Ultimate Guide To Buying The Perfect Formal Dress

Although a black-tie event requires you to wear a formal dress, so do many other activities. Formal dresses range from prom gowns to summer party attire.

Learn about the etiquette rules to follow when you buy the perfect formal dress as well as what to look for in a high-quality outfit that will complement your style

What Does Formal Mean?

Different dress codes apply to formalwear. When you understand the dress code, you know what type of dress to look for. Rules for women are more lenient than those for me. Still, you don’t want to buy the wrong kind of gown for the event.

Formal white tie affairs are the fanciest of all. A floor-length gown is appropriate for these events. Women can also accessorize the perfect formal dress with gloves or a tiara.

Black tie is a little more laid-back than white tie. However, it is still considered one of the most formal types of events. You can’t go wrong with a floor-length gown at a black-tie event. However, you can feel free to wear a different length if it works for you.

If you go with a tea-length or cocktail dress, make sure that the fabric is formal. You don’t want to buy a sundress for a black-tie activity.

Extremely dressy gowns are not expected at semi-formal occasions. A short dress can be appropriate. So are elegant pants and blouses. The same is true for an event that requires you to sport cocktail attire.

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How To Buy Formal Dresses For Women

Shopping for a formal dress can be stressful. You might feel like nothing fits correctly, or you can’t pinpoint the best style to wear.

Prepare to try on several dresses and bring a few home. Make room in your budget to purchase at least three dresses. You’ll return the ones that don’t work.

Bringing the dresses home to try on in front of your mirror allows you to get a sense of the way that they’ll look with different hosiery, shoes, hairstyles and makeup. You can check out the dress in different lighting and get the opinion of your friends and family.

You should also expect to have a dress tailored to fit you perfectly. Most off-the-rack dresses aren’t the ideal length for the average woman. Give yourself enough time to select the dress and have it altered before your event.

A simple hemline alteration might take a few days. A more complicated modification may take up to two weeks. Before you go dress shopping, line up a seamstress.

Get a timeline of how long it will take to perfect your dress so that you know when to draw the line and make a final decision on your purchase. Ask friends and family for word-of-mouth references when you’re looking for a seamstress.

It’s hard to get an idea of their craftsmanship and quality just by searching online. If you do use the internet to find a seamstress, pay close attention to the reviews. These can help you select the best option for you.

Set A Budget

Whenever you shop for a formal dress, you should set a budget. It’s easy to get carried away when you find a style that fits you perfectly. However, if you can’t make your mortgage payment because you want to wear a certain dress, it might not be the best option for you.

There are plenty of options out there that fit your budget. You can find them if you give yourself enough time to search.

Don’t forget to factor in the price of your undergarments and accessories. You don’t want to make an expensive dress look less than perfect because you couldn’t find the right support piece to wear underneath.

You can also save on formalwear by shopping during the offseason. If you have planned ahead, you can look for next year’s wedding attire when it goes on sale this year. Formal dresses usually go on sale during the summer and winter. If you stick with a classic style, you won’t have to worry about looking outdated by the time that your event rolls around.

If you want to wear your dress again, you might be able to spend a little more money. If you purchase a new dress, the price usually dictates the quality. Thicker fabrics and those that are not prone to snags and runs will last longer than delicate materials.

To get the most out of the style, keep it simple. Over-the-top embellishments might be trendy now, but the fad won’t last forever. Stick with traditional materials and minimal decoration. You can always add to a blank slate with jewelry and other accessories down the road.

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Formal Dress Length

When you’re shopping for a formal dress, you might be confused by the terminology that’s used to describe the different lengths. Understanding dress length is important, especially if you’re ordering a dress online or over the phone or working with a salesperson to find the perfect option.

A floor-length dress grazes the ground. It usually covers the shoes, although your feet may be revealed as you walk. It may have a train, a piece of fabric that extends off of the back of the dress.

