Photo: Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
Formal dinners are one of those super-fancy events that make you look forward to adulthood as a kid. However, when you do get invited to one, picking out what to wear can be overwhelming. The idea of being either underdressed or overdressed is so stressful it might make you want to give up and stay at home watching reality TV. Don't give up! Dressing for a formal dinner has some pretty basic rules to help you fit in with the other people there.
Time of Day
The key in figuring out what to wear to a formal dinner is figuring out what time it begins. Before 6:00 P.M., dress is generally a little more laid-back; after that time is when you really need to jazz things up. Before six, you can wear a sweater and a skirt, a dressy pantsuit or an afternoon dress. While you should look put together and elegant, don't overdo it. After 6 is when you should break out the big guns and make yourself look like a million bucks.
The main goal when picking out a formal dinner dress is not to go overboard. While it's nice to play dress-up and make yourself look like a movie star hitting the red carpet, being overdressed is one of the biggest no-no's in dinner party etiquette, so when in doubt, tone it down. A basic one-color dress always works. As for the dress style, as long as you're not falling out of the dress you should be okay. Strapless, halter-top or long-sleeve -- whatever looks great on you and makes you feel comfortable should be fine.
If you want to stay safe, go with a long dress. This is traditionally the most proper type of dress to wear to a formal dinner, so you can't go wrong with it. In modern times, shorter skirts have slowly become more acceptable for formal dinners. While mini-skirts obviously aren't all right, knee-length skirts have become acceptable. If you're the only one that shows up to the dinner in a knee-length dress, are you going to feel out of place? If so, stick to the long skirt; if not then show off those gams if you like.
Accessories are tricky, because they can make you go from elegant to overdone in a second. While sparkly jewels are fine for a formal dinner, don't layer every free inch of skin in jewelry. Keep it basic, but make the jewelry you do wear eye-catching. A safe combination is always simple stud earrings, a solitaire necklace and a single bracelet. Make sure your jewelry complements your dress -- if your gown's super-glittery, don't wear sparkly jewelry. If you're carrying a purse, it's useful to keep an extra pair of chandelier earrings or a fancy shawl in there -- that way if you do end up playing it too safe and feel underdressed, you can always add those to your outfit for instant glam.