The Dos and Don'ts of What to Wear to a Gala


Unless you live off the grid, gala events are something you likely already have built-in awareness around. Sure, you may not have had the privilege of attending one (yet), but these special occasions have become a part of the cultural zeitgeist. After all, who hasn't spent the evening scrolling through social media judging the red carpet looks from The Met Gala or Venice Film Festival? We surely have! Far different than other types of special occasions, these events have become synonymous with pop culture. But limiting the importance of galas solely to their star-studded gist lists doesn't get to the gist of what makes these events so special. 

It's not your typical night out on the town; it's the night out. Gala events have a more tailored guest list than your cousin's wedding (no shade) and are generally one of the most formal events you can ever attend. Dressing up for a gala isn't the same as dressing for your everyday life; it requires a different level of planning. You not only have to consider the event's dress code and the function's purpose, but then you have to layer that in with what you think you'll look good in and what falls within your budget range. Choosing what to wear to a gala isn't as glamorous as it seems at face value, but that's not to say the process can't be enjoyable.

In fact, to dispel some of the common misconceptions about gala events, we did extensive research to help you plan what to wear to a gala event. Ahead, we have provided insight into gala events' purpose and some general do's and don'ts to follow when choosing an outfit for a black-tie affair. Plus, we shopped out some of the best gowns and accessories to make the preparation easier. Whether you've already RSVP'd to that upcoming event or are just curious about gala event dressing, we've got you covered. 

What Is a Gala? 


(Image credit: @naomielizee@aimeesong)

While it's easy to get distracted by all the glitz and glamour these events offer, many might not know that they're meant to bring together attendees to celebrate industry tycoons, raise funds for charity, or celebrate the arts and culture. This aim has often made it so that these events air on the side of formality, requiring attendees to get all dressed up. And while one might think picking an outfit for a gala is just like choosing what to wear to a wedding or a cocktail event, that's far from the truth. There are far more rules to follow when dressing for these occasions, which can make the process of choosing what to wear to a gala event all the more challenging. Luckily for you, ahead, we're breaking down some of the do's and don'ts when it comes to dressing for a gala event. If you follow these tips, you'll be dressed to the nines, without a doubt. So, without further ado, let's get into it...

Don't: Forget to Set a Shopping Budget

Do: Consider Renting For a Night


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Before even beginning to look for the perfect outfit to wear to a gala, your budget is even more important to consider. If you can't justify spending a ton for a single evening, it's worth considering clothing rental services. Many will allow you to borrow a gown, bags, and even jewelry for the evening without shelling out a small fortune for a single look. 

Don't: Underdress

Do: Follow the Dress Code 


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If you glean only one thing from this story, let it be: follow the dress code. Even if the invitation doesn't explicitly say "black-tie attire" it's always best to air on the side of caution and be slightly overdressed than underdressed. It's also helpful to familiarize yourself with the different party dress codes—e.g., white-tie, cocktail, formal, business casual, and black-tie optional. For gala events, most typically adhere to the latter, so you'll want to follow some of the black-tie rules outlined ahead. 

Don't: Stick to Simple Slip Dresses

Do: Embrace Dramatic Dresses


Being that galas are the most formal type of event you can attend, it's a great chance to have your own "Cinderella" moment outside the traditional wedding day. Dressing up to the fullest (quite literally) by skipping the ambiquitous formal slip dresses in lieu of a ball gown silhouette. Opting for a more dramatic dress will not only ensure you're adhering to the formal dress code, but it will make you feel like you're the belle of the ball. 

Don't: Wear Short Hemlines

Do: Opt for Maxi-Lengths and Long Trains


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While this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, gala events generally follow a black-tie dress code, which means short dresses aren't suitable for a gala. If the invite states a different dress code, you may be able to get away with wearing a shorter dress, but if nothing is indicated, assume formal attire. You want to opt for a dress that's tea-length and below in order to respect the formality. of the event. And while not everyone might like the idea of being fully covered, there are ways to make longer gowns feel just as sultry as a short number—e.g., opting for versions with long trains, bold colors, and more risqué necklines.

Don't: Wear Anything Too Revealing

Do: Choose One Thing to Flaunt


In alignment with the aforementioned tip, you typically do not want to wear anything too revealing to a gala. As it's typically seen as distasteful to show up in a gown that's not only short but has either too many cutouts, too much cleavage, slits that are too high, or sheer materials. However, that doesn't mean you can't opt for something that's a tiny bit sultry; you simply have to choose only one thing to flaunt for the evening. For example, if you have fabulous legs, you can wear a gown that has a slit; make sure it only hits a little above the knees and that the neckline is more modest. Or, for example, if you love your bust, opt for a dress with a sweetheart or v-neckline, but make sure it's not too low and that the hemline is maxi-length. Ultimately it's all about finding that tactful balance. 

Don't: Wear Over-The-Top Patterns

Do: Try Metallic and Jewel Tones


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Don't get me wrong, I love prints like the next girl. But again, there's a suitable time for everything, and a gala event isn't the proper place. That being said, if you have more of a disposition towards bolder items, a simple way to make a statement for the special evening is by opting for colors. More specifically, you'll want to opt for metallic and jewel tones—e.g., silver, gold, bronze, sapphire, ruby, and emerald. These are tones that will not only stand out in the sea of black dresses but still adhere to the dress code. 