If you choose a dress with a train, find out if it can be removed or bustled. If you’ll be in tight quarters or boogying on a busy dance floor, you don’t want people stepping on your train. Bustling involves gathering the train in an organized manner near the back of your hips or waist, enabling the train’s hem to be flush with the bottom of the dress.

Many floor-length dresses have subtle trains that only extend a foot or two behind you when you walk. These shouldn’t get in the way of your good time.

Glamour reveals that floor-length dresses are becoming less popular even for formal events. The experts there recommend saving these styles for the most opulent occasions, like the Oscars or your wedding.

A full-length gown is long enough to reach the feet. However, it doesn’t graze the floor. This may be a more convenient option for most events. You won’t have to worry about tripping on the hemline as you move around.

Just make sure that you don’t buy a full-length gown that is too short. There is an awkward area between your ankles and your knee that can look unflattering when it’s highlighted by an off-beam hem.

Tea length dresses may be the most difficult to purchase. They should fall about three to four inches below the knee. These were the favorite dresses of Old Hollywood’s glamour girls, which is why they are appropriate for formal events today.

If the tea length dress is too long, it might be mistaken for an ill-fitting full-length gown. Make sure that it hits at the mid-calf.

Knee-length dresses are more appropriate for semiformal events than black or white tie galas. You can choose a dress that hits above the knee. The shorter the dress, the more lavish the material should be if you want to keep it fancy.

How Short Is Too Short?

A long dress is always appropriate even if it seems too fancy for an event. As the saying goes, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.

If you go with a shorter hemline, there are a few guidelines to consider. Hold your arms down at your sides. A dress that falls below your fingertips is fine. If your dress is shorter than that, you might want to save it for a night out with the girls.

You can also tone down a mini dress with opaque tights. If you’re showing a lot of leg, you might want to consider wearing nude pantyhose. It adds an air of decorum to a dress that might otherwise be seen as too casual.

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Fitting Into Your Formal Dress

Although you might hope to lose ten pounds before your event, ask yourself if that’s really realistic. Why not find a dress that fits you well and flatters your shape as it is now? It’s much easier to take in a dress than to let it out. Plus, you won’t have to stress out about dieting and exercise before the big day.

If you’re ordering a dress, you need to know your measurements. Don’t make an educated guess; break out the tape measure. For the best results, take the following measurements:

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  • Bust size – With your arms extended, measure the circumference of your torso at the fullest part of the bust.

  • Waist size – While you’re standing up, tilt your body to one side. Note where there is a crease at your waist. That’s where you’ll measure its circumference.

  • Hips – Wrap the measuring tape around the fullest part of your hips while you’re standing with your feet together.

If your measurements don’t fall within a designer’s specifications, order the dress in the larger size. Every brand has different sizing standards. It’s important to pay attention to the size charts when you’re making a purchase.

Take your body type into account when selecting a dress. If you have large shoulders, you might want to avoid dresses with extra fabric in that area. Instead, balance them out with more volume at the bottom.

On the other hand, if you have a larger lower half, you might want to draw attention upward by accentuating your neckline. Play around with different styles to find out which ones look the best on you.

Materials for Formal Dresses

Formal dresses are made from different fabrics than your everyday streetwear. It’s important to have a good comprehension of the different fabrics, especially if you’re ordering online without seeing the garment in person.

Different materials have varying amounts of stretch. This makes certain materials ideal for specific silhouettes. For example, a mermaid sheath needs some stretch if you want to be able to move. If you want an A-line dress that’s not too clingy, stay away from jersey.

The fiber content of a dress describes what the fabric is made from. Natural fibers, such as silk, linen, wool and cotton, tend to be more expensive than synthetics. However, man-made materials are popular for formalwear and can produce gorgeous gowns.

We have outlined the distinct materials that make the best formal dresses below.

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One of the highest quality materials available for prom and formal dresses is silk. Silk is a natural protein that is created by silkworms.

