Formal Dress Etiquette

My Dad has a tuxedo he just loves complete with multicolor print furnishings that he looked forward to wearing to my wedding.   I have dragged my reluctantly tux-clad husband to many black tie openings and benefits so knew I would have to let my Dad down gently.  This costume designer was not having them walk down my aisle in a mix of semi- and formal.

There are no longer many rules about what-to-wear-when for anything except weddings. Many Brides avoid deciding on the dress for their weddings, allowing the groom to choose for his men and the guests to fend for themselves.   Believe me, no one wants to show up at a party incorrectly dressed.  Your guests will appreciate knowing what is expected, then deciding if they want to comply,   Rules are made to be broken,  but it is still nice to be familiar with the etiquette of dress to know what tradition you are ignoring.

Formal Dress for Evening
If you want your Wedding party and all of your guests  dressed to the max you want to note that your wedding is formal.   A formal wedding can be in the daytime or in the evening.   There is a popular tux line called “After Six”.   That is because a tuxedo is evening wear, to be worn only after 6 pm.

Tuxes are  a black or midnight blue (very dark navy) suit with satin lapels and satin stripes down the pant leg.  It is worn with a vest or cummerbund and a tux shirt with lay down or   wing collar and bow tie or necktie (either tie works for both collars).

A great vintage-y  alternative is black tux pants with a  dinner jacket, usually in winter white wool ( even in summer).   Dinner jackets are worn with a lay down collar or spread collar shirts.


Barack Obama, sporting a tuxedo with white tie.

Traditional white tie with tails


If you watch Downton Abbey you know that a tuxedo is the least formal of a man’s evening wear options.   White tie and Tails gives a more formal look and a shot of Fred Astaire panache.  A tailcoat is worn with a wing collar shirt, bow tie and vest all in white cotton pique.

Wearing a wing collar and white tie with your tuxedo is a modern way of adding formality.    Obama donned this look at both inaugurations.

Whether tux, dinner jacket, or tails the Groom and his men should be dressed at the same level of formality.

Bridesmaids at a formal wedding, day or evening,  should be in gowns.   Fabrics with sheen rather than shine like satin or tafetta in graceful silhouettes like a-lines or trumpet will look appropriately grand with  their escorts.


Traditional morning suit



 Daytime Formal Wear

A 5:00  ceremony with evening reception can still be formal.   A morning or afternoon church wedding with an evening reception may  be in tuxes, though not tails,  to keep the groomsmen from needing two looks.

As the British know well  there is a  daytime version of formal wear.   It is the morning suit – picture Kate’s Dad in his gray cutaway coats,  dark gray striped trousers, striped ascot and top hat.   It is a great look for daytime weddings in churches or less formal venues like gardens. There is a great modern take on the morning suit called a stroller- the gray striped pants with dove gray sports jacket and gray striped 4-in-hand tie.   You can rent them nationally from,  who also rent traditional morning suits.

While a Black tux at an afternoon wedding is wrong, there are now gray tuxes that have become the American variation of the Morning Suit.    White tuxedos have become popular for summer evening, tropical destination and theme weddings but look best at Prom, as do those hybrid long jacket tuxes unless you are having a western theme.

And the Guests?

You should not expect  your  American guests to rent a morning suit, but if you put Formal Dress or Black Tie on your invitation then the men coming to your wedding should be in one of the looks above, or at least a dark suit with a solid tie.  Few events beyond Debutante Balls are “white Tie” denoting men in tails and women in ball gowns.    Formal for women can be a ball gown, evening gown, a sparkly cocktail dress.  Dressy suits or floaty chiffon dresses work well for dressy daytime weddings, with a change for a formal evening reception.

If you want to give guests more leeway a popular dress designation is “Creative Black Tie”.   That means your cousin Stan can wear a turtleneck with his tux suit and your hipster nephew can wear jeans with his vintage dinner jacket and your girlfriend can wear her favorite dress.   A variation on this is Texas Black Tie  – a look I first saw  on opening night at Houston Grand Opera: .   This is the only place besides Prom where those long jacketed tuxes look appropriate.

