What to Wear to a Charity Gala or Fundraiser Event: Dress Codes Explained

In our guide to the gala dress code, we break down all the rules you need to follow and the fashion faux pas to avoid.

Updated December 14, 2023
Beautiful young couple in formalwear

Charity galas and other formal events can take some thought to plan an outfit for. You want to be formal, but not too stuffy. You want your personality to come through, but not so much so that you turn into a spectacle. Thankfully, you can breathe easy, because the gala dress code isn't nearly as impossible to follow as your high school's was. 

Guide to the Gala Dress Code: The 6 Main Types of Formal Attire 

Charity galas and other fundraiser events typically require guests to stick to one of six formalwear standards. The lengths, fabrics, cuts, and colors you're supposed to wear change depending on what dress code they print on that shiny invite. Once you've gotten your invitation, you'll know exactly which of these handy style guides to follow. 

White Tie

A white tie invitation is the most formal type of invitation anyone can get. For example, state dinners, formal nighttime weddings, or diplomatic balls are all events that are usually white tie. You might also see white tie referred to as "full evening dress," "full dress," or "evening dress" on the invite. If the event occurs during the day, it may say "morning dress" instead.

If you've been invited to a white tie event, you've got two dress options: a floor-length evening gown or a tailcoat, vest/cummerbund, and a white bow-tie combo. In the past, white tie style was strictly gendered. However, given that gender nonconforming people are invited to white-tie events, the focus on following gender norms isn't necessary and you can take a choose-your-own-adventure mindset with these. 

If you're going for the full dress suit look, then some essential accessories include:

  • Braces
  • White gloves
  • Shirt studs
  • Cuff links
  • Black patent shoes
  • Black dress socks
  • Accessories like a top hat, boutonniere, and pocket watch (optional)
  • A black overcoat and a white silk scarf can be added in colder temperatures

Meanwhile, if you're going for the dress option then you should be mindful to stay away from revealing features like deep necklines and leg slits. 

Some appropriate accessories to add some personality to your dress outfit are:

  • Opera gloves
  • Evening bag/clutch purse
  • Jewelry
  • Shawls
  • Opera cloaks
  • Evening coats 

White Tie and Decorations

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

If your invite says "white tie with decorations" this refers to military and civil decorations, medals, and orders. Usually, you only see this type of dress code at diplomatic or government events. In these situations, the decorations are worn on your coat's left lapel, on a ribbon just under the bow tie, or a sash worn over the chest. If one has an abundance of decorations, a miniature version is worn on a bar on the left jacket lapel.

Black Tie

Celebrity couple arriving at red carpet event

If you've been to a "formal" event, chances are it was black tie. The dress code for black tie events is also known as "dinner jacket" or "semi-formal evening dress." Though black tie events are still formal affairs, they tend to be staged in more socially comfortable settings like dances, movie premieres, and evening celebrations.

Once again, you've got a few main options for the type of outfit that's appropriate to wear to a black tie event: 

For a winter or fall black tie event, many people wear a black tuxedo with a white, pleated front tuxedo shirt. Braces, vests, gloves, and cummerbunds are optional, but you should wear all the other white tie accessories. For spring and summer events, you can substitute a white tuxedo jacket for a black one. Black patent shoes and black dress socks should complete the outfit.

A full-length ball gown or cocktail dress are appropriate options for black tie events. While black is a preferred color for dresses, no color on the color wheel is forbidden.

If you prefer pants but want a less severe cut, try a silk palazzo style with an accompanying silk or chiffon top. You can top it off with an evening clutch and some jewelry.

Creative Black Tie

Attractive non binary person at LGBTQ pride parade

Not all formal events are meant to be stuffy! A "creative black tie" event gives you a lot of license to play with the rules of etiquette. The key here is adding whimsical or unique accessories to transform the appearance of traditional formal attire into something with more personality. 

