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Hey Fashion Friend, How Can I Dress for a Black-tie Wedding Without Looking Like I’m Going to Prom?

Animation: The Cut

Getting dressed for a black-tie wedding without looking corny is one of my favorite challenges. That, plus the fact that I’m at the age where it isn’t uncommon for the number of weddings I’m attending in the span of a year to exceed double digits, gives me quite a lot of mental material on this topic that I’m all too thrilled to share. Below are my tried-and-true tips for gracefully navigating this particular dress code — with nary a stretch limo overtone in sight.

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No. 1: Think outside the floor-length dress box

Photo: Harling Anton Ross

A surefire way to avoid any prom connotations is to avoid the classic gown silhouette altogether. Opt for a suit or two-piece set instead, or — my personal favorite — a maxi skirt and top from entirely different brands.

De Loreta, a small, colorful brand based in Peru, makes some of my favorite maxi skirts for warmer weather, ideally paired with a top that coordinates without being too matchy-matchy.

Photo: Harling Anton Ross

In the winter, I like to pair my vintage champagne-colored silk maxi skirt with a festive top and velvet blazer.

No. 2: Style your look the same way you would a normal (i.e. non–black tie) one

Photo: Harling Anton Ross

One of the most straightforward vehicles for interesting black-tie styling is an outer layer that you can wear or remove at your leisure, like a lightweight silk blazer in warmer seasons or a tweed jacket or elegantly offbeat cardigan when it’s chilly. These kinds of pieces will add visual interest to the overall look, giving it the same vibe as an actual outfit versus a singular, monosyllabic garment you wouldn’t wear on any other occasion.

I know “wraps” like pashminas are a popular companion to black-tie attire, but to me that’s what makes them a less-than-ideal choice since they don’t offer enough contrast. That said, if you’re devoted to them I would suggest something that looks less like something your mom would remind you to bring with you “to cover your shoulders” and more like a cool sarong (spring /summer) or an oversize scarf (fall/winter).

No. 3: Accessorize!

Photo: Harling Anton Ross/Copyright 2022. All rights reserved.

Accessories are another great way to make something black-tie look more like an organic outfit with true personality. A hair ribbon in your ponytail, fun jewelry that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a cool belt, sunglasses — the world is your oyster. As with outer layers, prioritize contrast first and foremost. Ditch a classic clutch in favor of an irreverently tiny basket or knot bag, and forgo demure studs for statement earrings.

No. 4: Don’t neglect your shoes

Photo: Harling Anton Ross/Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

A friend of mine once theorized that most celebrity red-carpet outfits are ruined because of the shoes that are paired with them, and ever since she’s lodged that thought in my brain I can’t unsee it. The wheels of so many potentially great outfits fall off once you glance past the ankle — it’s really a shame. Don’t be like celebs! Give some thought to what purpose your footwear may serve in the grand scheme of your look. It can make all the difference.

A monochrome pump is very prom-adjacent, and oftentimes metallic heeled sandals can be, too, so proceed with caution where those styles are concerned. As an alternative, I love how flats (ballet or strappy sandals) look with a black-tie outfit. Ditto for heeled Mary Janes (I have a black velvet pair I trot out for formal occasions in the winter) or wedge espadrilles with ribbon ties.

In sum, the best approach to black-tie wedding guest dressing is the one that feels least prescribed. Just because it’s a dress code doesn’t mean there isn’t room for interpretation. The best black-tie looks are those that factor in the same whimsical logic that dictates our outfit choices in everyday life, whether that’s artful layering, an element of contrast, an authentic expression of personal style, or a particular mood. You’re guaranteed to not be the center of the attention at the occasion in question, so you may as well have a bit of fun.

Hey Fashion Friend, How Do I Dress for a Black-tie Wedding?