How To Dress Well On The Cheap For A Black Tie Wedding

Did you just receive a black tie wedding invitation and are in a bit of a panic over the dress code? I was in the same boat! This post will show you how to dress well on the cheap for a black tie wedding.

Here's my own story about how I figured out how to dress to the 9s for a black tie wedding. After doing research, it look like we had to spend over $1,000 for the two of us to attend. But it's totally possible to look the part without spending a fortune.

As soon as the economy opens back up again, surely there will be more black tie weddings to attend. There's so much catching up to do post-pandemic!

A Black Tie Wedding Invitation Arrives

Sam and I were thrilled when our friend finally popped the question to his girlfriend of five years and she said yes.

Tidbits on their possible wedding date and plans started to trickle in over the months that followed. Due to the devastating wildfires throughout the Sonoma Valley area, their plans of a wine country wedding were dashed. But lucky for us they picked San Francisco instead.

How To Dress Well On The Cheap For A Black Tie Wedding

Our friends hired a fancy NYC wedding planner pretty quickly. They anticipated having a 200-person guest list and wanted to go big. They could easily afford it, so more power to them.

Many months went by though, the bachelor party came and went (on the early side), and there was still no sign of a save the date card or a wedding invitation. Did the wedding planner drop the ball?

Anyway, two months before the supposed wedding date, the invitation finally arrived.

A Fancy Black Tie Wedding Awaits

Completely customized in the most ornate papers with 3D inks, carefully handpicked historic stamps, and a wax seal on the envelope to boot, the excitement of opening the invitation was well worth the wait.

Impressive quality, especially considering my husband and I used a free evite for our wedding invitations many years ago.

We carefully admired our friends' invitation together when my eyes suddenly fell on the words “Attire: Black Tie.” Gulp. Black Tie?! Uh oh, what does that mean? I nervously exclaimed.

My husband lightheartedly said, Oh I'm sure it's no big deal. We can just wear whatever. I'm just going to wear my old black suit and tie. After all, what else could “black tie” mean?

Knowing how our friends have a taste for the finer things in life and are frequently invited to attend banquets and fancy fundraisers, I raised an eyebrow and said, Mmmm you better check with him first.

What Do You Wear To A Black Tie Wedding?

Sure enough, the more I researched black tie weddings, the clearer it became that our friends meant business with their dress code.

A suit and tie were not gonna cut it for my hubby. He asked, and his friend said no. Black tie attire meant tuxedo for the men! And I was going to need to find a fancy dress to match.

When browsing their wedding website, I noticed that “floor length evening gowns” were specified for ladies.

  • Ladies, whenever in doubt, it's best to go with a floor length dress versus tea length or shorter if the invitation doesn't specify. You can't go wrong with an evening gown. Solid colors work well, especially jewel tones.

Fancy clothes aren't my thing. Neither are fancy shoes or handbags. I get much more excited about comfy leggings and sweatshirts. Disappointed that none of the cocktail dresses I had in my closet would work, I hit the internet to start searching for black tie dresses.

First I checked out Rent The Runway at my hubby's suggestion (I swear he knows more about fashion than me; I'm fashionably clueless). There were some nice dresses, but seeing some rental price tags for $100-$150+, the frugality in me wanted to find a dress for that price that I could keep instead.

Plus, I was very skeptical about finding a floor length black tie dress that would fit me – I'm on the shortest end of petites.

  • If you are average height or tall, however, Rent The Runway is a great option to find a fancy black tie dress. You'll have a ton more options to choose from than petite women and are more likely to find a gown that fits on the first try.

Custom Made Black Tie Dresses

With so many more important things going on in my life, the last thing I wanted was to deal with the stress of renting a dress that didn't fit and getting in a bind of finding something at the last minute.

However, I knew that if I bought a new dress, I'd likely have to get it tailored to my height. So I started searching for affordable custom made dresses online out of curiosity for what I'd find.

To my surprise I found a great website that had all sorts of gorgeous dresses that could be customized in any color and ordered to fit based on my own measurements. I must have spent over five hours browsing around, mesmerized by the endless options.

I got so close to pulling the trigger on a gorgeous tulle dress when my gut instinct told me it all seemed too good to be true. So I decided to search for reviews on this particular website and quickly discovered a ton of bad reviews. Yikes! Not worth the risk, so I scratched that plan.

  • Be very wary of websites that make customized dresses, especially those made overseas. Sure you might get a custom made dress in the mail, but it will highly likely take much longer to arrive than expected, will not be the quality you hoped, probably won't fit quite right even if you gave them your measurements, and worst of all will not be fully or even partially refundable.

