Ask the Image Expert

Sherry Maysonave is the founder and president of Empowerment Enterprises, one of America's leading communication-image firms. Sherry conducts corporate seminars and coaches executives, professionals, and politicians in achieving excellence in communication and image. She is also the author of Casual Power: How to Power Up your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success

Holiday Dinner Dance

Question: Sherry,
I'm a female, and an organization from my job is having a holiday dinner dance. The ticket says, "Business formal attire preferred." What is considered business formal attire?

Answer: “Business formal” is much easier to define for men that it is for women. For men, it simply means a dark business suit, dress shirt worn with a silk tie, and dress shoes. It can include a French cuff shirt worn with cuff links as well.

For women, business formal features a skirted suit worn with hosiery and pumps (closed toe, closed heel shoes). As you know, fashion offers women many choices when it comes to suit kinds of looks. It’s puzzling that the invitation asks for this category of attire when the event includes a dinner dance. Holiday dance invitations usually suggest semi-formal attire, which for women is dressy but not as tailored as business formal apparel. Because business formal and semi-formal is the same for men, I can only surmise that the hosts do not want women to wear ultra sexy, slinky, skin-baring outfits. This would not be wise anyway, as this is a work-related event.

Because it is a holiday dinner dance, I advise you to dress in a businesslike version of semi-formal fashions. Whichever outfit you choose to wear, stay within these guidelines for business formal attire:

  • Wear long sleeves
  • Wear no garments that are too short, too tight, or so low-cut that cleavage shows
  • Avoid strappy holiday sandals that ask to be worn without hosiery
  • Wear dressy pumps with appropriate hosiery (legwear with a slight sparkle is appropriate for an evening dinner dance).

Within those parameters, you can wear a more festive look than what we normally think of as daytime business formal for women. A dressy dinner suit (long or short skirt) or an outfit that includes a velvet or satin jacket would be appropriate. For a simpler look, you could wear a black business suit (made of fine wool or a blend, not cotton) and dress it up by wearing a lace or sparkly top as the layering piece underneath the jacket (a festive top that is not see-through or low-cut).

For other specific semi-formal outfit ideas, peruse some of the other Questions and Answers that I have recently written on what semi-formal attire entails for women. Just be sure to follow the guidelines above to comply with what the hosts have requested.

Best of luck to you,
Sherry Maysonave

Also see:

  • What is festive attire?
  • Should I buy new post-pregnancy clothes?
  • Ask your image questions
  • Personal Power: A case study from 'Casual Power'