Tales from the Wallet: Black Tie on a Budget

Black Tie on a Budget | Corporette2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to do black tie on a budget, but you may also want to check out all of our other posts on holiday business etiquette

How do you dress for a work-related black tie — on a budget? Whether you have a formal holiday office party coming up, or you’ve been invited to a charity black tie on behalf of work, you now probably have two primary questions: a) how to dress in a formal dress and still maintain a professional demeanor, and b) how to do it without breaking the bank.  We’ve talked about what not to wear to a black-tie event for work before, as well as how to do black tie on a budget, but not for a while, so I thought we’d discuss. (We also recently did a style guide for the more low-key, weeknight holiday office party.  Ladies, what are your best tips for doing black tie on a budget?  Any amazing scores to share?

Pictured: dress, earrings, clutch, shoes

The Dress

What you’re looking for: a simple floor-length gown, preferably in a solid color.  Look for one that says “classy” more than “sexy” — and for one that is missing a prom/bridesmaid vibe. If the black tie is at all associated with your work (or your SO’s work) you want to avoid cleavage and unexpected skin — and make sure the dress is properly hemmed with your shoes so you’re not tripping over it.

Buy basic.  A solid-colored, floor length gown is always going to be a stylish thing to wear, and provided your accessories are different, you can wear it from year to year even to the same event. While buying, watch out for trendy elements (peplums, capes) or memorable details (sequins, cutouts, etc) because that will decrease your ability to wear it over and over.  Do consider haunting consignment and thrift stores (particularly in the ritziest area of town) — these can be great places to pick up dresses for a fraction of the cost. Lisa at Amid Privilege has some great ideas for alternatives to a dress; Ms. JD has a good breakdown of what the differences are between “white tie,” “black tie,” and “semiformal.” Note that even Nordstrom has affordable dresses (such as the $145 dress pictured above); if you need one at the last minute check Zappos or Amazon first.  (If you’re looking right now, Kohl’s and New York & Co. both have some options that might work and are under $100; check 6pmOff Fifth, and even eBay if you have some time to wait for shipping.)

Borrow from a friend.  Find a friend with a similar body shape and size to yours and ask her to borrow something from her closet. If you both have separate events coming up in a short time frame you could even go shopping together, choose one dress, and split the cost of it.

Rent one from Rent the Runway — they offer regular and plus sizes, and will send you two sizes of each dress you rent, and often have deals where you can pick out a second dress entirely for just a bit more (if memory serves, $25-$50ish).  They’ve expanded their inventory to include coats, clutches, jewelry and more — even jumpsuits. I love the feature where customers upload pictures of themselves in the dresses to review them, and include details such as their bra size, their weight, their “normal” dress size, and more.

Formal Accessories

I would suggest you spend the most money here if you plan to be going to a lot of these events.  Look for chandelier earrings, a wrap that is appropriate for the occasion but also provides some warmth, and a clutch. Bonus points if your clutch is big enough for your back-up shoes (see below). Regarding the earrings, I love my diamond earrings, but you can also go for an inexpensive pair — the green ones pictured above are only $48 and could, I think, be worn to a variety of different holiday events. Also pictured above: this lovely $55 clutch.

The Shoes

Satin shoes are usually considered appropriate for black tie, and these can usually be found pretty inexpensively.  Check 6pm, and when you buy a pair, plan to wear it for all of your formal events — so go as neutral as possible. Note also that if the shoe is embellished with beads or sequins it may be a poor match for a long hemline (it may catch, rip, or tear the dress, or trip you!) — so keep that in mind as well. If you want to wear the shoes with a shorter dress, you can always accessorize your shoes with brooches, pins, and shoe clips, of course.   In the past I’ve had silver satin as well as black satin, and felt they were versatile — the pictured shoes above come in black, but I think the silver also works with the outfit. In terms of comfort — there may be some sacrifice here.  If you plan to be doing a lot of walking on the way home, or plan to be going to an afterparty with significant dancing, you may want to look into foldable flats (but watch out if your dress is hemmed for heels!), or in true budget circumstances, thin flip flops.

The Undergarments

Shapewear, of course, can be hugely helpful for whittling your waist, slimming your thighs, or even just smoothing/tightening everything.  For the absolute smoothest look you probably want something like this — it can be an expensive purchase, though, so don’t buy something just for that one event. Instead, ponder whether a bodysuit, camisole, or .  (This may be a reason in and of itself to avoid a strapless dress!)

If it’s cold out, you may wonder: bare legs? Tights? (Fleece tights?!?) It all depends on the weather, how much you plan to be outside, and more.  If you’re going straight from the town car to the front door of the event, don’t worry about it too much.  In the past I’ve stalked TJ Maxx and flash sale sites for major discounts on tights from Wolford; a sheer pantyhose will also work, of course, and provide some modicum of warmth.

