What to Wear to a Formal Event: Formal Dresses for Women Over 40

Receiving an invitation to a formal black-tie event can make you feel as excited as Cinderella…. until you have to figure out what to wear. If you’re in a panic over the black-tie dress code because you’re not sure what that means, relax!  Here’s how to interpret black-tie for women, with suggestions for gala gowns that will make you look like royalty!

Ball Gown Black - Elegant dresses for women over 40


What is Black Tie?

Black tie formal refers to a social function that takes place after 6 p.m. You may be requested to dress in a black tie for an evening wedding reception, a gala charity event, a formal business party, an awards ceremony, etc. Men are expected to wear tuxedos, and women customarily wear long formal gowns, although these days, some cocktail dresses are permitted ( see details below).

How do I know if  I’ve got it right?

The easiest way to grasp what to wear is to think of the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards. If you can imagine your dress at the Oscars, then it should fit right in at a black-tie charity gala. There are many formal dresses for women over 40 out there, so don’t panic!

Ball Gown Red : Elegant dresses for women over 40

Some key things to keep in mind when creating your look


1. Be Glamorous

Any function with a black-tie dress code means you are expected to go all out.  This is as formal as you are likely to get, so dress fancy. Go ahead and wear some sparkle and shine, a bit of sheer or some embellishment, but don’t overdo it to the point of being tacky. This is the time for classic elegance.

2. Comfort is Still key

There’s no sense looking like a queen if you can’t even sit down.  Avoid dresses that are too tight, revealing, or scratchy. Make sure you can walk in your shoes long before you step out the door.

3. Styles Vary 

Formal dresses for ladies over 40 can mean a few things. A long gown is considered a black tie, but a beautiful cocktail dress is acceptable too. Just be sure it is no shorter than just a touch above the knee, to keep it on the formal side. Chic separates like a silk blouse and a full satin skirt are also acceptable. You see many stars like Sharon Stone often sporting this type of black-tie wear at charity galas.

4. Give Some Thought to Color

At one-time black tie meant a black dress, but now the color is acceptable. The trick is to match the color of the dress to the mood of the evening, with an eye to who will be attending. For example, black and dark colors may be more suited to a gala that has to do with finance, politics, or law. In contrast, bright colors would be appropriate for the Annual Brazilian Ball or a children’s hospital gala.

The time of year comes into play as well.  In winter, jewel tones look fabulous, while in summer fuchsia, orange, and bright red gowns can be stunning at the right gala. One idea is to google photos of past celebrations or similar galas to see what women wore.

Ball Gown Floral Skirt - formal dresses for women over 40


5. Bring out the Bling

This is definitely an occasion to wear your most elegant jewelry. Gold and silver bracelets, diamond rings, gemstone drop earrings, glam necklaces- Think Dynasty, darling! What not to wear- a watch (too practical even if it’s dressy) or cheap-looking costume jewelry.

6. Evening Shoes Required

Black evening shoes anchor a black dress, but metallics like gold or silver are glam too and complement other colors. Choose comfy shoes that you would never wear by day.  In other words, nothing clunky like a platform shoe. This is a fine event, and you need elegant-looking evening shoes.

Your best bet is something dressy and feminine and glam. Go ahead and buy the ones with the bling, or the ones with a bit of sparkle or shine. Make sure your shoes are worked in, so you don’t get blisters or slip on a slick wood floor.

7. Carry a Cocktail Purse

A clutch is your very best choice, and sometimes a small sculptured bag with a thin gold chain can work well too. Structured and elegant is the key.

8. Go Glam with Hair and Makeup

A special evening calls for special makeup and hair. Try some false eyelashes if you want or create a smokey eye. Maybe even book an appointment with a makeup artist at your local department store.

I’d also suggest you treat yourself to visiting the hairdresser. You may be tempted to save money and do your hair yourself, but I guarantee you will not regret this little bit of pampering. When you work hard to get the dress, shoes, and bag just right, you don’t want to go halfway with average hair or makeup. Galas are magical. Make them count, and enjoy feeling like a princess, for once!

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5 thoughts on “What to Wear to a Formal Event: Formal Dresses for Women Over 40

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you included what to remember when creating your elegant look. I especially agree with the point that comfort is the key!

  2. We attend a formal gala each February. For 2013 I was thinking of a black evening suit worn as a tuxedo. Would that be appropriate? Or should I stick with a formal gown? I have worn gowns twice and a cocktail dress once; I felt underdressed in the cocktail dress even though others were wearing them; advice? I have the shoes down, the bag down, and jewelry; it is always the dress that stumps me! I am a size 16 with a thick midsection, great legs, bust, arms, and shoulders!!!

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