The fibers have a prism-like structure, which gives the material a shimmery appearance. The configuration of the fibers allows the light to reflect in different directions. The gleam of the fabric gives it an elegant quality.

Silk keeps its shape well. It doesn’t stretch out, although it does offer some give to provide you with more comfort. It drapes nicely, gliding over your curves without clinging to your body. This makes it ideal for almost every person and dress silhouette.


Superior polyester fabrics mimic silk quite well. If you’re not an expert in textiles, you might not even notice the difference.

Some polyester fabrics can look cheaper than others, though. If you’re concerned about the quality of a less expensive material, use these tips to keep it chic:

  • Stay away from flimsy sheer fabrics.
  • Don’t choose a dress that’s too revealing.
  • Stick with neutral colors, jewel tones or black.
  • Choose dresses with no embellishments.
  • If you select a dress with jewels, sequins or beading, keep it subtle.
  • Less is more, especially when your budget is limited.

Chiffon is an elegant fabric that may be made of silk or polyester. It has a fairly simple weave and subtle shine.

Because chiffon is sheer, most dresses made from this fabric have several layers. Layers are flattering for many body types because they don’t cling to your skin. Flowing gowns and those with A-line silhouettes benefit from the unstructured nature of chiffon.

This fabric is quite delicate. It easily develops runs and snags. That’s one of the reasons that it’s often reserved for the most proper occasions.


Georgette is a bouncy fabric that has many of the same properties as chiffon. Georgette tends to be stronger and more durable than chiffon.

Georgette also has more texture than smooth, even chiffon. The twisted threads give it an uneven surface. It may even look slightly crinkled.

The different types of georgette fabric are:

  • Jacquard – contains an all-over, raised floral pattern or design
  • Nylon – smooth, sheer and breezy
  • Viscose – similar to nylon georgette; may be stretchy
  • Silk – flowing, graceful and more expensive than the other types
  • Polyester – fluid, sheer fabric that tends to be less costly than silk georgette
  • Satin – has more of a sheen than the other types

Satin is characterized by a glossy front surface and a matte back. It may be woven with silk, nylon or polyester. If cotton is used, the resulting fabric is called sateen.

This material may be smooth or crinkly. It is thicker than georgette and chiffon. Therefore, it creates more substantial structure in a gown’s silhouette. It may be used as a base and covered with sheer fabric layers.


Charmeuse is a type of satin that is made from silk or polyester. It is lightweight and has a more iridescent sheen than regular satin. This type of fabric is sometimes referred to as crepe-back satin.

This material drapes well and has some give to it when it’s cut on the bias. It works well with dresses that combine a bit of slinkiness with flowing ease.


Although taffeta has a crisp texture that produces a rustling sound when you move, it feels smooth against the skin. Because it is stiffer than chiffon, georgette or charmeuse, it is often found on trumpet or mermaid gowns. Stretch taffeta can be used in form-fitting dresses, making them more comfortable to wear.


Many people confused organza with chiffon. They’re both gauzy and delicate. Organza, however, is stiffer than chiffon.

Organza is often used to create structure, whereas chiffon is used to deliver a flowy look. Organza may even be used to underpin fabrics and build support. Thick organza can have a distinct textured feel that is similar to burlap.


Traditionally made from silk, shantung is a luxurious fabric that is often found in eveningwear. It features excellent drape and is not sheer.

Although shantung is iridescent and shimmery, it also has subtle slubs, horizontal textural irregularities. Because of this, it is sometimes confused with dupioni silk. The slubs in dupioni are much more prominent than those in shantung.

While shantung is crisp and has a decent amount of body, it is much thinner than dupioni. It’s a perfect medium between a graceful charmeuse and a crisp taffeta.


Mikado is often used to create a bold, architectural shape. This material doesn’t contain any stretch. Therefore, you must be ready to have the dress altered to fit you perfectly.