Don't: Opt for Overly Casual Fabrics

Do: Play with Texture


In addition to paying attention to hemlines and colors, it's also essential you consider the materials your items are made from as they can impact how formal they appear. While we all love fabrics like denim or jersey, they're far too casual for a gala, and wearing them can be a big faux-paus. Stick to more luxurious materials like silk, satin, velvet, sequins, and feathers to ensure your look airs on the side of formality. 

Don't: Limit Yourself to Gowns

Do: Consider Wearing a Suit or Jumpsuit


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By now, you might be wondering if you "must" wear a dress for the evening—spoiler: you don't need to if it's not your style. If you're more of a fan of pants, consider wearing a formal suit or jumpsuit for the evening. Our only advice is that you adhere to other tips listed earlier and pay attention to hemlines and materials to ensure that your suit or jumpsuit aligns with the formal dress code. 

Don't: Carry a Large Purse or Shoulder Bag

Do: Wear a Compact Clutch


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Fans of Succession can likely recall how, in the last season of the television show, Tom Wambsgans called a woman's handbag "ludicrously capacious." The series may be fictional, but there are, in fact, some types of purses one should consider avoiding in formal settings—including carryall totes, shoulder bags, and large handbags. As much as we all love to be able to carry all our things with us, for gala events, large bags are typically seen as gauche. Therefore, for the evening, you'll want to narrow down the necessities into a compact clutch bag. It will not only ensure that no one remarks your bag as "capacious," but a unique minaudiere bag will capture a few compliments for you throughout the evening. 

Don't: Forget to Accessorize

Do: Embrace Opera Gloves


(Image credit: @yoyokulala@ninasandbech)

Unless you're royalty, chances are this upcoming gala event is likely one of the most formal events you've ever had the privilege of attending. It goes without saying that these special occasions allow you to dress up in a way that you might not in your everyday life. So, being this particular moment, why not lean into the chance to accessorize fully? One way you can do that is by embracing opera gloves. The evening glove used to be far more ubiquitous with formal events, but as dress codes have relaxed over the years they've become less prevalent. However, with recent runway collections bringing these gloves back again, there's no better time to give your gala look a trendy yet timeless touch than with this small accessory. 

Don't: Overdo the Jewels

Do: Keep it Simple


While accessories can make black gowns stand out, it's crucial you air on the side of simplicity. Typically, for black-tie attire, it's best practice to opt for crystal, diamond, and gemstone-adorned jewelry to adhere to the dress code, as more trend-forward jewelry can come off as tacky for the occasion. However, even if you opt for more "traditional" jewelry (e.g., tennis bracelets, drop earrings, cocktail rings, etc.), you never want to over-accessorize. Our rule of thumb is that you want to limit yourself to one or two jewelry items to ensure your look isn't too flashy for the event. 

Don't: Wear Casual Footwear

Do: Choose Comfortable Heels 


(Image credit: @emilisindlev@slipintostyle)

Even if you've never been to a gala before, chances are you know what it's like to come home from a long evening and have aching feet. Rather than experience that again, you'll want to make sure you choose stylish but comfortable shoes. Typically, most formal events call for wearing heels, so you'll want to opt for a pair that either has a lower or block heel or comes from a brand that you trust to make comfortable shoes. It's also worth considering investing in foot soles for the evening and taking time to break in the shoes before the event by wearing them around your home. If all else fails, you can get away with wearing flats so long as they're on the more formal side. 

Don't: Wear a Casual Jacket

Do: Wear a Formal Coat 


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Hopefully, by now, you feel you've learned what you should (and shouldn't) wear to a gala event. But there's one more thing you should consider when planning an outfit for a black-tie affair: you're outerwear. Even if the event is inside, if you're going out for the evening, you'll likely want to bring something to keep you warm until you get to coat check. But you can't just bring any old jacket with you, as you also want your outerwear to air on the side of formality. You don't have to purchase an extra-extravagant coat, but you do want to avoid wearing those more casual items—denim, leather, bomber jackets. Instead, you'll want to finish your look with faux fur, a wool coat, a shawl, or a formal blazer. If you do this in conjunction with all of the other tips we shared in this story earlier, you will surely be the best-dressed attendee at the Gala. 

Jasmine Fox-Suliaman

Jasmine Fox-Suliaman is a fashion editor living in New York City. What began as a hobby (blogging on Tumblr) transformed into a career dedicated to storytelling through various forms of digital media. She started her career at the print publication 303 Magazine, where she wrote stories, helped produce photo shoots, and planned Denver Fashion Week. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked as MyDomaine's social media editor until she was promoted to work across all of Clique's publications (MyDomaine, Byrdie, and Who What Wear) as the community manager. Over the past few years, Jasmine has worked on Who What Wear's editorial team, using her extensive background to champion rising BIPOC designers, weigh in on viral trends, and profile stars such as Janet Mock and Victoria Monét. She is especially interested in exploring how art, fashion, and pop culture intersect online and IRL.