If your Wedding Party will be in formal dress and you do not expect all of your guests to arrive in tuxes Black-Tie optional or Semi-Formal or After Five means that tuxes are not required, nor are long dresses.    For men that means a tux or a dark suit for evening.   Women can still wear long or short party dresses or that LBD with your dressiest accessories.    Not often used at Weddings Business Formal is the same as Semi-Formal for him, but for women it suggests that women opt for more tailored dressy suits and dresses – nothing too slinky.  

The rise in Destinations weddings brought the appellation Resort Formal.   It does not mean white tuxes. Light colored suits and linens  for men, women in colorful light dresses.  Many couples use simpler designations like Festive Dress,  or Party Dress for guests like my friend Arnie who always looks smashing in a bright silk vest, braces and trousers.

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Wedding Gown Silhouettes

Wedding Gown Silhouettes

So you’ve set the date!  Now it’s time to find the perfect dress. Most Brides start by choosing their venue or their gown, then plan the rest from there.    If you have settled the type of venue before choosing your gown,   you can better choose an appropriate style.  Many will offer advice on which silhouette looks best on which figure.   When properly fitted and proportioned any gown style can work on any figure. Here’s an overview of the classic styles and occasions where each is appropriate:

A-line – This is the most traditional Wedding gown style.  Fitted to the waist or dropped waist, the skirt flares out from the waist to the ground.     This gown is appropriate for any wedding but usually worn for church weddings and semi-formal  or  formal affairs.   It will look stunning and stately coming down the aisle.   A-lines are usually done in crisp fabrics like satin or organza, often beaded or appliqued with lace.

Larger Brides tend to go for  A-lines because they think it covers,  but having fullness over your hips and butt can make you look bigger. To flatter hourglass figures we recommend fitting an A-line through the hip – see the Fit and Flare below.


Trumpet – Trumpet skirts are currently the most popular fashion in Bridal.   We are also seeing trumpet skirts all over the Red Carpet this season.   The skirt fits over the hips to about mid-thigh and then flares to a soft fullness.   When properly fitted this style flatters every figure.   Trumpet gowns are natural mix of traditional Bridal with a fashion-y look.   Depending on the fabrication they are appropriate for many venues.  A crisp satin or organza trumpet with glamorous beading will shine at a Black Tie event.   A trumpet in all-over lace with a softly structured slip is perfect for an afternoon wedding in a garden.   Trumpets  can also be constructed of net or organza, or be covered with ruffles or flower appliques.    Many designers have updated their traditional trumpet by adding a statement belt.


Mermaid –  Mermaid dresses evoke a vintage glamor.  They are the best way to show off your curves, flattering any size Bride with an hourglass figure.  They are elegant at formal receptions but work for most occasions.   The smaller skirt wears well at restaurant receptions.  Whether it is the name or the fact that they are so body conscious they are always popular for beach weddings.   Mermaids are very fashion forward but definitely constrict your movement.      The skirt is fitted to the knee, then flares dramatically to the floor.  Some mermaids have stiff crinoline to support the skirt shape, while others fall softly and look almost like a sheath.   Mermaids can be made of any fabric and can have a structured or soft lining.


Fit and flare – A better way to wear an A-line skirt!  This is a silhouette that only exists in Bridal.    Fit and Flare gowns can be appropriate for any occasion.   They are usually softer with a simple one ruffle crinoline to support the shape.   The skirt starts like an A-line but is more fitted through the hips and then begins to flare out from the thigh.    Most fitters will modify an A-line to be more of a fit and flare as it is a more flattering silhouette for most figures.




