Formal wear, formal attire or full dress is the traditional Western dress code category applicable for the most formal occasions, such as weddings, christenings, confirmations, funerals, Easter and Christmas traditions, in addition to certain audiences, balls, and horse racing events. Formal attire is traditionally divided into formal day and evening attire; implying morning dress before 6 p.m., and white tie (dress coat) afterwards. Generally permitted other alternatives, though, are the most formal versions of ceremonial dresses (including court dresses, diplomatic uniforms and academic dresses), full dress uniforms, religious clothing, national costumes, and most rarely frock coats. In addition, formal attire may be instructed to be worn with official full size orders and medals.
With background in the 19th century, the protocol indicating particularly men's formal attire have remained virtually unchanged since the early 20th century, despite decline following the counterculture of the 1960s, and remains observed in certain settings influenced by Western culture: notably around Europe, the Americas, and Australia, as well as Japan. For women, although fundamental customs for ball gowns (and wedding gowns) likewise apply, changes in fashion have been more dynamic. Optional conventional headgear for men is the top hat, and for women picture hats etc. of a range of interpretations. Shoes are often dress boots. Short evening gloves may be worn.
"Formal attire" being the most formal dress code, it is followed by semi-formal attire, equivalently based around daytime black lounge suit, and evening black tie (dinner suit/tuxedo), and evening gown for women. The lounge suit and cocktail dress in turn only comes after this level, traditionally associated with informal attire. Notably, if a level of flexibility is indicated (for example "uniform, morning coat or lounge suit", as seen to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018), the hosts tend to wear the most formal interpretation of that dress code in order to save guests the embarrassment of out-dressing.
Since the most formal versions of national costumes are typically permitted as supplementary alternatives to the uniformity of Western formal dress codes, conversely, since most cultures have at least intuitively applied some equivalent level of formality, the versatile framework of Western formal dress codes open to amalgation of international and local customs have influenced its competitiveness as international standard. From these social conventions derive in turn also the variants worn on related occasions of varying solemnity, such as formal political, diplomatic, and academic events, in addition to certain parties including award ceremonies, balls, fraternal orders, high school proms, etc.
The dress codes counted as formal wear are the formal dress codes of morning dress for daytime and white tie for evenings. Although some consider strollers for daytime and black tie for the evening as formal, they are traditionally considered semi-formal attires, sartorially speaking below in formality level.
The clothes dictated by these dress codes for women are ball gowns. For many uniforms, the official clothing is unisex. Examples of this are court dress, academic dress, and military full dress uniform.
The required clothing for men, in the evening, is roughly the following:
- Formal trousers, uncuffed, with stripes on leg seams
- White piqué front or plain stiff-fronted shirt with a detachable wing collar, cuff links and shirt studs
- White piqué bow tie
- White piqué vest (waistcoat)
- A (dress) tailcoat
- Black patent leather court shoes
Women wear a variety of dresses. See ball gowns, evening gowns, and wedding dresses. Business attire for women has a developmental history of its own and generally looks different from formal dress for social occasions.
Many invitations to white tie events, like the last published edition of the British Lord Chamberlain's Guide to Dress at Court, explictely state that national costume or national dress may be substituted for white tie.
In general, each of the supplementary alternatives apply equally for both day attire, and evening attire.
Prior to World War II formal style of military dress, often referred to as full dress uniform, was generally restricted to the British, British Empire and United States armed forces; although the French, Imperial German, Swedish and other navies had adopted their own versions of mess dress during the late nineteenth century, influenced by the Royal Navy.
In the U.S. Army, evening mess uniform, in either blue or white, is considered the appropriate military uniform for white-tie occasions. The blue mess and white mess uniforms are black tie equivalents, although the Army Service Uniform with bow tie are accepted, especially for non-commissioned officers and newly commissioned officers. For white tie occasions, of which there are almost none in the United States outside the national capital region for U.S. Army, an officer must wear a wing-collar shirt with white tie and white vest. For black tie occasions, officers must wear a turndown collar with black tie and black cummerbund. The only outer coat prescribed for both black- and white-tie events is the army blue cape with branch color lining.
