Putting together outfits can be a difficult enough activity on its own. Add dress codes to the mix, though, and something that should be a simple endeavour can quickly turn into a complicated ordeal. While most women don’t have trouble telling casual wear apart from formal attire, it’s the dress codes in between that can be frustratingly confusing.

Indeed, black tie optional, smart casual,  cocktail and semi-formal can all mean different things depending on the resource you happen to be consulting. They also happen to be some of the most commonly requested dress codes, used for everything from work-related events to wedding receptions. 

In this guide, we’ll be focusing on the semi-formal dress code: what it means, what you should wear (including shapewear for women), and other dos and don’ts for pulling it off. 

Semi-Formal, Defined

Before we proceed, here’s a quick refresher on what semi-formal outfits entail.

Generally, semi-formal wear sits comfortably below formal attire but above cocktail attire. Functions that demand it are usually held in public spaces such as restaurants and event halls. They can also have serious or conservative connotations. Think along the lines of memorials, galas, or celebrations that have a religious significance, such as bar mitzvahs and weddings.

To simplify it further, you can visualize semi-formal wear as dressier and fancier than what you’d wear to the office but not so dressy as to be a floor-length evening gown. If the dilemma is how to distinguish it from a cocktail or festive attire, don’t sweat it, as semi-formal wear covers you in both cases.

Do Focus on the Fit and Fabric

Semi-formal wear for women runs the gamut and can be anything from a knee-length dress to a chic pantsuit. That said, the dress code favours sleeker silhouettes and dressier fabrics, so go for form-fitting pieces that stay close to the body and are made with cashmere, silk, or satin. 

Don’t Forget the Shapewear

Decoding the Dress Code: The Do's and Don'ts of Semi-Formal Wear for Women

Because semi-formal outfits are close-fitting by nature, you’ll want to smooth out every curve possible. To prevent lumps and bumps from showing while also accentuating your best features, try wearing the appropriate shapewear underneath your clothes. In particular, full slips or bodysuits can do wonders under body-hugging dresses. Meanwhile, seamless leggings can help shape the tummy and thighs beneath a crisp, tailored pantsuit. 

Do Pay Attention to the Length

The operative word in the term “semi-formal” is still ‘formal.’ So while showing some skin is acceptable, it should still be done tastefully.

Thus, steer clear of pieces that end too high above the knee and pick those with a more modest length instead. Dresses and skirts that end exactly at the knee or at least one inch above or below that point should be acceptable as well.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to how much coverage the top half of the outfit offers. Depending on the formality of the occasion, you may want or need to keep your back, cleavage, or shoulders covered. If the dress or top doesn’t offer ample coverage, you can layer up with a wrap or outer covering.

Don’t Bring a Huge Bag

Big, clunky bags have a casual sort of air that would look out of place at a semi-formal event. Don’t ruin the atmosphere with your daily carry and swap out your usual tote for something daintier and more minimalist, like a clutch or a small purse. As long as you go for something notebook-sized that can fit all of your essentials, you should be good to go. 

Do Keep the Nature of the Event in Mind

When choosing the best clothes to wear to an event, it’s always prudent to take note of the time it’ll be held. Daytime events call for lighter colours and fabrics, while darker shades and richer, heavier materials are more acceptable for evening events. If the occasion is more serious than celebratory, it’s also best to cover up and dress in more austere colours. If the event you’ll be attending is a wedding, it’s respectful to keep from wearing white or black. 

Don’t Underdress

Overdressing for semi-formal events is easy to avoid. You can get away with almost anything, as long as you don’t wear a flowy ball gown.

However, underdressing for the event is a faux pas that can be trickier to dodge. Broadly speaking, you’ll want to avoid anything in your closet that’s too casual, such as your everyday jeans, t-shirts, button-downs, and sneakers. When in doubt, dress as though you were going to dinner at a fancy restaurant. In most cases, a little black dress with strappy heels and a few delicate accessories will do the trick. 

A lot of women view semi-formal dressing as a source of stress, but it doesn’t have to be. We hope that this guide helps you get a better idea of what to expect so that you can come up with the perfect outfit in no time.

Jul 27, 2020

More from 



View All

Join Our Newsletter and Get the Latest
Posts to Your Inbox

No spam ever. Read our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.