Sheath – A narrow column that falls straight to the floor.  For obvious reasons this gown is perfect for smaller venues, weddings on boats, or tiny chapels with narrow aisles.  It is also popular for older Brides who want to keep it simple,urban restaurant weddings, and more casual affairs.   A traditional sheath is usually of a softer fabric like  lace, soft satin, or crepe.    Empire-waisted sheaths, AKA goddess gowns, are the most popular right now.    Goddess gowns are of soft fabric like chiffon or georgette gathered at the high empire waist with a full but straight skirt giving them a Grecian look.   Chiffon empire goddess gowns are the most popular Bridesmaid’s look of the moment.


Ball Gown –  The “fairy tale princess” dress.  A ball gown bodice is fitted to the waist or hip with the fullest skirt of all the silhouettes.  Ball gowns are usually worn at very formal evening weddings.   Consider the width of the isle you’ll walk down, and the size of your venue and dance floor.   Though you can add a  crinoline most ball gowns have built in crinolines to support the volume.  Some will have stiff netting or hoops under the skirt – think “Gone with the Wind” style volume.   Couture ball gowns will have many layers of soft net to support the skirt.  You can usually change the volume a bit by adding or removing the netting or crinoline.


Tea Length/Garden Party –  There is a strong vintage revival going on in Bridal right now.  The most common evidence is the recent popularity of Tea length dresses.   A more informal style, a tea length dress has a hem that falls anywhere between the top of the calf and ankle length.   It is also called “garden party” or in the longer version “Ballerina length”.   Most commonly worn for daytime weddings Tea length can be worn at a less formal evening wedding but not for a semi-formal of black tie affair.    There are satin versions with classic 1950’s style crinolines, usually built in to the dress.  They are also popular in lace, net and other softer gathered fabrics, and a variety of novelty fabrics.


Cocktail – The “little white dress” has become increasingly popular.  This style is informal and modern, stopping above or at the knee.  It’s the perfect dress for your urban loft wedding with cocktail reception, back yard barbeque wedding or to wear for your civil ceremony at the courthouse and luncheon following.   They are most often seen as reception or after party dresses.   Changing into a second dress is so popular now that many Bridal shops are now carrying lines of white cocktail dresses.



Dinner Suits – Last but certainly not least, there is the dinner suit.  For less formal occasions, morning, afternoon, or evening, a dressy suit is always appropriate. A great choice if you’re being married at a courthouse, in a formal but not opulent setting, or having a small luncheon. These don’t have to be white or ivory, but if you’re looking for something more traditional, Stephanie James is one of the few designers making suits that are specifically bridal.

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Finding The Right Size

Why did they make me order the wrong size dress?
This is a question I hear often.   Brides think shops order dresses too big so they can make money on the alterations.   The truth is they are happy to break even.  Many Bridals Salons no longer offer alterations for just that reason.

But I wear a 4 and they ordered me an 8! 
There used to be a standard size that all fashion houses used.    When 70’s fashion shifted from suits and dresses to jeans and t-shirts the industry took a hit.  Designers realized that if they cut clothing bigger so a size 8 gal fit their size 6 they would be more likely to buy.    Designers started cutting clothing larger.  The smallest size, previously 4 or 2 petite, was extended down to 0, then to 00.

So what does this have to do with the size of my wedding dress?
Many Bridal lines still use that old size standard so a  size 8 sample may fit your size 4 body.

How do I know what size to buy?
Measure, measure, measure!   Each designer or company has its own set of measurements they use to determine size so if you are ordering online don’t just order the size you would get when buying regular clothes.   If you are not sure, hire a pro to measure you.


Then check the Chart!   Each designer has one.  Find the measurement chart for the company that makes your dress easily by googling something like  “Pronovias measurement chart”   Make sure the chart pertains to your designer’s line – not just the department store or website’s general chart.

Note: Pronovias does not even include a size 0. That is because wedding dresses use the old size standard.

If you are ordering through a shop they will measure you and determine which size you need but it never hurts to do your homework and do your own comparison.

