Whether it’s on an invitation to a wedding, charity fundraiser or gala, seeing the term “formal attire” listed as the dress code can strike fear in even the chicest of women. Formal attire for women usually entails buying an expensive gown for every event you’re invited to (which can be terrifying for both you and your wallet). Thankfully, there is one simple way that you can nail any formal dress code without breaking the bank, and that’s by renting formal wear for all your upcoming fancy soirées. Read on to learn exactly what formal attire is, and discover rentable looks that will ensure you’re the best-dressed guest at your next formal event.

What Makes a Dress Formal?

While there are exceptions for different situations, the formality of a dress tends to depend on length and tailoring. Typically formal dresses are floor length, though midi or knee-length options can work for certain occasions. Feel free to choose the neckline of your choice (but depending on the occasion, you may want to avoid ultra-plunging options).

What is Formal Attire Exactly?

Formal attire is what you would wear to the fanciest events on your calendar. The key to nailing a formal look is by dressing for the occasion and venue. Believe it or not, there are different types of formal events and what you might wear to one might not fit in at another. While a ball gown is appropriate at a white tie wedding, it would look out of place at a formal business function. To help you navigate through the tricky world of dress codes, we’re breaking down what formal attire is appropriate for every type of fancy event.

Model wears a strapless teal satin gown

White Tie: Now’s Your Chance to Wear a Ball Gown

White tie affairs are as formal as it gets. Usually reserved for over-the-top galas, ultra-fancy wedding parties and state dinners, this is probably the only time in life besides prom that you have the excuse to wear a ball gown. Pump up the volume with options that feature exaggerated ball skirts, or if you prefer form-fitting silhouettes reach for a glittering metallic gown. There’s no such thing as going overboard at these glamorous events, so be sure to accessorize with statement jewels and a great pair of high heels.

Black Tie: Go All Out Glam With Floor Sweeping Dresses

If you are invited to a black tie affair, the easiest way to fit the dress code is to rent a long floor-length gown to avoid looking too casual. Show off your curves in simple fitted silhouettes, or bring a little drama with an A-line or mermaid silhouette that moves with you. Add touches of bling with sparkly baubles and bejeweled shoes and clutches. 

Black Tie Optional: Reach for Sleek and Chic Cocktail Dresses

Black tie optional is still considered formal attire, but is slightly more relaxed than white or black tie events. To stay within the confines of “formal,” stick to the basic principles of black-tie dressing: elegant, long or mid-length dresses. This dress code is less conservative, so feel free to experiment with different silhouettes, textures and colors. Your feet will be on display if you choose a shorter hemline, so make sure you complete the ensemble with a killer pair of heels.

Outdoor Formal: Elevate Your Surroundings With Flowy Formal Options

Outdoor formal may sound like an oxymoron, but just because an event is happening outside doesn’t necessarily make it laid-back and casual. While you have a bit more freedom to play with colors and prints during fancy outdoor affairs like beach weddings and garden parties, you should still avoid looking informal and steer clear of mini dresses. Rent silky wrap dresses or pretty printed frocks that can be dressed up with fancy jewels or an embellished handbag. Stick with loose flowy options that will keep you cool in the sun, and avoid sinking in the grass or sand by adding height with wedges or block heels.

Cocktail: Keep it Classy with Mid-Length Dresses

“Cocktail Attire” might be the most common of event dress codes. No need to wear a gown, but also steer clear of minis and sun dresses that might be okay for a casual daytime soirée. To nail cocktail dressing, opt for knee-length, tea-length or midi dresses or a dressy jumpsuit for an appropriately polished look. Reminder: You can always turn to accessories to add extra personality.  

Dressy Casual or Semi-Formal: Have Fun!

A semi-formal dress code sends a message to guests that this is still a special occasion and you should plan to look the part, but it also leaves the door open for a more relaxed approach, wardrobe-wise. For a semi-formal celebration, you can push the envelope with shorter hemlines, bold prints and a fun sandal or boot. Pro tip: Do your research and check out the venue for more cues as to how to approach your outfit. A hotel ballroom might inspire a different look than a vineyard, for example.

Business Formal: Look Polished to Perfection in Tailored Formal Wear

Headed to a formal work event? The business formal dress code can be tricky. Rent options that look sleek and stylish but are still appropriate to wear around your boss. Stick with tailored pieces in professional colors like a fitted sheath dress that hits just below the knee or a chic pantsuit. Finish off the look with power pumps and a structured handbag that’s big enough to tote around all your essentials.

No matter what type of formal event you’re headed to, rent these looks to ensure you’re appropriately dressed for every kind of formal dress code.