How to Dress for a Special Occasion: A Complete Guide

how to dress for a special occasion

As Audrey Hepburn once famously said, “life’s a party, dress like it”. From weddings to birthdays, events are the things that bring us together and often form the foundation for memories that sustain us through our ups and downs and keep us smiling even on our worst days. 

Now, with all of the good and sentimental things that special occasions bring to our lives, they tend to come with one very important and sometimes stress-inducing question: “how to dress for a special occasion and what to wear for a special occasion.” 

Does What I Wear to a Special Occasion Matter?

Yes. Definitely. As human beings, we have certain ways of signaling to others that an event or an experience is important, and one of the main ways that we honor the significance of a moment is through the clothes we wear and the ways in which we choose to present ourselves. 

What we wear matters, and while it can sometimes be challenging to figure out how to dress for a special occasion, there are definitely some guidelines that make that choice a bit easier.

Special Occasion Dress Codes Defined

Dress codes make it easier to figure out how to dress for any special occasion. While these codes are lifesavers, it can be easy to get confused between the various dress styles that fall into each category, so we’ve created a “cheat sheet” to help you figure out what to wear to a special occasion.

Formal Dresses: Back in the day, we’re talking pre-1960, formal attire was strictly defined as “black and white attire” and would be worn at dinners, galas, weddings, or any event that called for a more dignified and elevated look. 

Modern formal wear is a bit more colorful but is still categorized as dresses that would be appropriate for more conservative and respected events. We’re talking luxurious satin maxi dresses, elevated jumpsuits, ball gowns, wrap dresses. Formal dresses are usually longer than at least the knee, don’t show too much skin and avoid loud or overwhelming patterns (floral yes, animal print…usually no). 

Semi-formal Dresses: The best way to describe semi-formal attire is that it’s fancier and more elegant than you would wear to your office or to a client meeting, but less formal than you would wear to a wedding or black-tie event. 

When you see “semi-formal” think: women’s special occasion dresses that are elegant but still understated. Separates, jumpsuits, dresses that fall (slightly) above the knee, these would all work. When thinking color and pattern, stay grounded and don’t select anything too bright or loud. 

Cocktail/Partywear Dresses: Cocktail wear is like-semi formal wear but a bit more fun. Cocktail attire lends itself to bright colors and pieces that feature sequins, rhinestones, beading and other fun accents. 

Depending on the type of cocktail event you will be attending, you can experiment with shorter lengths and patterns that would be considered too loud for formal and semi-formal events. 

Casual Dresses: Casual dresses are easy, fun and in line with what you would wear to a family barbeque or a day out with friends. Casual dresses are suited for everyday use so they’re going to feature fabrics that are more durable and easy to care for. 

Casual dresses tend to be lighter, more comfortable and easier to move in. Think cotton over silks. When you’re trying to decide whether or not something is casual, do the work test. If you would wear it to work, it’s probably not casual. If you would wear it courtside at a Lakers game, you’re probably looking at a more casual piece. 

How to Dress for Any Special Event

When you’re deciding how to dress for a special occasion, check that dress code and then check it again. With that said, here are the basic rules for what to wear for a special occasion: 

  • Weddings: Weddings tend to fall into the formal or semi-formal zone, with some occasional exceptions. Infallible wedding guests ensembles include a classic draped look, a ruffled gown or an elevated jumpsuit. 
  • Galas and Charity Events: Unless there is a specific theme involved, galas and charity events are strictly formal occasions. These events often call for classic, timeless styles that evoke visions of glamor and elegance. Think gorgeous, long flowing maxi dresses, ball gowns and textured wrap dresses. 
  • Cocktail Parties/Engagement Parties: Cocktail parties, engagement parties and similar events are venues where you can try out some of your more bold women’s special occasion dresses including ones with sparkle, shimmer and shine. When it comes to length, you have more freedom to try out above-the-knee styles so feel free to play around and find what works for you and your body. 
  • Holiday Parties: Holiday parties run the gamut between formal and casual. If your holiday party is formal, we suggest long dresses in rich holiday colors like golds, reds and greens. If your party is more casual, we love dresses that feature some sequins or shine to them as it honors the excitement of the season. 
  • Formal Dinners: Depending on the venue (more luxurious venues often call for more luxurious outfits), opt for women’s special occasion dresses that are long (usually floor or ankle length) and that feature muted colors (black, white, flat versions of yellows, reds). To be safe, avoid patterns or dresses that have low necklines or that reveal too much.
  • Bridal and Baby Showers/Graduations/Landmark Birthdays: Unless noted, bridal and baby showers, graduations, big birthdays and other milestone parties (especially day parties) tend to call for casual wear. Floral prints and bright colors are perfect for these events as they honor the happiness, light and excitement of the occasion. Think jumpsuits, chic separates or a classic sundress.
  • Business Events: Business events are typically either formal or business casual. Go with understated looks that maintain professionalism while still looking elevated and stylish. When considering length, stay below the knee, but avoid anything floor length and it will seem out of place and too formal.

Fame and Partners: Special Occasion Attire Made Easy

If you’re trying to figure out how to dress for a special occasion, look no further. At Fame and Partners, we have a diverse collection of women’s special occasion dresses that match all events, shapes, styles and preferences. 

Everything we make is made-to-order and fully customizable, which means that we design the dresses and you select the finishing touches (like neckline and sleeve type) that make it your own.