Bridesmaid Dresses Can Work Surprisingly Well

Next, I started searching places like Nordstrom's for black tie dresses. Nothing got me excited and I was starting to get frustrated. I didn't want to spend $200, or anywhere close to $1,000+ for a designer name dress I would realistically probably only wear once every 5-10 years.

After wasting even more time on the internet, I started to realize a lot of the dresses that showed up in black tie searches were just plain old, simple bridesmaid dresses.

That got me thinking. I went to my closet and poked around until I found a black bridesmaid dress from a cheap bridal store that I wore to a friend's wedding back in 2012. I had to suck in to get the zipper all the way up, but it held and by golly it was floor length.

Black felt kinda boring to wear to a wedding, but at least it was classic. And the perfect color to match my husband's black tie tuxedo. ;) Best of all, the dress was already tailored and wouldn't cost me anything.

Wearing the dress at my friend's wedding in 2012.

New shoes? Screw that. I still had the fake patent leather black heels I wore with it collecting dust in the back of my closet. Dress – check. Shoes – check. Now I was starting to get excited again. My to-do list was down to a clutch purse and some bling.

I saw a beautiful silver clutch purse at the mall for $50, but just didn't want to spend that much for a purse I wouldn't frequently use. So I turned to Amazon, my godsend for everything I buy that isn't clothes. I found a silver clutch that was big enough to fit my iPhone 7S Plus for less than $12. Score!

Last on my list was some bling. Fake bling of course. But it had to look authentic since I wanted a statement piece, and I knew many of the wedding guests would be wearing the real deal.

I did a quick search online at Charming Charlie and found this gorgeous statement necklace for only $26.

If fake bling isn't your thing, but you don't want to pay luxury brand prices, you can find affordable diamond solitaire necklaces for under $500, bold sterling silver necklaces for under $300 and lots more on sites like Blue Nile.

My Total Cost For A Black Tie Wedding: Only $38!

I was thrilled to be able to spend less than $40 bucks from head to toe. Best of all, I got at least four compliments on my necklace and two on my dress at the wedding!

And when my heels unexpectedly sunk into the muddy grass three times that evening (I wasn't expecting we'd be outside!) I didn't shed any tears over my shoes getting dirty.

  • Hair accessory $0 (received as a gift 15 years ago)
  • Earrings $0 (received as a gift 10 years ago)
  • Statement necklace $26
  • Floor length dress (used bridesmaid dress, $90 back in 2012)
  • Clutch purse $12
  • Black (fake) patent leather heels $0 (paid about $30 back in 2012)

So there you have it. It's totally possible to attend a black tie wedding without spending a fortune and still look like a million bucks. If you got a black tie wedding invitation in the mail, dig around in your closet before shelling out for new things. You might be surprised what you'd find that you can reuse.

For those of you guys out there that were patient enough to read through this, thanks for sticking around! Your best bet for a black tie wedding is to simply rent a tux. It's pretty straight forward. Just give yourself enough time to get fitted and reserve your tux before the wedding date approaches.

Sam spent about $150 for his tuxedo rental including shoes and all of those PITA shiny clip-on buttons. He looked better than James Bond himself!

Wedding party photo booth
Wedding party photo booth

One final thought. If the invitation says “black tie optional,” know that it's really not optional. The bride and groom highly prefers everyone to dress up and will secretly cringe inside if you don't. Best to make them happy if you really care about them!

If you like wedding topics, here are some other fun articles you'll enjoy.

Who Should Pay For The Wedding? A Logical Guide To Lavish Spending

Wedding Spending Rules To Follow If You Don't Want To End Up Broke And Alone

The New Rule For Engagement Ring Buying

Readers, have you ever attended a black tie wedding? Was it your own, a friend's or a relatives? How much did you spend on your outfit? What's the most you're willing to spend to dress up for a fancy shin dig?

14 thoughts on “How To Dress Well On The Cheap For A Black Tie Wedding”

  1. I have got a large family and large group of friends, there always seem to be a wedding or an occasion ( I get wedding invites from work family too) that I need to dress up. So I have 4 nice gowns ( you can buy nice pieces from Nordestrom and Bloomingdales for under 200$ you just have to look, we actually found a really nice dress from ROSS for under 20$). And couple of nice necklaces, statement pieces, and two clutches and 2-3 pair of shoes that goes with every gown. Viola, I have been wearing them for the past 8 years, on average 3 weddings a year. After all said and done I have probably spend less than 50$ on each wedding, engagement or black tie gala. The key is to find timeless and unique pieces and invest a bit of money in them.