Lace is often used to create visual illusions in the design of a formal dress. It may be placed over a cutout for a sheer look that reveals some skin. It can also be used over an opaque fabric. Lace can be stretchy and hug the figure or stiff and create a flowing, structural look.


Velvet was traditionally made from silk. Nowadays, it is usually made from synthetic fibers. It can even be made of cotton.

The fabric has a soft pile and a fuzzy texture. Because it is thicker than most other materials used in evening dresses, it is usually reserved for cooler weather. Velvet is not the type of fabric that you should wear in the summer.


Tulle is the material that is often used for ballerina’s tutus and bridal veils. It is a crisp netting that may or may not feel rough on the skin. Tulle is usually reserved to build body in the underlayer. For example, it may be used to fill out the shape of a princess skirt.

Formal Fabric Care

Caring for formal fabrics can be a little tricky. Check the garment label. If it says “Dry clean only,” don’t try to wash it yourself.

Some types of fabrics can be hand washed. Others can withstand gentle machine washing. However, if you have a richly colored dress, you might want to avoid washing it. The colors may run, ruining your dress.

If you do wash your dress yourself, follow the care guidelines on the label. Wash it alone so that your other clothing doesn’t add lint or color to your formal dress. Most evening gowns should not be put in the dryer.

How To Buy A Prom Dress

Buying a prom dress doesn’t have to be a hassle. There is pressure to find the perfect style for the occasion. Determining the most flattering shapes and colors can help you stay focused while you search for the perfect prom dress.

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Prom Dress Styles And Shapes

Two-piece dresses have become trendy in the past few years. They can be elegant when they’re worn correctly. They can also be inappropriate if they don’t fit well or if they’re cut too skimpily.

A two-piece prom dress should have a skirt that sits on the natural waist. It usually obscures your belly button. The thinnest part of your waist and ribcage should be showing. The sliver of skin that peeks out should be no more than one or two inches high.

It is usually preferable to wear a monochrome two-piece dress. If the top doesn’t match the skirt, you may not present a cohesive visual.

However, two-piece gowns can be versatile after the event. You may be able to wear the blouse with formal pants, and you can wear the skirt with a solid color blouse or camisole.

Mermaid prom dresses emphasize the hourglass shape. They’re usually fitted in the bodice and around the hips. They are nipped in at the knees and flare outward toward the ankles. Mermaid silhouettes look ideal when they graze the floor and cover the feet.

Make sure that you can move comfortably in a mermaid prom dress. If you’re going to be dancing all night, you don’t want your knees to be locked together. Gowns with a bit of stretch to them allow you to move around without worrying about tripping or tearing the dress.

Is a short prom dress appropriate for your event? Eveningwear that comes to the knees or above can be fresh and youthful. Although a short cocktail dress may look more casual than a floor-length gown, it can be made to look more formal with the right selection of fabric and accessories.

If you like to show off your legs and don’t want to worry about stepping on your hem while you dance, a short prom dress may be for you.

A-line dresses can be short or long. They usually fit the bodice and the waist snugly and gradually angle outward as they reach the hem. These are ideal for letting you move comfortably. Many women choose this style because it is slimming and flattering for the hips.

Prom Dress Colors

The sky is the limit when it comes to selecting a color for your prom dress. Although prom may be the first occasion that you get to dress up, you can be more playful than you might be able to if you were attending a wedding as an adult.

Choose colors that you love and that complement your skin tone. If there is a color that people always say flatters you, try that hue on first. Knowing what colors to seek out and avoid can help you streamline your shopping experience.

The right colors make you look like you’re glowing. They don’t make you feel like you need a spray tan. Instead, they accentuate your radiant undertones and reduce your imperfections. If you look peppy and bright when you wear a certain hue, that’s the ideal tone for a formal dress.

The wrong colors cause you to look drained. They might make you feel like you need more makeup than you normally wear. When you put on a dress, ask yourself the following questions to determine if it’s a flattering color:

Does it accentuate my imperfections?

