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What to Wear to Charity Galas and Fundraiser Events

Donna Cosmato
Couples wearing formal attire

Choosing the proper outfit for a charity event can be challenging, especially if the invitation does not include any information about a specific dress code. You want to avoid being too dressed up or down and show respect for the event and host with the appropriate attire. Fortunately, decoding dress code clues can help you make the right choice every time.

Formal Event Dress Code Guidelines

Charity events such as balls and galas serving as fundraisers typically require one of these six types of formal attire. Use the guidelines to decipher the formal dress code options for any event.

Older man dressed in white tie tuxedo

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 a 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
  • Cuff links
  • 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 jewelry 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.

man in formal tux with gloves

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.

Man dressed in white tie tuxedo with decorations

Black Tie

Black tie events are a step-down in formality from white tie events. The dress code for these events are 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:

Couple dressed in black tie attire
  • 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 a preferred color for dresses, you can wear any color. 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 jewelry can be refined and subtle or flashier costume pieces depending on the dress.
    man and woman in formal wear

Creative Black Tie

Some silent auctions and evening dinners are meant for fun and fundraising, so receiving an invitation to a "creative black tie" event gives you a lot of license to play with etiquette rules and express your personality. The key here is adding whimsical or unique accessories to transform the appearance of traditional formal attire:

  • Men: Men may enjoy experimenting with a trendy mixed media look like pairing a silk blazer or outrageously printed tie with a dress shirt and pants. They can also opt for a traditional black tie look but swap colors, such as a cardinal red bow tie or a shirt that's black instead of white. Some events may have a theme, such as the roaring 1920s in which case adding in an accessory that matches the theme is appropriate, such as a fedora or suspenders.
  • Women: Appropriate dress for women ranges from a floor-length gown to dressy evening pantsuits to mini cocktail dresses, but should include some trendy accessories. Creative black tie is a chance for women, and men, to express some personality and have fun, so you don't want to go too outrageous but feel free to push the boundaries of the staid black tie rules to get into the spirit of the event.
    couple with trendy formal outfits

Black Tie Optional

The hidden meaning of this dress code is men can choose to wear a tuxedo or not, but formal attire is still required.

  • Men: Individuals who do not own a tuxedo or do not care to rent one should wear a dark navy or gray suit with a white shirt and a solid color tie or one with an ultra-conservative print. Dress shoes should coordinate with pants color; socks should match pants color.
  • Women: Ladies wear gowns and cocktail dresses in any variety of hemline options or evening pantsuits.
    two couples at evening event

Semi-Formal

Charity luncheons, speaker fundraisers and sit-down dinners can be formal or semi-formal depending on the type of event. For semi-formal events, follow these dress code rules:

  • Men: Men can wear a dark suit, preferably navy or gray, dress shirt, and tie. A lighter suit is acceptable if the event occurs during the day. Vests are optional, as well as ties. Finish the look with dress socks to match the color of the pants and leather dress shoes.
  • Women: Women wear short or tea-length dresses, elegant little black dresses, or evening pants or dressy skirt outfits. Jewelry should be elegant and subtle rather than showy costume jewelry.
    Semi-Formal blue suit and evening 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.

Woman wearing wide leg pants

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 jewelry that doesn't overpower your clothes and depending on the weather, a wrap may be an excellent accompaniment in colder climates.

Deciphering Unspecified Dress Code Clues

Do you cringe inside when you open an invitation to a charity event and see terms like smart casual, cocktail attire, or festive attire? If so, you are not alone, because choosing the appropriate attire for events when dress code directions are vague can be difficult. Here is a general rule of thumb for understanding these terms:

Cocktail Attire

Men should wear a suit and tie, or an elegant jacket with slacks and no tie. Best suit color choices are navy blue or gray rather than black. Finish off with leather dress shoes and socks to match the slacks. Women can wear dresses in any length except full-length. Evening pantsuits or dressy skirts with a stylish blouse are acceptable.

man and woman in cocktail attire

Festive Attire

Consider the venue for some clues. Is it an indoor or outdoor charity event? Will it take place at an art museum, opera house, or other formal environment or a casual venue such as an outdoor arena, golf course. or park? Is it a seasonal event such as a Halloween fundraiser or a Christmas gala? Most invitations that specify festive attire are holiday related, so you are usually safe if you add a festive tie or scarf to whatever you are wearing.

Three couples at cocktail party

Men should wear sport coats or blazers paired with dress slacks and a collared dress shirt. Leave the collar open and unbuttoned if you want; if you button the collar, you'll need to add a holiday tie or bow tie. Women look smartly attired in cocktail or tea dresses, dressy skirt or pants in holiday colors, or little black dresses adorned with festive accessories.

man and woman in festive attire

Smart Casual

This type of dressed-up casual attire goes by many names: "dressy casual," "business casual," or "country club casual" are also used. These charity events range from brunch and luncheon fundraisers to less formal evening events. Women can opt for dressy skirts, dressy separates, or dresses without a lot of sparkle and bling. Men should wear dress slacks, collared shirts, and casual footwear like loafers. For men who prefer a continental look, a navy blue blazer is an iconic touch.

Colleagues talking while enjoying drinks in party after work

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, you need to be.

Practice Makes Perfect When Dressing for a Gala

In spite of 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 practicing 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.

What to Wear to Charity Galas and Fundraiser Events