Formal Wedding Style Ideas

You've always dreamed of a flawless, formal affair -- here are how-tos for a wedding with black-tie style.
Lauren Kay the knot wedding expert
Lauren Kay
Lauren Kay the knot wedding expert
Lauren Kay
Executive Editor, The Knot + The Bump
  • Lauren manages, writes and contributes to the strategy of The Knot’s print editorial content.
  • Lauren oversees The Bump’s editorial strategy and execution.
  • Lauren has a degree in magazine journalism and lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

A formal wedding calls for grand gestures, good taste, and glamour. If you've always dreamed of this kind of wedding, we've got ideas and tips for creating the ultimate class act. One word of advice: Don't fret if you're working with a champagne taste on a small budget. Focus on important aspects like the site, the entertainment, and what you're wearing, and let the rest fall formally into place.

The Inspiration

First, get in the mood. Start by dressing up and going out one night for drinks, just the two of you. Order real cocktails, like martinis, gimlets, or cosmopolitans (no beer!). Next, try some visual inspiration. Flip through Mom and Dad's wedding album for some of that retro vibe (check out their clothes, their hair, the car they drove away in). Have a movie marathon one Saturday afternoon to study the style of the masters: the smooth moves and savoir faire of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, the polished white tie and witty banter of Myra Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man series, and the immortal Cary Grant in just about anything (see him exchange bon mots with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story). You can also prep for your swelligant event with some fancy footwork of your own-that's right, ballroom dance classes. Grab your partner and learn how to foxtrot, waltz, maybe even swing. Then it's time to start planning.

The Announcement

The most classic invitation is engraved, written in black ink on white, ecru, or ivory paper. It's more formal and traditional to not include a reply card, but since many of today's wedding guests aren't aware that they're supposed to sit down and write a formal acceptance note, you'll probably be better off using them. Have a calligrapher hand-address all the invitations. A rule of thumb to keep in mind: The later in the day the wedding is, and the more people attending, the more formal a celebration it is. In other words, white tie for 500 people really should only happen at night, so if that's what you have in mind, plan the timing accordingly. You can indicate "White Tie," "Black Tie," or "Black Tie Optional" on your invitation to make it clear to your guests that now's the time to dust off (or rent) some formalwear.

The Setting

Your venue will set the scene: Go for glamour and drama. When it comes to decor, candlelight is key; if your reception location has high ceilings, you may want to use tall candelabra with long tapers to illuminate the room without making it impossible to see others across the table. Fancy bamboo-look reception chairs are naturals for a formal affair. If you use folding chairs, choose subtle white or black ones instead of the thick, heavy metal kind. If you can swing it, choose seat cushions or tablecloth overlays in rich fabrics. For flowers, you can't miss with roses, red or white. Or, consider potted trees with tiny lights strung in their branches.

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The Look

So, what will you wear? When it comes to gown elegance, less is more. Opt for the simple, clean design of an A-line. However, one acceptable area of apparel excess is the train. Remember that the more formal you go gown-wise, the longer it can become. You might choose a "chapel" length train, flowing 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet from your waist, or a "cathedral" length, which extends 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 feet. (For a formal daytime wedding, a shorter train is also appropriate.) Naturally you'll want to bustle up a long train during the reception. Alternatively, a ball gown with a full tulle, silk, or satin skirt is a perfect formal look sans train.

A long tulle veil (in a length that complements your train) with a "blusher" (the part over the bride's face as she advances down the aisle) adds to the drama. Also keep in mind that veils can be designed for removal at the reception. If you don't care to wear a veil at all, an up-do is your best bet, especially when worn with a tiara, a beaded comb, silk flowers, or a wreath of fresh flowers. For the finishing touch, try wearing elbow-length gloves if you have a sleeveless gown, or carry a silk, tulle, or velvet wrap (depending on the season).

The Formalwear

For an evening wedding, the groom may wear a tuxedo (black-tie) or tails (white-tie). Another option is the white tuxedo jacket (very James Bond). During the day, traditional formalwear is a morning coat: a gray or charcoal tailcoat worn with a vest or waistcoat and ascot instead of a bow tie and cummerbund. Technically, tuxedos should not be worn before 6 p.m., but that "rule" no longer holds. If the reception begins around or after 6, it's okay to wear a tux to a ceremony that starts in the afternoon. If the groom has several black-tie events in his future (and what gentleman doesn't?), he may want to consider purchasing his own tuxedo; alternatively, renting is fine as well.

The Fare

At the cocktail party of a formal event, the operative word is "cocktail". Have your bartender serve a classic martini, or maybe an updated version preferred by the two of you. A seated multi-course meal (appetizer, salad, sorbet/fish course, entree, cake/dessert, coffee) is the most formal option. If you want to have people mingle a little, a dessert buffet can loosen things up. Elegant china is a must. If you want to go all out, serve caviar and oysters, and have different fine wines and/or champagnes for every course. You may even want to have a cheese course with cordials. If you're not into a full dinner, don't rule out a simple cocktail reception, with drinks, passed hors d'oeuvres, and maybe a jazz combo or string trio as entertainment.

The Music

The ultimate formal entertainment: a danceable and entire-crowd-pleasing standards band. A string orchestra provides superb background music, while inspiring a bit of ballroom dancing. Nothing's more elegant than a dance floor packed with floating, graceful couples. Think Sinatra ("I've Got the World on a String"), Cole Porter ("Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love"), the Big Band orchestra sound of Benny Goodman or Count Basie, even the tunes of crooners like Tony Bennet and Harry Connick Jr. Test drive a few favorite songs with some new CDs a few months beforehand, and practice the new dance moves you've learned in private before you make the grand entrance for your first dance.

The Gratitude

Your sophisticated style should touch everything; right down to the gifts you give your guests and the bridal party. For your groomsmen and bridesmaids, something to wear with their wedding attire always scores big points. Consider monogrammed silver cufflinks or cigar holders for the men, and pearl earrings or a lovely engraved necklace for the ladies. Guests will appreciate being spoiled with stylish favors such as silver dragees, high-style cigars, a split of champagne, or delectable chocolate truffles.

The Lasting Impression

Once your glamorous night comes to a close, you'll want to make your getaway in a memorable mobile. As guests bid you adieu and marvel at your amazing good taste, picture yourself climbing into the backseat of a classic car such as a Rolls Royce or a Bentley waving graciously to the crowd gathered behind.

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