Reader mail: What to wear to a professional gala event in DC?

professional galaToday’s reader mail has to do with someone who is in need of advice for what to wear to a gala event…

Dear Corporette – You have never steered me wrong, and I definitely need advice on this one: I have been invited by a former boss & mentor (partner of a French law firm) to a gala dinner in DC, where he is to receive an award. What is appropriate dress? I have several gala-type dresses, things I wear to the opera or to very elegant weddings…but I am not sure how conservative to be at such a gathering of professionals.

77TH ACADEMY AWARDSThank you for the compliment!  We’re happy to give our $.02, but really, we hope  our DC-based readers can help her out. We’ve only been to gala events in New York, at which people have worn anything from black business suits (and looked boring but professional) to actual floor-length dresses. Our rule of thumb would be that if the men are supposed to wear a tuxedo, then you should be in a floor-length dress (or the pants version of a floor-length dress). Avoid tons of sparkles and surprising flashes of flesh — it’s one thing to bare your arms and unintentionally show a little cleavage, it’s another thing to pull a Hilary Swank (pictured at right) and wear a dress that’s too low cut in the back. We would advise you to wear either a wrap, a jacket, or a shrug, just so you have some way to modify your look as the night goes on.  For our money (or as inspiration), we’d suggest something like the dress pictured above — the high neckline and classic cut makes it a sure hit.  Above:   Lauren Ralph Lauren Colorblock Jersey Gown, was $170, now $102.


  1. Organizations often host their galas, dinners, etc annually. To get an idea of what to wear to a specific event, I go to the organization’s website and try to find pictures from last year’s event.

  2. I’ve been to many of these events, and your advice is really sound. A few additional considerations: Much depends upon the timing of the event. If it occurs after work, many of the men will be wearing business suits, and the women will have on knee-length but dressy suits/dresses. Floor length dress is more likely for a Saturday night event. For those running from office to the event, they’re most likely to throw on higher heels, some flashy jewelry, and evening bag — and stay in the kind of dress/suit that can pass at the office (probably black).

    Think very carefully about coverage. It’s fine to bare arms, but avoid anything low cut. Darker colors prevail, and styles tend to be classic and elegant. DC is a pretty conservative town for the lawfirm/corporate professional.

  3. Delta Sierra :

    No satin. So pretty on the hanger, but so awful under the lights, or in a photo.

  4. If you want to be viewed as professional at a formal event, go with the simple black long dress or a variation on the evening tuxedo. Avoid bright colors, all-over sequins, and anything low-cut, very bare or very short.

    DH’s firm has a formal dinner each year. Because I deal with some of his partners in my practice, I generally stick to the basic black dress each year (sometimes long, sometimes tea length or top of the knee). Variations on the column dress blend in nicely and do not attract unwanted attention. Keep in mind that a little bit of beading goes a long way. I also have worn a black on black women’s tuxedo jacket with silk cigarette pants, a full-coverage black silk camisole, and black file sandals before that worked out well.

    Of course, every year there is someone who breaks out the purple metallic strapless short sheath or the white beaded column cut down to you-know-where in front and back (as well as the male partner who pulls the plaid dinner jacket out of mothballs, but that is a whole other fashion issue). That may be fine if you do not have to deal with any of the attorneys professionally, but I prefer that people I deal with at court look me in the eye, not in the chest, even at social events.

  5. I’ve attended many of these formal events in DC. There’s a great women’s dress store in McLean called Mae’s — go online to their website there’s usually a $50 off coupon. Ask for Ginger — they have never done wrong by me and I’ve bought many dresses there. Always very unique and I don’t look like everyone else but still very appropriate. They also have very nice accessories – purses, earrings etc….and importantly — expert seamstresses who will make sure nothing is popping out! I recommend black but am not opposed to colors if you wear them well and they are tasteful. I have a black gown I can wear a million times (and feel like a princess), and a teal one that has received many compliments. I think a gown is appropriate if that is what is generally worn – you may want to ask others who may have attended this event or as they said above, look at the website for photos. However, if not everyone is in gowns, then a knee length fancy dress is great as well.

  6. Anne Vohl :

    Washington, DC is really a southern city. The look is more feminine than glamorous. Color, especially light color, looks good. Warm weather lingers. Shoes that match or closely coordinate with the dress will look great. Real jewelry is a plus.

  7. If there are going to be flash photos, do an opacity check.

    Love the dress!

  8. I agree that, unless it’s a Saturday night or specifically “Black Tie,” you should wear a short “cocktail” dress. The Little Black Dress with real jewelry, a shawl of some sort, and dressy pumps is always appropriate, and no one will be talking about what you wore the next day (or week or year).

  9. If the event will be anything like the French diplomatic galas I have attended in DC, women wore simple, elegant long dresses or long skirt with top or jacket in natural fibers with clean lines, great tailoring and very little bling – kind of a matte finish on everything. Great idea to check photos of previous years. Also, French galas tend to have a lot of loose, ‘messy’ (read natural or flowy)-looking hair (though of course clean), no fancy or tight updos. I don’t at all mean hippy or overly-natural, just not shiny, bejeweled, etc. More of a quiet, elegant and nonchalant drama. If there will be many French women in attendance, you may want to check out the Paris fashion trends, at least to get an idea of skirt length this season – there are definite differences in skirt lengths between France and the US per fashion season. Hope you have a great time, sounds fun!

  10. It’s not clear if you have been asked to attend in support (very often honorees are ‘expected’ to sell tickets) or if you are attending “with” him. If the latter, think about how your dress will photograph – it’s not a certainty, but it’s certainly a possibility.

    Have fun! And congratulations on having a mentor who gets honors.

  11. I attended a black tie dinner at the Supreme Court last summer and really regretted having my shoulders showing. I was in a rather high-cut halter (no cleavage at all) and felt too uncovered for the crowd. I think I would have been more okay in a tank-cut sheath dress or in something with sleeves. The other associate was in a conservative strapless dress and kept herself bundled up in her wrap all night to avoid showing her shoulders or back.

    Most women were in rather dowdy plain black gowns, either knee length or floor length. Many were in suits.

  12. agree about the elegant cocktail dress – but if the gala is during the weekend go long. I think you can’t go wrong with black and navy just make sure you’re not showing too much skin. Here are some white and black tie dresses that could suit your needs…

  13. I love this: