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What is Semi-Formal Attire?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 21, 2024
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The definition of semi-formal attire can be somewhat flexible, particularly for women. In general, the term is defined as clothing that is more dressy than everyday or business attire, but not so formal as to include tuxedos or fancy gowns. Semi-formal dress is still considered formal wear, however, and should be approached with this in mind. What type of clothing is appropriate for a semi-formal event also often depends on the event itself; semi-formal attire for a daytime wedding can be different from that worn to an evening business event or a party. For men, semi-formal attire typically means a dark suit and tie, while for women, it can include a cocktail dress or dressy suit.

Men's Attire

For men, semi-formal attire means wearing a full suit, with vest optional. A tie, either bow or straight, should be worn, and the shirt should be a simple button down. Suit fabric choices are primarily wool gabardine or cashmere; however, a wool blend is usually acceptable. Linen or seersucker suits are not formal enough for semi-formal attire. In the modern sense, a tuxedo is considered formal attire, and a man wearing one to a semi-formal event would likely be considered overdressed.

Semi-formal dress is typically conservative, so the color of the suit, shirt, and tie should be muted. For most occasions, the suit should be dark; black or dark blue are often the best options, although a lighter color would be acceptable for a daytime event. The shirt should typically be white, and neckties should also be conservative, with a subtle pattern and in colors that coordinate with the suit. Dark trouser socks and dress shoes like Oxfords should be worn. Sports coats, novelty ties, polo shirts, and khaki pants are not appropriate at any semi-formal event, nor are jeans or shorts.

Women's Attire

For women, a relatively wide variety of clothing can be considered semi-formal attire. According to some strict definitions, a woman should always wear a dress to a semi-formal event, although other etiquette experts suggest that a dressy pantsuit or dress suit would also be appropriate. Preferred fabrics include silk, velvet, cashmere, or high quality polyester brocades; usually, anything silky-looking can be a good option. Except for cashmere, a wool business suit is not considered semi-formal attire since it is typically not dressy enough.

As with men's clothing, women's outfits for a semi-formal event should be relatively conservative, and avoid showing too much leg or cleavage. Hem lengths vary, but dresses or skirts should end no more than 1 inch (2.54 cm) above the knee. Longer skirts paired with a dressy top can be appropriate, but a floor-length gown might be too formal for most events. Tops should not be cut too low or be too revealing. Strapless tops or dresses can be acceptable choices for some semi-formal events provided that they aren't too skimpy, but should be avoided at business functions.

Pantsuits can work as semi-formal attire, if they are made in silk, polyester, cashmere, or a similar fabric and accessorized appropriately. A woman might also wear a dressy top and tuxedo pants made out of appropriate fabrics and still fit in. Jeans, shorts, very short skirts, and other casual clothing items should not be worn to a semi-formal event.

Shoes and Accessories

Generally, semi-formal attire means dress heels for women, usually in colors coordinating with the outfit. A dressy flat or strappy sandal could also be appropriate, depending on the style; a metallic or shiny patent leather shoe is often a good choice. Flip flops or other casual shoes are not dressy enough for this look.

A range of jewelry is also acceptable for a semi-formal outfit, with bracelets, rings, and necklaces all adding to the elegance of a dress. Materials should coordinate with the outfit; silver, gold, and other metallics would fit with nearly any semi-formal attire, but jewelry made of plastic, wood, or cord would probably seem too casual in most cases. Precious and semi-precious stones could add sparkle, but a wide necklace covered in diamonds would probably be too showy.

The Confusion Over Semi-Formal Attire

Very strict dress codes are less common in most levels of society than they were a few decades ago, and the definition of semi-formal attire has become far less stringent than it once was. Although this means that people have more choices when it comes to dressing for events, it also means that the lines between formal, semi-formal, business semi-formal, cocktail, and other degrees of formality have become confused. In some cases, the host of an event might not be entirely clear on what "semi-formal" really means.

When dressing in semi-formal attire, a person should consider the nature of the event. Clothing for a daytime event is typically slightly more relaxed than for an evening party, while a semi-formal business dinner usually requires a different look than a holiday cocktail party. If in doubt, individuals should take the time of the event and the type of people who will be there into account; a phone call to the host or hostess can also help better define the dress code.