The Hair

I’ve seen a huge spectrum — some women wear their hair the normal way; some women wear their hair a slightly more polished way (e.g., a blow out), and some people go all out for a fancy up-do.  If you’re on a budget, I’d suggest practicing some of these work-appropriate updos, but perhaps adding a sparkly pin or brooch in your hair.

Further Reading:

how to do black tie on a budget



  1. Make sure your satin shoes are comfortable. I’ve bought a few inexpensive pairs (Nina brand) that seemed to fit OK but were excruciating to walk in or even stand in after an hour or too.

    Suede (that’s not worn in) is also appropriate for evening, IMO.

    • I think patent leather also works for formal and is more versatile than satin.

    • Yes! I’ve bought two pairs of Nina shoes and they have been the most uncomfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I wear heels every day, but these leave me in tears. I threw them out…

    • Agree that suede is evening-acceptable in most cases. Also velvet, though suede certainly easier to find and probably more versatile.

  2. What do you think about this for a semi-formal party? I’m leaning toward the black midi skirt (though the pink is so pretty in person) because then I can mix it up with different tops for different events. I’m still torn on how much I love the midi length though.


    • Midi looks best on someone tall – which I’m not, which is why I don’t wear skirts below my knee. If you’re tall, go for it. A dressy black skirt is very useful.

    • Senior Attorney :

      I’m 5’2″ and a black taffeta skirt like this was my go-to for all my holiday events last year. I wear it with high heels and don’t feel like it’s stumpifying at all.

  3. Rent the runway. I stopped by the Chicago store recently to try on a dress that I’ll end up renting as a bridesmaid dress and I’m so glad I did.

    • Anoooooooon :

      Yup, this is literally what Rent the Runway was made for. It’s perfect for this. Unless I become President or divorce my husband and marry Prince Harry, I’ll never have a black tie dress hanging in my closet again.

      • lucy stone :

        Hands off my Harry, but good luck with your presidential campaign!

        I’m a plus size and also love RTR. No more buying party dresses for this girl.

    • +2 for Rent the Runway – between charity events, weddings, and holiday parties, Rent the Runway is my go-to. I haven’t bought a cocktail or black-tie dress in years.

      For those who are worried about a rental not fitting, they have a great return/refund policy and will do their best to ship you a replacement dress, if possible. Also, read the reviews and look at the photos (I only rent dresses that have good reviews and lots of photos/comments for me to help me evaluate whether a dress might work for me). Also, stick to styles that you know work for your body type. I’m more of a pear/hourglass, so I tend to stick to fit and flare dresses, or dresses that are cut more generously in the hips to ensure rental success.

      • Honestly, I think the dresses that are well-loved are also well-worn. My strategy is usually to look at dresses with good reviews & that would work on my body type, and then go see what’s new on the site from those designers, usually thinking that fewer people will have worn it out before I receive it.

        • Valid point. When I was at the Chicago store I was baffled how the employees there would pick up gowns off of the racks and let them drag on the floor (seriously?!). This happened several times. I tried on an amazing sequin Badgley Mischka and it did have a few loose threads hanging here and there but as a whole it looked amazing and I’d be ok with renting it and cutting some of the loose threads myself. I think they should have a stricter QC process, but as a whole, the dresses in store looked amazing and I still plan to rent this dress because it’ll save me ~$225

    • I love RTR for black tie, but I always have a backup black tie outfit in the closet. I’ve had a few last minute gala invites (day of) where I wouldn’t be able to get a dress in time. I picked up a Nicole Miller gown that kind of looks like a tux – black chiffon with black slub silk trim. It was on super sale. I think I spent $50 and an additional $30 on alterations.

  4. What shoes would you wear for a office party during the day where you’re wearing a sequin skirt and silk blouse (and tights)? My party is officially from 2-5, with an afterparty. I know a sequin skirt probably sounds like overkill during the day but people get super dressed up so I feel like this is appropriate. I’m not sure about shoes though – I’d like to wear booties but if that’s too casual, I can throw on a pair of heels.


    Thanks all!

    • Maddie Ross :

      I would wear booties, too. Mostly because I think booties are easier when wearing tights (less slippage) and they are warmer!

    • I think booties are a nice anchor for something sparkly and satin! It will look great I think. Maybe take a picture with both and see what you like?

    • Senior Attorney :

      Another vote for the booties! Sounds like a great outfit!

    • Amazing! Thanks all.

      This also makes it easier to get to and from the party. I love when comfort and practicality meet fashion.

  5. Maddie Ross :

    Eh, I disagree that the most money should be spent on your accessories. Yes, true if your accessories are a classic pair of diamond earrings or one expensive clutch that you carry every.single.time, but I honestly think you can get by with TJ Maxx, Target and equivalent accessories when your dress, shoes and hair are appropriately nice and polished. I’ve got a little black satin framed clutch from TJ Maxx that I carry all the time to weddings – it was like $9. And I have several pairs of chandelier earrings that are sold as J.Crew, but came from Hong Kong via ebay that were less than $10 each. I see no reason to spend $50 on one use earrings.

