2017 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?
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 6pm, Off 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- How to Dress for Black Tie Affairs on a Budget [The Budget Fashionista]
- Black-Tie Ready: Look Like a Million Bucks, Without Spending It! [PopSugar]
- What Makes Budget Black Tie Work [Amid Privilege]
- Savvy Shopper-At-Law: Black Tie on a Budget [Ms-JD.org]