Okay I’m 3 different sizes!
If your bust is a 4, your waist a 6, and your hips  a 10  you must order the 10.   You  know you are in for some alterations on the bust and waist.   There is a 1″ difference in sizes  0 – 10, 2″ for 12 – 18 so your size 12 dress will be  3″ too big in the bust

So if the store measured me for my dress why do I still need alterations?
Same as above.

But I am ordering a designer gown / gown from China / gown from etsy dressmaker that is being made for me.    They asked for my measurements.   It should fit me.
You need to understand how your measurements are used.   When ordering – even the high end designer gowns -the Bridal shop or website  just needs your bust, waist and hip measurements.  They compare your measurements to a chart and choose a size for you.    Every line uses a different standard of measuring.

So what should I do?
Order the size you need.   Taking in the sides of the bodice, even 4 – 5″, is not unusual.   If the dress does not have side seams , or has a band or trim that wraps all the way round it may be more expensive to alter.   If you are really price conscious that may be a reason to choose another style.    Check other designers size charts.   Some may have a similar silhouette with a smaller difference in the bust – waist measures.

Consider the silhouette

If you vary greatly from the size charts you may want to find a gown that flatters your smallest pert and does not hug your biggest.   If your dress is a “New Look” Garden party dress you can order to fit your bust and waist measures and not worry about the hips.   If the dress is a mermaid it will need to hug your body.   Check back for our upcoming post about the different gown silhouettes that are available.

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And the rest…..Budgeting for your wedding party.

Once a Bride has decided on her look she needs to plan for the rest of the Bridal party. There are now plenty of re-wearable Bridesmaid dresses which is great because being a Bridesmaid can be costly. Members of the wedding usually foot the bill for their finery. Before you ask them to stand up for you consider what it will cost them.

While Target has bridesmaid dresses for $70

Target sateen Bridesmaid $54.99

most of the cute fashion-y dresses from
E-tailers like are $250 – $375
or more. Going the traditional route – ordering from a Bridemaid dress company you will find gowns start around $150 but are more often $250+ and need to be ordered 4 – 6 months in advance.

Add to that an average $120 – 150 in alterations. That is before the mani-pedi, shoes, party purse and wrap; not to mention the shower, bachelorette, and out of town

Nordstrom Charmeuse Bridesmaid $248

wedding travel expenses. Their jewelry is often a gift from the Bride. Generous Brides who can afford to offer to pay for their maids dresses and alterations. If you are asking your maids to wear yellow chiffon you may want to think about gifting the dresses.

The Groom and his men usually wear versions of the same suit. For an evening wedding formal wear – tuxes, dinner jackets or tails – may be required. There are gorgeous Red carpet worthy tuxes for hundreds of dollars but they are still black suits with a stripe up the pant leg and a contrast lapel.

Most formal grooms automatically think rental, but for the cost of renting a tux ($120 – $200) you can often purchase the same quality tux, and without the adjustable pants. The advantage of rental is that it will also include shirt ( $40), tie/bow tie & pocket square set ($20 – $70) and vest / cumber bum – usually sold with tie/pocket square; and shoes – patent leather lace ups or slip ons – for not much more. The money spent on quality accessories usually shows more than the money spent on the tuxedo.

Informal Barn and beach Grooms who may not want to ask their groomsmen to invest in an “insert color here” suit purchase can now rent suits ($60 – 120) . Jim’s Formalwear has suits in black, navy, grey or khaki for a casual cohesive look. Suit rentals also include shirts and ties so you can still coordinate their colors.

For the littlest members of the Bridal party you can coordinate their look and rent tiny tuxes ($45 – 125) for the ring bearer and order flower girl dresses at the Bridal shop ( $75 – $350). Shopping their outfits will always be more cost effective. Plan ahead to shop around the holidays. There are more kids party clothes in stores before Christmas and Easter.

