The Difference Between Semi-Formal & Formal For Men

Step into your next special occasion knowing the rules of sartorial engagement

The Difference Between Semi-Formal & Formal For Men

The main difference between formal and semi-formal can also be likened to the difference between formal vs black tie. Formal dress refers to a two or three-piece suit, with a shirt and tie. Black tie is far more specific: a tailless jacket, black cummerbund or waistcoat, and a black bow tie.

Once upon a more sartorially inclined time, men regularly attended events at which black tie and white tie were worn. In those more decorous days, formal meant white tie and tails while semi-formal referred to dinner clothes, tuxedos and other iterations of black tie. Alas, those days are behind us, and we’ve been plunged into a world that no longer has the foggiest idea about the difference between formal and semi-formal. We live in dark times, gentlemen.

But hark! – what’s that off in the distance? Is it a light at the end of the tunnel? A beacon in the darkness? A small glimmer of hope?

Why yes it is, because today we’re breaking down the dress codes in terms even the most style-challenged man can understand. Here’s what formal and semi-formal mean, the do’s and don’ts of each, and inspiration for your next event.

Difference Between Formal And Semi Formal

At its most basic, contemporary formal dress generally encompasses both white tie and black tie dress codes. Semi-formal, as the name implies, is slightly more relaxed – think a dark suit and a tie, or anything you’d refer to as “cocktail” dress.

Men’s Formal Attire

Tom Ford

The tuxedo is the heart of formal dress. For the DRESSIEST of occasions, a bow tie is a must – a tailed jacket, white shirt and white bow tie. For slightly less starched occasions, black tie is the order of the day – a tailless jacket, black cummerbund or waistcoat, and a black bow tie. Other events may call for morning dress, the daytime formal dress code, which consists of a morning coat, a waistcoat and striped trousers. Note: Yes, you can go a blue tuxedo if you want for not so formal.

RELATED: How To Wear A Tuxedo & Where To Get One

Formal Do’s & Don’ts


Do familiarise yourself with the traditional tuxedo.

Here are some of the best. And here’s how to wear one.

Don’t improvise.

This is not the time for a black shirt (or any colour other than white, for that matter), an expressive tie, or designer sneakers. Stick with the classics and look Rat Pack immaculate.

Know your ties.

Surprisingly it’s okay to either wear a black / white bow tie or opt for a plain black traditional necktie.

Do nail the fit.

Your tailor is your best friend. Be sure your trousers aren’t too long and your jacket isn’t too loose. Your formalwear should fit like a sports car, not an SUV.

Don’t neglect your grooming.

Shower (with a proper body wash). Shave. Apply cologne (but not excessively). Remove flashy jewellery and rings. Resist the urge to try out a bold new hairstyle.

Do take matters into your own hands.

Learn to tie a bow tie. You live in the era of the YouTube tutorial – there’s no excuse for anything pre-tied. And while you’re at it, avoid rental tuxedos with equal fervour.

Don’t match your date.

This is not prom. No matter how insistent she may be, the purpose of your tuxedo is not to compliment her dress. It deserves to shine in the spotlight all on its own.

Get To Know Men’s Semi-Formal Attire


A tuxedo would not be appropriate for a semi-formal event, but it’s still important to remain elegant, sophisticated and neat. A dark suit and tie are expected for semi-formal events in the evening. During daytime semi-formal events, lighter suits are acceptable (but keep shirts and ties towards the conservative end of the spectrum). Shoes should remain dressy and accessories, like pocket squares and wristwatches, should be understated.

At the end of the day, there’s one DO that matters more than anything else: if you’re ever unsure of what your host expects, do ask. You can rest assured that you’ll look the part, and they’ll appreciate your effort to get it right. Other than that, these do’s and don’ts will get you by:

Semi Formal Do’s & Don’ts


Do wear the right suit.

A tuxedo is too much. A summer seersucker suit is too little. A dark wool, gabardine or cashmere suit is just right. If the event takes place during the day, a lighter suit is an option.

Don’t be afraid to ditch the tie.

These days, it’s ok to go tie-less at semi-formal events. If you prefer the polished look that a tie provides, steer clear of anything too loud. Save the novelty neckwear for your office Christmas parties.

Don’t underdress.

Note that semi-formal still includes the word “formal”. Dress accordingly. Khakis, jeans and shorts have no place at semi-formal events. Neither do polo shirts. Neither do sneakers. You get the picture.

But do follow the Golden Rule.

When in doubt, it’s better to overdress than underdress. If you’re deciding between two items, err on the side of the more formal option. If you happen to show up to an event overdressed, you can de-formal-fy your outfit with little tricks like removing your tie.

So there you have it. Now you can boast to your far less fashion-savvy friends about the clear difference between formal and semi-formal. Remember, if you’ve been asked to rock up in formal attire, go for a tuxedo and don’t improvise or neglect the importance of fit.

If you’ve been asked to go semi-formal, however, dark suiting is your best bet for en evening event, while conservative lighter-coloured suiting is more appropriate for the day. Don’t be afraid to ditch the tie, but most importantly, have fun with your look and remember the golden rule: when in doubt, it’s better to overdress than underdress.

Formal & Semi Formal FAQ

How to wear a cummerbund?

Wear your cummerbund around the level of the navel, half of it covering your shirt and the other half your trousers. Do not wear it too high or low as that will ruin the aesthetic effect.

What color tuxedo to choose?

Midnight blue tuxedos have become an acceptable alternative to black tuxedos. Meanwhile, the white dinner jacket may be your warm-weather take on the classic black, but you can still wear it year-round.

What is a shirt placket?

A placket is the center strip of fabric where your shirt’s buttonholes are situated. The most common type is the front placket, where the fabric is folded over and sewn with a fused interlining for a classic look.

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