    1. That’s awesome! ROSS does have some great dresses for super cheap sometimes. I haven’t been there in ages, but I did buy a couple nice $20 dresses there myself that I used for years.

  2. It wasn’t a wedding, but I recently attended an extremely formal gala. I didn’t realize it was black tie until the timeframe was too short to book a rental (it didn’t help that it was also prom season). I was in a panic the day before the event, and even considered backing out, but in the end the store scrounged up a shockingly good-looking tux for $500. Rather than embarrass myself at the event, I grudgingly decided just to buy it.
    Hopefully I’ll have a chance to use it again someday and amortize the cost!

  3. I’ve got a music performance degree and have owned a few tuxedos in the last 25 years; gotta wear ’em at least once or twice a month for concerts, and it’s fun sometimes to get fancied up and hit a bar downtown (or a dive bar or a diner, for that matter). Props for the peak lapels on the tuxedo — that’s a surefire way to at least look like you know what you’re doing. Nicely done all around!

    Black Tie Guide is a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to know more about the ‘rules’ and how to break them, or recommendations for sourcing at various price points.

  4. Thank You for sharing about how you were able to get really creative to save a great deal of money. Black tie events can definitely be very costly but taking some time to shop around for inexpensive items that look decent can make a huge difference for your pocketbook.

    For men, it probably just makes sense to rent a tuxedo, but for women, we can always wear the same gown again years later to attend other events with different guests. There’s always a way to save money if you put your mind to it. I still have gowns I’ve purchased for $150 about 18 years ago which I’ve worn 3 times. Good thing I can still fit into them…

    1. Thanks Caitlin! Yeah guys are lucky that tuxedo rental shops are so prevalent. There are some nice fancy dress rental services but most are online based which makes it a bit tricky especially for people like me who are not average height. The need for floor length dresses makes it a lot harder to find a good fitting dress that doesn’t need tailoring!

  5. You’re right! Going to a Black Tie not-optional wedding can be very expensive! I went to a friend’s one, and it cost us closer to $600. We also had to give them at least a $250 gift b/c anything less and we felt bad b/c they spent so much on the wedding.

    Rich friends make your expenses go up! :)

  6. Under $40! That’s great. How much was the tux rental?
    One of my friends sent me an invitation and it said “black tie optional.”
    We showed up and everyone was dressed up. What the heck?
    That was way back in 1997. Anyway, I drove 3 hours after work to their wedding reception, but I didn’t dress up. Oh well, now I know black tie optional means dress up…

    1. It was just under $150! I was tempted to buy a really nice one with nicer shoes for $1,000, but then I caught myself. B/c this was the first time I’ve gone to a black tie wedding, and probably the last time. I’m getting old and my friends have all mostly gotten married (or divorced and not going to marry again).

      The shoes I rented felt like shiny dumbo shoes a little though. That’s where I really wanted to spend nicer money. I’m a shoes guy I guess.

      Black tie optional means NOT OPTIONAL. The wedding store person and my friend mentioned the ladies really want everyone to dress formally for the pictures and the “instagram moments.” What do I know. I decided to follow along and not upset my buddy or wife, just incase.

    2. I remember reading about invitations that say “black tie optional” during my research. The way it’s most commonly translated is, men should still wear a suit but a tie is okay instead of a bowtie, and ladies should still wear dresses but there’s some wiggle room on the length of the dress. Floor length is always the safest bet for women though. Everything I read said that if the invitation says “black tie” then guys are expected to be in bow ties with the whole shabang and ladies are expected to be in floor length evening gowns.

      The wedding was large and I did see a few men wearing suits and ties instead of tuxes and they did stick out a bit. As did a few women that wore cocktail dresses instead of floor length. But at the end of the day, everyone still looked dressed up and the couple was as happy as could be to be celebrating with everyone.

      The internet does help a lot in researching these type of things nowadays! Things were a lot different back in 1997. I’m sure your friends were happy you guys were even though you didn’t dress up.

      1. WannabeTrophyHubster

        “Internet does help a lot in researching these type of things nowadays!”

        I recall similar angst among me and my colleagues, both male and female, when “smart-casual business attire” first became a thing for corporate events.

        “What does this mean????”, we all lamented. Unfortunately the intertoobs were not much help, with suggestions ranging (for men) a full suit & tie, down to slacks with a golf or polo and blazer carried in hand (“to at least show you have one”).

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