Does it make my teeth look yellow?

Does it make me look well-rested?

Do I feel comfortable wearing it?

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Where To Look For Prom Dresses

You can start to look for prom dresses at your local mall. Department stores have sections for eveningwear. Check out the junior’s section as well as the women’s apparel.

Starting out by shopping in person can give you an idea of the colors and cuts that look good on you. For example, you might be able to rule out mermaid dresses or princess gowns right off the bat. That will help you narrow down your options even if you begin to shop for dresses online, where thousands are at your fingertips.

If you don’t have luck at department stores, check out local bridal shops. Many bridesmaids’ dresses are appropriate for prom.

Make sure that you start looking early. You might have to wait several weeks for a dress that’s ordered from a bridal shop to arrive. Then, you’ll have to make time for alterations.

If you shop online, don’t neglect to look at the larger companies, such as Amazon or eBay. Amazon products usually come with detailed reviews. Many reviewers even include photos of what the item looks like in real life. This can help you determine if the color is accurate, sizing is appropriate and quality is high.

You can also rent formal dresses online for a fraction of the cost of buying them. Websites such as Rent the Runway put thousands of style options from different brands at your fingertips. After you have worn the dress, you can simply return it, and it won’t take up space in your closet.

Formal dresses don’t have to be new. Because most people only wear eveningwear once, you can often find gowns at consignment shops. These dresses are usually in great shape because they have hardly been used.

How To Buy Special Occasion Dresses

If you’re purchasing a dress for a special occasion, it’s important to find out the dress code. If you’re attending a black-tie or white-tie event, you’ll probably need to look for a long dress. If the occasion is semi-formal, you have more options when it comes to length.

Special Occasion Dress Silhouettes

Column dresses can be extremely flattering. They skim your curves from top to bottom. These dresses can elongate the body and make you look taller.

Column dresses are usually simple. They may have a sheer layer over the structured base fabric to provide a flowier feel. However, they’re more restrictive than A-line or flared gowns because you don’t have as much room to move your legs.

Just like with prom dresses, A-line gowns are usually universally flattering for special occasions. Depending on the thickness of the fabric, these dresses may look bouncy and billowy or refined and statuesque.

Mermaid and trumpet gowns combine the shape of an A-line and a column dress. They fit like a column from the shoulders to the knees and increase in fullness as they reach the ankles. These types of dresses give a formal quality to your appearance.

Filling Out The Skirt

Some formal dresses require more fullness at the base. You can wear a crinoline under the skirt to provide more volume and help the fabric drape properly.

Vintage dresses may get a boost from a hoop. This is a circular piece of wood or metal that is attached to layers of stiff tulle or crinoline. They’re not easy to find in today’s world and can be cumbersome when you’re sitting down or using the bathroom. Hoops can keep itchy fabric away from your skin, though.

You might be more comfortable wearing a petticoat type of crinoline to give volume to your skirt. Petticoats come in different lengths and thicknesses. Wearing an underlayer to fill out your skirt can prevent the outer layer of fabric from bunching up in between your legs as you walk and dance.

Even if you don’t need to fluff out the skirt of your dress, you may need a lining to prevent static from building up or the material from bunching around the hips. A smooth slip is ideal for this purpose.

How To Buy Summer Dresses

The season may dictate the formality of the dress that you wear. You can often get away with a more casual look for summertime. Go shorter with the hemline, or try a strapless or sleeveless bodice.

You should be able to wear busier prints in the summer too. Florals are perfect for warm weather, especially if the event will be outdoors. Sheer fabrics and lace also lend themselves to the breezy atmosphere of summer weather.

Contrary to what some people believe, you can wear black in the summer. If you do, choose fabrics that are light and lively. You can also try wearing silhouettes that are less structured. A black, full-length trumpet gown made of silk dupioni might be better suited for a cooler season.