    • I agree. Black tie is the time to break out the Payless clutch/shoes and the giant costume jewelry from Claire’s.

    • Diana Barry :


      Also, FWIW, I found the best black-tie dresses for cheapest (a) in thrift/vintage stores where there were only a few dresses in the store, and (b) discount stores like sadly defunct Filene’s Basement, but also TJ MAXX and Marshall’s. If you have time and lead time before events, you can pop in there fairly often to see what they have.

      I also got a $28 floor-length dress at Forever 21 recently – not the best quality but still cheaper than RTR!

    • Etsy Shopper :

      You don’t have to splurge to get quality jewelry. At least treat yo’ self to something from Kanye East’s Etsy shop (www.etsy.com/shop/gewgaws)! I think she still gives discounts to Corporate readers.

    • +1 I have a lot of ebay China knockoff JCrew and the quality is the same as jcrew

  6. If you have any plain bridesmaids dresses, you can rewear those. I went to a black tie work event where I rewore a log, dark red, satin strapless sweetheart David’s Bridal dress. I thought it would be obvious what it was, but people complemented it. A fun fact about those dresses – the way they are seamed, you can actually rip the outermost seam (it is seamed twice) on the princess seams to gain an extra inch or so. With spanx, the dress still fit despite it being a size too small.

    • long, not log, obviously.

    • Anonymous :

      For the $400 I just dropped on one, I better be able to wear it to a lot of events. It’s the most expensive dress I own. I may dye it black after the wedding (it’s purple)- I’m hoping that makes it a little less bridesmaid-y.

  7. New Tampanian :

    Stalk Rue La La. If you are likely to have formal events throughout the year or multiple during the holidays, you should think of investing in a gown. You can always change out the accessories to keep it fresh.

    I bought a beautiful Badgley Mischka gown for $180 from Rue La La.

  8. Has anyone been to the Rent the Runway warehouse in Secaucus, NJ? I always forget it exists, but plan to make a trip there this spring before wedding season to check it out.

  9. Coach Laura :

    Kat- love this dress. I agree with the commenter that stated that she likes to have a “backup” formal dress in the closet in the event that she can’t get one (due to rush timing) from RTR or brick-n-mortar store. I think after the new year would be a good time to hunt for a backup to keep in the closet.

  10. If you’re seriously on a budget, the RTR black tie dresses under $100 aren’t great- I’d stalk Nordstrom Rack, the Lord & Taylor dress sale, Ruelala, Gilt, and TJ Maxx for something that looks crisp and new. I always think my rent the runway dresses are somewhat rumpled, or that the boning is poking through, or the edges of light dresses are just a littled irty. I know they say they dry clean them between events, but I’ve seen a serious decline in dresses in the last year (I’m a pro member and rent about a dress a month).

    I’d also think that if you’re with fancypants people, they’ll definitely usually be able to tell if your jewelry is costume or fake- I’d go with something simpler and nicer, over something that makes a huge statement but looks cheap.

    Finally, wear shoes that you can walk in. As gorgeous as they are, you’ll look ridiculous if you can’t walk. Personally I think those silver ones shown are hideous, but I appreciate the nod toward something likely a little more comfortable. I’ve had great luck with the Audrey Brooke brand at DSW (Badgley Mischka knockoffs) and the BP Luminate sandal from nordstrom.

  11. I am lucky. I have a sister, Rosa, who’s husband works for a big Investement Bank and he is ALWAYS goeing to formal event’s that he needs to have Rosa with him (b/c she is gorgeous). As a result, she has alot of formal wear that I can borrow WHENEVER I need to, so I do NOT have to buy any fancy clotheing, other then shoe’s b/c she has smaller feet then I do. Also, my shoe size is wider then hers so I have to buy my own shoes.

    Ed does NOT care about me borrowing stuff, but Rosa says that I can NOT borrow any dress if it is to tight even if I agree to loose weight b/f the event, b/c last year I borrowed a black evening gown that was a size 2 (but very small) and I stretched the tuchus out by wearing it and bendeing down alot. Now I must try it on b/f Rosa will let me borrow thing’s. Of course, clutch bag’s and jewelery are fine, just no gowns or dresses that are to tight.

  12. Does anyone else think the dress pictured is matronly?

  13. I agree. It seems a bit matronly– something about the fabric, long sleeves and the overly simple cut maybe. The little side embellishment seems to help a bit. Not too crazy about the shoes either. Overall though, you could get by with the outfit and look appropriate for a formal work party.

  14. Strappy metallic sandals are also a good choice (I think pewter and bronze look more expensive), and if you search Amazon for rhodium cubic-zirconia jewelry, it can look very much like white gold and diamonds, especially if you go with clusters of smaller-sized stones.

  15. I bought this dress a few weeks ago and it was GENIUS for a work party: http://www.promgirl.com/shop/dresses/viewitem-PD1438103 Inexpensive-yet-expensive-looking, glam but not cheesy, flattering to most figures (thank you, chevron pattern), and not cleaveagey.