Dressing for Specific Events

For a daytime wedding, semi-formal attire means a light colored suit for a man and a knee-length dress, dress suit, or pantsuit for a woman. Darker colors and very rich fabrics should generally be avoided as they can seem too formal for the daytime; they would be appropriate for an evening wedding, however. Other semi-formal evening wedding attire could include a dark suit for a man and little black dress or dressy top and skirt for a woman.

A semi-formal business event doesn't necessarily mean a lot of variation for men, but women's clothing should be more business-like. A dressy suit is usually more appropriate than a cocktail dress, unless the dress includes a jacket. Sleeveless and strapless tops are usually considered inappropriate business attire and should be avoided; in general, clothing should be on the more conservative side.

Cocktail and holiday parties generally allow for a wider range of clothing choices for both men and women, although these options should not stray too far outside of the traditional semi-formal definition. There is more room for creativity for men, with a wider range of tie or vest choices still being appropriate; a red or green tie could be worn to a holiday party, for example. For women, the best choice is usually a slightly shorter cocktail dress rather than a long skirt or dress suit. Jewelry also might be a little flashier, in keeping with a slightly more relaxed mood.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon987914 — On Feb 06, 2015

I was invited to a semi-formal affair, and did not know what to wear. I searched it and found you, wiseGeek. You have made my day, and now I can rest for shopping tomorrow. Thanks very much for the way you advertise your site in searches. Also, thanks for the awesome information. You saved my day.

By anon981194 — On Dec 10, 2014

I've gotten the idea the semi-formal attire is usually a formal shirt without a tie, with a sweater over it, with a pair of black pants and any formal shoe color of your choice. Also, a collared shirt with a suit jacket with black pants and any formal shoe color?

By anon969450 — On Sep 10, 2014

For Men: would a kilt be acceptable to wear if it goes with the suit jacket and shirt as well as tie?

By anon944577 — On Apr 08, 2014

I suppose this article is mainly relevant to the US, where black tie is considered formal attire. Calling a suit semi-formal, regardless, causes confusion, because you have to shift around the whole dress code. As far as I'm aware, semi-formal still means exclusively black tie in the evening.

Of course, I am of the opinion that the tuxedo and white tie both were perfected when they were, and any deviation from those rules of formal and semi-formal attire fails to improve the outfit, but only makes it different (and usually worse).

A suit is informal because falls outside the "form" of formal and semi-formal attire. It isn't informal in the sense of something one might wear to a casual event, but is informal in the sense that if you put on a suit and walk into a room full of men dressed in black-tie, you will certainly feel like you were in less formal attire.

The whole point of formal attire is to elevate the occasion. It formalizes whatever ceremonial work is to be done, if it is ceremonial, and shows respect to the purpose of the evening if it is not ceremonial.

By anon934987 — On Feb 23, 2014

Surely the best outfit is one you're comfortable in. Be clean, polished, smell wonderful and smile. Provided your manner and manners are gracious and you behave with elegance, people will forgive whatever you choose to wear, provided it fits you, suits you and your personality and is clean.

We wear our clothes; don't let them wear you.

My Mother always said buy once, buy well and wear often. That way, you'll always have something to wear anywhere. Relax. Show respect and stop worrying.

By anon352920 — On Oct 26, 2013

Can you wear a (white) knee length lace skirt with a black, long sleeve lace top to a semi-formal party?

By anon299632 — On Oct 25, 2012

Post 20: An ultra-formal tuxedo shirt front is called a dickie (or dickey).

Men wore frilly lace dickeys on their tuxedo shirts in the 70s, but the style of dickie in The Three Stooges have been around since at least the late 1800's. This style completely replaces a shirt, and makes formal wear a shirtless affair.

They are held in place by a tab at the end that is supposed to hook to the inside waistband of one's slacks. The top of the dickey has a small strap that goes around the neck fastening at the back. The front top of the dickey has a hole for a stud to attach to a equally stiff white collar

When the rigid shirtfront is not held properly in place, depending on the brand, it will either roll up to the throat like a window shade (as mocked in the Three Stooges), or lift up across the wearer's face, sometimes with a smack! The white collar may also detach and "pop" apart from the neck.

Though you may wonder why a man would wear an article of clothing that could become embarrassing very quickly, to this day a starched dickey is seen as a symbol of status, class, wealth, sophistication, and an icon of ultra conservative "old boy" clubs and banquets.