Jim’s Formal Wear “alfresco” suit

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Budgeting for Accessories

When I sold dresses we were not allowed to let the Bride leave the fitting room without a veil and headpiece.    My boss knew that it was the complete look that sold the gown.    Not every Bride wears a veil but it is the most romantic of Bridal accessories.    Simple unadorned veils start around $50 and go into the hundreds for ribbon edges, pearls and crystals.   Lace or embroidered veils with designer labels start around $400-$600.    Many Brides can not picture themselves in a veil and won’t even try one until the second or third fitting – unless their mother asked them them to – and end up loving the look.   You may want to devote some of your budget to a veil to keep your options open

Birdcage and Bubble veils start about the same and run up to hundreds for those with feathers and decorations.    Embellished birdcage veils are often worn throughout the evening. Very few traditional veils come with embellishment on the comb anymore.   Wearing a separate hair accessory allows the Bride to keep her hair adorned after the veil comes off.   Beaded feathered and flower combs start around $35.  A gorgeous silk flower or feather piece will be hundreds  Want beautiful sparkly crystals?  Think $100 – $750 for headpieces, headbands or tiaras.  Fresh flowers are also a lovely option.   Have your florist prepare several so you can change them out as they wilt. A few buds to pin in can be $40, a wreath of blossoms to tie around your curls may cost several hundred.

When shopping for your gown you may not realize that sash shown with your Monique Lhuillier gown is not included with the price but will be an extra $300.   The current fashion for girdling your waist in sparkles allows Bridal lines to update classics by adding a belt.

Shoes are easier.  You already know if you’ll need $600 for Jimmy Choo’s, $250 for Badgley Mishka’s or $90 for Nina’s.  Shoes are actually a great place to save on budget as there are so many cute pairs for well under $100.

Jewelry makes a lovely gift but if no one is buying you diamonds I prefer costume jewelry for weddings as you want to sparkle as much as your dress.   Most gowns have beautiful necklines so that classic rope of pearls is not necessary but some sparkly earrings are a must as they bring light to your face.  A bracelet is also a lovely accent.   Allow yourself at least hundred or two – there is a big difference in sparkle between glass rhinestones and swarovski crystal.

If you have anything outdoors you may need a wrap.  I got married in ’99, the year of the pashmina.    Mine was only $450 because it came from the lower east side.   I never regret the purchase because I still wear it.    Most Bridal shops do not carry wraps beyond the classic satin bolero – now more often a mother’s accessory.  Department stores will have evening wrap starting around $50.  Look online for feather, fabric, fake fur shrugs and capes at a wide array of prices.   Shop vintage/thrift for evening coats in brocades and satins and thrift fur stoles.

While you are at the vintage store think of picking up an evening bag just big enough for tissues lipstick and compact.   This is another wedding accessory you can use again so worth a little investment.   If you want a Judith Lieber Baguette it can be a major investment.  For fun party purses allow $50.   Add a sweet embroidered hankie for a few dollars more.

That covers your outside.   Whatyou wear under your dress is equally important.   Most gowns have all the necessary under structure built into the dress but some Brides will want to add more.   Allow $75 for crinoline from the Bridal shop, less if shopping online. Few Brides wear hose anymore but most I see show up with a pair of spanx at $35 – 75 that they end up ditching.   Save the money and get a pair of high waisted tummy control briefs for $20 to cover that belly button.   Under those very sheer dresses look for seamless or edgeless panties for $12.   If you are wearing a strapless dress and are a 36C or above you may need a  corset.  Most corsets run $75 –   $125.   Most Bridal shops sell corsets.   You will find more selection and better prices being fitted at a corset shop.

