Cruise Formal Night

Bringing Glamour Back:

A chance to embrace elegance and all things refined.

For many first time cruisers one of the most exciting moments is stepping onto the ship and realizing you have entered a whole new world.  The ship staff is ready to greet you in finely pressed white uniforms and upon entering the grand lobby you will be delighted to see luxuriously appointed walkways with gorgeous carpeting, brass railings, sculptures, and paintings.  With high ceilings, broad stairways and expansive corridors cruise ships elevate the standards of vacationing in style and sweep its guests away on a magical adventure.

Cruise ships provide many opportunities for travelers to enter the seemingly bygone era of service and luxury.  Dining in grand style is a nightly affair and reminiscent of the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – guests are encouraged to dress in more formal attire.  Grand dining rooms with expansive elegant chandeliers, live music, white tablecloths, and formal wait staff make guests feel more at home in evening wear than a t-shirt and jeans.

This break from the everyday allows cruise ship guests to escape the ordinary and thoroughly enjoy themselves.  For people that are not accustomed to dressing up it can also create some concern over what to wear.  With that in mind we have created a list of suggestions to help you enjoy shopping for the formal part of your cruise.

Let’s start with definitions.  On your itinerary it will tell you the expected attire for each evening. Cruises seven days or longer will typically have two “formal” evenings with the others being “smart casual”.   While the cruise lines will list what they consider these terms to mean – let me give you an insider’s perspective.

Formal: Men should wear a tuxedo or a dark colored suit and tie.  Depending on the cruise you are likely to see 25% of men wearing a tuxedo while the rest wear a suit.  If you choose the latter do not pick an everyday suit that you wear to the office.  Try and choose something with nicer material and your finest tie.  The Ladies will be beautifully dressed and men that simply throw on a jacket are likely to feel underdressed.                     

Women should wear a dress.  Although cruise lines may say specifically a “cocktail” dress – at least half of the women in dresses will wear a full evening gown.  You will see all styles of gowns from a full skirt, to slim and form fitting, sequins, lace, and tulle.  The dresses will be as unique as the women wearing them.  Some women will wear a shorter, cocktail dress as well.  Older women that choose not to wear a dress will typically wear a long black skirt or pants with an embellished jacket.  On these evenings women will typically have their hair done at the salon or spend additional time preparing in their suite.

Photographers are stationed at the entrance to the dining room or lobby on most formal nights so this is the perfect opportunity to have a picture taken of you with friends, family or loved one.

Smart Casual: This is a terribly confusing term.  Since most people do not use the words “Smart Casual” let me enlighten you.

Men should wear a suit or slacks with a jacket and tie.  This is an opportunity to wear a lighter colored, lightweight suit.  Dress shoes should still be worn.  This is not the time to wear casual shoes.  These are good evenings for men to wear unusual or brighter colors if in the mood.

Women should wear a cocktail dress or pant suit.  The difference between a cocktail dress on a “Smart Casual” and “Formal” evening is mostly color.  These evenings are a good time to experiment with brighter or seasonal colors, unique and fun cuts, and shorter lengths.  Women will still be more dressed up than a typical dinner out at home but there is a lighter atmosphere on Smart Casual nights.

Here’s a few shopping tips to get ready for your dinner cruise style:

  1. Check your itinerary:  Make a list of how many formal, smart casual and casual nights you have at sea.  Count the number of outfits you need to pack for each category.  You don’t want to wear the same thing twice if it can be avoided.
  2. Shop for formal wear first.  This can be the most difficult thing to find since many stores will only carry gowns in the spring.  If you are planning a cruise for later in the year – shop in the spring anyway.  Most department stores will have long gowns and cocktail dresses out for prom and summer weddings, giving a larger variety.  Another time of year to look is around Christmas as holiday gowns are out but may be heavier than you want for the cruise.  If your local department store is not carrying any formal gowns visit a specialty store like Camille La Vie which carries evening wear all year long.  Wedding shops like David’s Bridal carry evening gowns that are typically used as bridesmaid’s dresses.  The challenge is they do not carry a large stock of sizes so most things have to be ordered.  Allow yourself plenty of time to order and receive the right size.  Those interested in wearing the latest fashion once then buying new  for the next cruise should consider renting a designer gown from a site like Rent the Runway.  For cocktail dresses stores like White House Black Market have a reasonable selection at an affordable price.   Regardless of where you shop allow time for alterations.

Fortunately for men department stores carry suits and tuxedos all year long.  Whether Nordstrom’s, The Men’s Warehouse or Macy’s men should shop a few weeks early to ensure there is time for alterations.  A man looks his best in a suit that fits him perfectly.  I suggest also purchasing a shirt and tie to match their date’s evening gown for added effect.

  1. Shoes. No evening attire is complete without the perfect shoes to accompany it.  For a large selection of elegantly appointed shoes try your local department store first.  It is always easier to pick shoes when you have the dress with you.  Do not alter your dress until you have chosen shoes.  This cannot be stressed enough.  If you alter your dress prematurely it may be too long or too short, ruining your outfit.  There is nothing worse than dragging an elegant white gown across the floor because your shoes were too short (trust me I ruined a dress this way).  If your local store does not have the shoes you need try an online retailer like and Jovani.
  2. Dress on a Budget.  If you are on a limited budget the idea of formal evening gowns and cocktail dresses may seem overwhelming.  Before you decide to cancel the trip try one of the many discount stores that carry evening wear and suits at a reduced price like Nordstrom’s Rack and Burlington Coat Factory.  For women with a daring fashion sense try Forever 21 or H&M.  I have bought cocktail dresses from both stores for under $40 that look absolutely fabulous.  Men can get a tuxedo for as little as $89 on eTuxedo so even the guys have no reason not to dress up.
  3. Accessories.   To complete your outfit purchase a piece of jewelry that makes it pop.  Even stores like Target are carrying fun purses and accessories now.  For a selection that constantly changes try Forever 21.  Even if you don’t like their clothing they have new ring, earrings and bracelets every week so the variety is fantastic.  The quality is not – so don’t plan on wearing it after the cruise.  If you have it in the budget to shop at a jewelry store this is a good time to add a piece to your collection that you can wear for years to come.

Men should consider experimenting with a pocket square in a fun or vibrant pattern.  Bow ties are also making a comeback and add pop to an otherwise basic ensemble.

  1. Undergarments. If you have ever watched an awards show and seen elegant stars walking down the runway you have probably seen a woman wearing Spanx.  They come in a variety of styles and will hold in everything you want to hide.  For a smooth looking dress Spanx are the way to go.
  2. Hair. Going on a cruise is the perfect time to have fun with your outfits including your hair.  Pick out a matching hair clip, flower or brooch for some added whimsy to any outfit.

In a day and age where jean, t-shirts and sweaters are normal attire enjoy your opportunity to dress glamorously on your cruise.   With elegant dining rooms and a wait staff to cater to your every need – you are likely to feel like a modern day fairy tale couple, enjoying the vacation of your dreams.

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