By anon218533 — On Sep 29, 2011

Does anyone know if there was at one time a facade shirt, formal shirt for wear with tux, that wasn't really a shirt but just a front, that evidently snapped in the front to keep it down? I am referring to what I saw in a Three Stooges episode, where the shirt front kept rolling up like a window shade. It looks like a real shirt, but it's fake. Just the front. Was there such a thing and if so, what's it called. Or was this just a "Stooge" shirt?

By anon209867 — On Aug 28, 2011

For me, semi-formal means clean sneakers and a t-shirt that I haven't worn the previous day!

By anon200987 — On Jul 28, 2011

@anon46698: "Matching suits" isn't redundant. Sometimes the word "suit" is used to describe a jacket and trousers that don't have the same fabric. Example: "suit separates", sometimes called "separates".

My question: Is a tuxedo still too formal for semi-formal, if it's worn without a wing-collar shirt? If I wear a slim tuxedo, with flat-front dress shirt, with no cummerbund, and just oxfords. Is that semi-formal?

By anon191574 — On Jun 29, 2011

Semi formal clothes are something that falls between formal and informal wear. For women, from your footwear to your dress, everything should be perfect.

By anon164389 — On Mar 31, 2011

In the final paragraph, the term "button down" is incorrectly used. The correct term is button-front. A button-down shirt is a button-front shirt that has buttonholes on the collar tips that attach to small buttons under the collar. A button-down shirt should not be worn with a suit and tie.

By Jondress123 — On Dec 09, 2010

There are wide variety of semiformal dresses available for one to choose. This post is indeed very informative.

By anon107296 — On Aug 29, 2010

Thanks for all the useful advice. i do have a question though. the article and comments appear to distinguish between semi-formal and informal, yet i have difficulty seeing the difference between semi-formal and formal. how do you know? oh, i might add i live in Paris, people tend to dress a bit more flashily in the office (even in conservative businesses). that also makes it harder to tell what's OK and what's not. they all seem to know instinctively. help please!

By anon105894 — On Aug 23, 2010

Moe is not an accurate guide to anything. Tails used to be an integral part of "formal" attire, however, with the passing of the white, tailed tuxedo, "formal" has come to mean a black tuxedo for men (formerly semi-formal), and semi-formal has been down-graded to a dark suit worn with more stylish accessories than one might wear to the office: think brighter tie and mandatory pocket square. Socks to match the tie couldn't hurt either.

By anon46698 — On Sep 28, 2009

Isn't "matching suit" redundant? Doesn't the word *suit* imply the pants and jacket match - when the pants and jacket don't match I think that's called pants and jacket - or a blazer and pants?

By anon46263 — On Sep 23, 2009

For men, a "suit" means the jacket and pants are made of the same cloth - the same fabric and pattern. Semi-formal also means the suit is a conservative, usually dark, color and without a loud pattern (checks would not be semi-formal, but a thin pin stripe could be).

By Twcable — On Nov 17, 2008

DON'T Forget to bring extra cash to tip the Valet...

By anon21525 — On Nov 17, 2008

Yes, I watched a Three Stooges episode lately with my son, and the woman requested they dress "semi-formal". Moe yells out "Tails!", which means to me, a Tuxedo.

By blacktieman — On Aug 13, 2008

Originally, of course, "semi-formal" referred to the tuxedo to differentiate it from "formal," being white tie. (In the daytime, "semi-formal" referred to the stroller jacket to distinguish it from the formal morning coat. Morning coats are rare nowadays, and strollers nearly extinct.) A bride in the 1930s and a teenager today might write "semi-formal," the latter expecting jeans and a button-down shirt and the former expecting a tuxedo with a stiff-fronted shirt.

By rjohnson — On Feb 09, 2008

Elsewhen -- semi-formal generally requires that the pant and jacket match. The definition has changed over time and varies between the US and Europe with Europe generally holding a dressier standard. Dress codes that require men to wear a blazer and slacks, meaning that the jacket and pant can be different colors or fabrics, are usually called informal attire, business casual, or smart casual.

By elsewhen — On Feb 09, 2008

For men: does the suit need to be a *matching* suit where the jacket is the same fabric as the pants, or can they be different colors?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia...
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