Cutouts and two-piece dresses are appropriate for warm weather. You can be daring by wearing a low back that leaves your skin exposed and cools you off.

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How To Buy Accessories For Your Formal Dress

Shoes and jewelry shouldn’t be overlooked when you’re selecting your evening dress.

Shoes And Hose

High-heeled shoes are always appropriate no matter the length of the gown. If you’re uncomfortable wearing high heels, look for structured shoes that have a kitten heel, wedge or flat sole. Shiny black shoes with a pointy toe can be worn with just about anything. You can also match the color of your shoe to your dress.

You can choose to wear tights or pantyhose based on your comfort level and the season. Sheer hose tends to be more formal than opaque tights. Don’t wear open-toed shoes with stockings, however.

Cloth flats, flip-flops and rubber shoes are usually not appropriate to wear with a formal dress. Although they’re comfortable, they don’t match with the opulence of the event.

It’s a good idea to wear your shoes for several hours before the event. You need to know how long you can tolerate them. If they give you blisters or rub away the skin on your heels, you can add cushioning in the right places if you’re prepared. There’s nothing worse than having to sit out the dancing because your feet can’t take it.

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While many style experts recommend working your look around one piece of statement jewelry, a chunky necklace may not be appropriate with a delicate dress. Less is always more when you’re in doubt.

Diamond or pearl stud earrings work well with almost any ensemble. If your dress includes a lot of beading or sequins, you don’t always need to wear a necklace.

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Nails And Toes

Although you don’t have to get a professional mani-pedi before the event, it’s often recommended. Your nails look beautiful when they’re clean, trimmed and glossy even if they don’t have color. If you can’t make it to the salon, make sure that you groom yourself before you attend the event.

Evening Bags

You can’t wear your sturdy leather standby as a purse to a formal event. What do you do when you still have to carry around your ID, credit card and lip gloss?

Find a small clutch to carry along with you. It doesn’t have to match your dress. Black, white, gold and silver are appropriate with almost all formal dresses. Your evening bag should be clean and tidy. Don’t fill it with so many items that it bulges like a diaper bag.

What To Wear Under Formal Dresses

Your foundation can make or break your style. If you start out with ill-fitting undergarments, you will end up with a dress that doesn’t look right. When your undergarments fit well and are appropriate for the dress, everything will drape perfectly.

If you have large breasts, you might want to stay away from an unstructured bodice that doesn’t allow you to wear a supportive bra. Unless they’re made with an incorporated corset or a structured fabric, backless dresses won’t work if you need support in the front. The same goes for strapless dresses or those with thin straps.

When you’re going to an elegant event, you don’t want your bra straps to show. Even transparent straps can be unsightly when they show under formal gowns.

Shapewear can come in handy. It may prevent your undergarments from showing through the fabric. It can also prevent your dress from pinching and bunching. Just make sure that if you squeeze in one part of your body, it doesn’t spill out somewhere else.

What To Wear When Shopping For Evening Dresses

You need to be prepared when you’re going shopping for formal dresses. If you’re going to be pounding the pavement all day, you must have sensible shoes. Still, you don’t want to try on an evening dress with a pair of sneakers.

Bring along a few pairs of shoes in a range of heel heights. If you’re certain that you’ll be wearing flats or kitten heels, bring them along. The way that the dress hangs helps determine its fit at the top.

If the fabric is bunched up through the skirt, the bodice might not sit where it’s supposed to. That makes it difficult to get a feel for the silhouette.

Wear the right undergarments for the job. If you’ll be wearing a control top, you need to try it on with your dress. It completely changes your shape, which affects the way the dress looks from the outside.

You can skip wearing jewelry. Your jewelry will likely be defined by the dress that you choose, and you can make that decision later.


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When you’re buying a formal dress, make sure that you feel comfortable in whatever you’re wearing. If it fits your personality and feels great on you, it will look perfect for the occasion.

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