Certain clergy wear, in place of white tie outfits, a cassock with ferraiolone, which is a light-weight ankle-length cape intended to be worn indoors. The colour and fabric of the ferraiolone is determined by the rank of the cleric and can be scarlet watered silk, purple silk, black silk or black wool. For outerwear the black cape (cappa nigra), also known as a choir cape (cappa choralis), is most traditional. It is a long black woollen cloak fastened with a clasp at the neck and often has a hood. Cardinals and bishops may also wear a black plush hat or, less formally, a biretta. In practice, the cassock and especially the ferraiolone have become much less common and no particular formal attire has appeared to replace them. The most formal alternative is a clerical waistcoat incorporating a Roman collar (a rabat) worn with a collarless French cuff shirt and a black suit, although this is closer to black tie than white tie.
Historically, clerics in the Church of England would wear a knee-length cassock called an apron, accompanied by a tailcoat with silk facings but no lapels, for a white tie occasion. In modern times this is rarely seen. However, if worn, the knee-length cassock is now replaced with normal dress trousers.
In Western formal state ceremonies and social functions, diplomats, foreign dignitaries, and guests of honour wear Western formal dress if not wearing their own national dress.
Many cultures have formal evening and day dress, for example:
- Av Pak — both traditional and modern embroidered blouse worn by women in Cambodia at Special occasion, traditional festival and Formal show.
- Barong Tagalog — worn by men in the Philippines.
- Bisht — worn by men with thawb and shmagh or ghutrah and agal in formal and religious occasions, e.g. Eid, in some Eastern Arab countries like (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and others).
- Batik shirt — worn by men and women in Indonesia.
- Bunad — worn as formal dress by women and men in Norway.
- Changshan — a long male version of the qipao, which originated during the Qing Dynasty. It can be of cotton for ordinary wear, or of silk for those within aristocratic families. Beneath the changshan, the male generally wears white mandarin-collar long-sleeve shirt and a pair of dark colored long pants. Like the qipao, this changshan male gown has slits on both sides (at least knee level) as well. Worn nowadays either by Chinese men in the martial arts world, or as attire for weddings to match the qipao the bride wears. The qipao and changshan originated as Manchu dresses which government officials, but not ordinary civilians, were required to wear under the Qing Dynasty's laws. Gradually, the general non-official Han Chinese civilian population not voluntarily shifted from wearing traditional Chinese hanfu clothing to the qipao and changshan.
- Cheongsam — a modern female variation of the Qing Dynasty silk dress, characterized by a high mandarin collar, and side open slits of varying lengths. It can be sleeveless, short, elbow or long sleeve, and has been adopted by most Chinese women as a Chinese wear, depending on materials and occasions.
- Daura-Suruwal — worn as formal dress by men in Nepal.
- Dashiki — worn by men in West African countries.
- Dhoti — worn by men in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Tamil men in Sri Lanka.
- Folkdräkt — worn as formal dress by women and men in Sweden.
- Hátíðarbúningur — worn by men in Iceland to formal events such as state dinners and weddings.
- Highland dress with Scottish kilt — worn as formal dress by men in Scotland or of Scottish descent
- Kebaya — worn by women in Malaysia and Indonesia.
- Mao suit, worn as diplomatic uniform and evening dress by officials of the People's Republic of China
- Sari — worn by women in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
- Shalwar kameez — worn by both men and women in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
- Sherwani worn by men in India and Pakistan
Although ceased as a protocol-regulated required formal attire at the British royal court in 1936 at the order of the short-reigning King Edward VIII, the frock coat - embodying the background for all contemporary civil formal wear - has not altogether vanished. Yet, it is a rarity mostly confined to infrequent appearances at certain weddings.