Decoding The Gala Dress Code

Receiving an invite to a gala event doesn’t happen on a regular basis. A gala is defined as a formal occasion, often with dinner and entertainment, that is usually held for an awards ceremony or as a fundraiser for a charitable organisation. It’s a special event, which means you need to dress in an appropriate manner and get glammed up in your fanciest attire.

However, actually deciding what to wear can be tricky, especially for women. Whilst men have it easier in terms of knowing what to wear, it can be harder for women to know what is appropriate if the invitation says White Tie, Black Tie or something else all together.

In this Compton House of Fashion guide, we’ve decoded the gala dress code so you’ll always know what to wear and, just as importantly, what not to wear.

White Tie

decoding gala dress code 02 lace dress ivory
John Charles Fit and Flare Lace Dress in Ivory

If the invitation specified White Tie, it’s an opportunity to get dressed up in your very finest clothes. Choose a full length evening gowns or full skirted ball gown with sophisticated jewellery (including a tiara if desired), a small handbag, fur wrap and elbow length gloves. Imagine you’re going to the Oscars or to a dinner at Buckingham Palace.

What not to wear: Dresses above the knee are definitely not acceptable for White Tie events.

Black Tie

decoding gala dress code 03 tea dress dusty rose

Ronald Joyce 50’s Inspired Tea Dress in Dusty Rose & Navy/Gold

The Black Tie dress code is still formal, but women have a little more flexibility. You can dress either as formally as for White Tie or in a sophisticated and stylish above the knee dress. In terms of accessories, add plenty of sophisticated jewellery and a stylish wrap or coat. Try to match your shoes with your handbag to give your outfit a ‘finished’ look.

If the event is taking place outdoors, for example a formal summer garden party, a hat is appropriate. Dress for the season by making sure your hat is light and an appropriate pale or pastel colour.

What not to wear: Dresses that show off too much cleavage or leg.


Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire is a semi-formal look that bridges the gap between casual daywear and evening wear. It’s worn at events which are smart but less formal, such as the races, birthday dinners and relaxed gala events.

decoding gala dress code 04 petal print ruched dress

Ispirato petal print ruched dress in Electric Blue and Vermillion

Cocktail attire is a dress that ends at or above the knee and high heels. A skirt length longer than the knee is a little too formal, but very short skirts should be avoided too as you will still be expected to look sophisticated. Trouser suits and jumpsuits are also acceptable, but they need to be smart and elegant. Interesting cuts and fun accessories are encouraged. In terms of colour, cocktail attire should be towards the darker end of the palette. If you wish to wear a colour, choose something vivid and bold rather than pale.

What not to wear: Whilst cocktail attire is much less formal than other evening wear, it still needs to be sophisticated. Don’t pair your dress with a denim jacket or trainers as it is not appropriate for an elegant occasion.

Smart Casual

decoding gala dress code 05 chiffon trouser suit

Capri 3 piece chiffon trouser suit

If your invitation says smart casual, it’s a chance to relax a little. Choose between trousers, a skirt or smart jeans on your bottom half, with a blouse or smart top on top, plus a stylish sweater in the winter. Choose a smart jacket or coat that contrasts with the clothes you’re wearing underneath. This is especially important if you’re wearing black, as too many dark colours can make you look as if you’re going to a funeral rather than a party. If wearing a dress, choose a classic style in a neutral colour. Jumpsuits are an increasingly popular choice; go for something with long legs and an elegant cut.

What not to wear: Don’t go too casual; avoid short skirts, ripped jeans or shorts. The trick with smart casual is to put the emphasis on the ‘smart’ rather than the ‘casual’. Being too informal can be disrespectful to your host and other guests.

Sticking to the dress code will ensure you feel comfortable and relaxed at a gala event. With this guide you will be confident about what you’re wearing each and every time. If you are attending a gala and aren’t sure what to wear, why not give one of our experienced team a call on 01934 712779 and we can talk you through your options and help you pick out the perfect outfit.