For all of your accessories the best rule of thumb is that the more time you have the less money you will end up spending, so don’t wait until your gown is done to start accessorizing.   If you are well on the road to your wedding and didn’t plan and budget for accessories you can find inexpensive versions of all of the above on ebay and


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Setting Your Dress Budget

An alterations client of mine at Kleinfeld purchased a $5000 gown to wear to her wedding at her church hall. She devoted a good part of her budget to her gown.   Some Brides spend their budget on great food and wine in a chic locale, some  on a  killer band in a barn.   For me it was flowers. To her the most important part of her wedding was “The Dress” and the Salon experience that went with it so she devoted a good portion of her budget to her gown.

Purchasing your gown should be approached as you would your other wedding plans. You should start with a budget. Budgeting is not fun. The fun part is that these days amazingly beautiful wedding dresses are available in every price range.

How to set that budget? Start with the kind of dress you want. There are ruffly gowns and sweet dresses online starting around $200 at sites like Bloomingdale’s and Zappos, and on sale at midpriced retailers like Beholden and Shopbop. If you yearn for a traditional gown with built-in corset and crinoline those start around $500 at local Bridal shops. If you are going to a salon to shop for designer names you know those dresses start closer to $1000. They can go up to the tens of thousands so when scheduling your appointment ask the shop’s price range.

Budget won’t allow for your dream dress? The glamorous designer gown you crave may be available on a “pre-owned” site for less than half of its retail. Another line will have the same silhouette in different fabric for less. All lines and all Bridal shops have sample sales so call and ask if one is coming up. There are also tons of online shopping options. Reputable dealers will allow returns or send the dress for a 3 day “viewing”. Have your pre-owned dress shied right to your

You can also find a similar dress and tweak the details. One brilliant client of mine bought a $200 strapless satin mermaid at Filene’s “running of the brides”, paid me $1500 to add beaded sleeves and waistband so her under $2000 gown looked exactly like the $10,000 Bagley Mishka she told her guests she’d purchased.

Spend a few days researching styles to get an idea of what is out there. If you choose a classic silhouette with fashion forward details you should find versions at many different price points.

If you are purchasing a pre-owned dress or sample you may need to have it cleaned and pressed. It is best to do this after the alteration work is done so your gown is at its freshest for the wedding. Pressing would start at $50 at a neighborhood cleaners that does wedding gowns. Cleaning and pressing at a Bridal specialist can run to several hundred. If you are traveling with your gown it may need pressing at your destination. I had 5 clients last winter marry in Jamaica in ball gowns. Choosing a gown in fabric that doesn’t crush would have saved them $100 or more.

Most Brides stop budgeting at the dress. Your accessories are what really makes your look. We will look at those prices in our next post. If you want to know more about how to find your dream dress at a great price I welcome your questions.

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Welcome to our Blog!

There are many websites with information and advice on how to buy a wedding dress.    They tell you how many to try on, or who to bring, or fun facts like”do not wear makeup when trying on gowns” or “if you are petite buy an empire waisted gown”.      Most of this advice is aimed at brides shopping at Bridal Shops.   Most if it is written by people who  sell dresses or worse – by people who write for a living about topics which sell.   Frankly most of this advice is just wrong.   In the coming weeks I plan to address every aspect of choosing, purchasing and wearing your wedding gown.

A wedding gown is the last symbolic costume a woman wears in modern society.    I have worked for 25 years as a costume designer, costume shop manager,  seamstress, pattern maker, dresser, and milliner.    To support my theater career I have worked in the Bridal industry as a salesperson, buyer, custom gown designer, and fitter at shops ranging from a suburban strip mall  to the world famous Kleinfelds.

Two years ago I started a  business where I work with Brides of all budgets and backgrounds.     I see their stresses, struggles and confusion.    I  share their frustration at making their way through purchasing the most important ( and photgraphed!! )  garment they have ever worn.       I have gotten such great feedback from my Brides that I feel I have something to offer to the Bridal Community.     I  welcome questions and comments and hope you will share with me so together we can cut through the filler and nonsense and give all Brides the best possible and least stressful experience in preparing for their wedding.

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