie premieres and evening celebrations. Black tie dress code includes:

Men: For a winter or fall black-tie event, men wear a black tuxedo with a white, pleated front tuxedo shirt. Braces, vests, gloves and cummerbunds are optional, but they should wear all the other white tie accessories. For spring and summer events, men substitute a white tuxedo jacket for the black one. Black patent shoes and black dress socks complete the outfit.

Women: Full-length ball gowns, cocktail dresses, and elegant little black dresses are appropriate black-tie apparel for women. While black is the preferred colour for dresses, you can wear any colour. If you prefer pants, silk palazzo style pants with an accompanying silk or chiffon top are appropriate. Women can also bring a stylish evening clutch, and jewellery can be refined and subtle or flashier costume pieces depending on the dress.

Can Women Wear Pants to a Gala Affair?

For women, gala events generally call for dressing in a sophisticated, formal manner. This could be an elegant evening gown or cocktail dress. However, don’t feel constrained to wearing a dress if you’re more comfortable in pants as there are many ways to look just as stunning and dressed up without showing up in a dress. You can try wearing a stylish pantsuit, jumpsuit or women’s tuxedo. Another option could be silk palazzo pants with a chiffon or silk blouse.

In general, if you choose to wear pants, they should not be tight and form-fitting, so choose a cut that “moves.” These outfit choices can be paired with either a pair of metallic or neutral heels or flats. Accessorize your look with a small purse, such as a clutch bag, sophisticated jewellery that doesn’t overpower your clothes and depending on the weather, a wrap may be an excellent accompaniment in colder climates.

Wear it with.

Once you have put in all the hard work and found the perfect dress be sure to complement it with gorgeous accessories.

Statement Earrings are the perfect finishing touch to any formal outfit. Gold or silver statement earrings are a safe but elegant choice, or if you are feeling bold, brightly coloured earrings will add a pop of colour to a simple black gown.

Finish off your look with strappy heels in either nude, black or metallic. Then choose a bag that compliments your dress and shoes – this will tie the look together perfectly.

Finally, you need to choose the right makeup for the night. For darker coloured dresses, a bright red lip will make an impact. While brightly coloured dresses will be complemented by a soft lip and a soft brown smokey eye.

When In Doubt for What to Wear to a Gala

If you feel truly stuck, don’t feel embarrassed contacting the charity’s staff for more information. Most will be more than happy to give you more input on what type of dress is acceptable for an event. After all, they want you to have a great time and continue coming back year after year to support their fundraising efforts. You can also seek out past attendees of the event to get their impressions, as well as look on the charity’s website and social media for photos from previous events. These can all give you clues about how dressy or not, and you need to be.

Practice Makes Perfect When Dressing for a Gala

Despite your best efforts, there may be times when you just get it wrong and show up at a charity event in inappropriate clothing. Try to relax and enjoy yourself anyway because the most important thing is raising money for a good cause, not stressing over your outfit. Keep practising until you master proper dress etiquette techniques, and before you know it, choosing the appropriate ensemble for any charity event will seem like second nature to you.

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