Here are some ideas for injecting some pizzazz into your black-tie outfit: 

  • Go with a bold print. Find a dress or dress shirt in a beautiful print that catches the eye. 
  • Accessorize with custom nails. Normally people stick with nude or neutral shades for formal events, but why not break out some acrylics? 
  • Find fabrics with unique textures. A subtler way to customize your ensemble while still staying in the general style is by finding unique fabrics. 

Black Tie Optional

Black tie optional is the best of the more formal styles of dress because it gives you a lot of wiggle room. 

You're not honor-bound to wear a tuxedo! This is the time to break out your beautiful eggplant, tartan, or corduroy suits. Just make sure you're still completing the look with matching accessories. 

And, that hemline can be as long or short (within reason) as you want. This is where you can start showing a bit more skin and flavor in your dress choices. You might as well jump into a jumpsuit while you're at it. 


Women Enjoying Cocktails

Charity luncheons, speaker fundraisers, and sit-down dinners can be formal or semi-formal depending on the type of event. For semi-formal events, there's a milder dress code you should abide by. 

One option is sticking to a dark suit, preferably navy or gray, dress shirt, and tie. A lighter suit is acceptable if the event's happening during the day. Vests are optional, as well as ties. Finish the look with dress socks that match the color of your pants and dress shoes. 

Another option is a short or tea-length dress. Similarly, evening pants or dressy skirt and blouse combinations are still acceptable.

Quick Tip

Since it's not a particularly dressy event, you don't have to break out your pearls just yet. Stick with more subdued jewelry and accessories. 

Deciphering Unspecified Dress Code Clues

It's hard enough to keep all of fashion's dos and don'ts straight in your head, but decoding what the planner means by smart casual, cocktail attire, or festive attire can feel confusing. Navigate vague dress codes with a few general rules of thumb, and you'll be set. 

Cocktail Attire

Married couple strolling through downtown park

If you're expected to wear cocktail attire, think of outfits appropriate for attending a wedding or going out for your anniversary. You should either wear a suit and tie, or an elegant jacket with slacks. Have fun and play with color and texture!

You can also wear dresses in any length except floor-length. And don't forget that pantsuits and blouses + evening skirts are also on the table.

Festive Attire

Three couples at cocktail party

Do a little sleuthing and investigate the venue for some clues. Is it an indoor or outdoor charity event? Will it take place at an art museum, opera house, or other formal environment or a casual venue such as an outdoor arena, golf course, or park? Is it a seasonal event such as a Halloween fundraiser or a Christmas gala? Most invitations that specify festive attire are holiday-related, so you're usually safe if you add a festive tie or scarf to whatever you are wearing.

Some of the outfits you can wear to these coded events are:

  • A sport coat or blazer paired with dress slacks and a collared dress shirt
  • Tea-length dress in a fun print
  • Pantsuit in a bold color

Smart Casual

Colleagues talking while enjoying drinks in party after work

This type of dressed-up casual attire goes by many names: "dressy casual," "business casual," or "country club casual" to name a few. These charity events range from brunch and luncheon fundraisers to less formal evening events. You can opt for dressy skirts, dressy separates, or dresses without a lot of sparkle and bling.

Or you can wear dress slacks, collared shirts, and casual footwear like loafers. And if you prefer the continental look, a navy blue blazer is an iconic touch.

Ask About the Gala Dress Code If You're Uncertain 

Our rule of thumb is if you don't understand something, ask about it! If you're feeling a little embarrassed contacting the planning staff for more information, just think about how much more embarrassed you'll be if you show up on the day in the wrong outfit.

So, ask the staff, and if no one's getting back to you, try to find some people who've attended in the past and see what they wore. 

Feel Glamorous at Your Next Charity Event

An event that comes with a dress code makes everything about the dress code. But remember that charity galas are about fundraising and not if you didn't match your socks to your pocket square. Don't sweat the small stuff; by following a few guidelines and asking questions if you're unsure, you can be confident you'll be dressed appropriately for the event and can focus on having a good time. 

What to Wear to a Charity Gala or Fundraiser Event: Dress Codes Explained