black tie wedding. let's get real specific.
March 7, 2016 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be a guest at a black tie wedding in San Francisco this summer. Please evaluate these dresses and tell me if I am in the ballpark.

The couple are in their early 40s, very fashionable, very image conscious. I have underestimated the fashion element of their events and been sadly, conspicuously underdressed at their parties before now.

I get what black tie is, but the problem is that my body is really hard to dress in fashionable dresses. I have big boobs that need serious bra scaffolding, conspicuously thick upper arms, back fat and thigh cellulite. Most of the women at this event will be wearing strapless or tank dresses. I can't do either of those. It has to be 3/4 sleeves, knee length skirt, at least. And in the past when I've shown up at their events in this kind of thing, I've looked like someone's mom come to pick them up.

So a few questions. First, does black tie for women on the west coast have to be full length? And if not, tell me what you think of this? What about this one which is similar to one I already have in an indigo color?

Bonus: my thighs are already sweating just looking at these... Ugh. Does anyone have any great ideas for where or what I should look for that would have a lighter, flowier skirt? Do you think if I just wait for late spring, will the after-prom sales do me any good, or did that ship sail for me 20 years ago? What about southern department stores, would they have online options that the west coast stores might not?

If it matters I'm a size 12/14 and 40 years old.
posted by fingersandtoes to Shopping (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I just shopped for a dress for a black tie wedding (so full length) at a Dillards and they had a lot of options. Some had a bit of sleeve if you're worried about that. I'm pregnant so I was looking at dresses in size 12/14 because I'm usually around an 8 and I refuse to spend millions on a maternity dress since they are waaay more expensive than a regular dress. Anyway, yeah, any Dillards or Macy's are going to have a bunch of dresses you can try on and reasonable prices. And sales ladies to help you choose.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:38 PM on March 7, 2016

The first one looks a bit close to a bride's dress and the second's fashion appeal is totally dependent on the quality of the fabric, could be fine or bad. How about checking out Nordstrom? They have a ton of beautiful dresses fit for wedding guests and free shipping and returns - great if you aren't near a store. I hate showing my arms and the Adrianna Papell dresses have some nice styles that cover arms and smooth the other bits well.
posted by cecic at 9:41 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To me "black tie" does mean full length. The dresses you linked, while pretty, look more like "regular formal/semiformal church wedding" than black tie.

I would recommend checking Nordstrom Rack, if there is one in your area; in my experience they usually have a great selection of fancy dresses at reasonable prices.
posted by celtalitha at 9:49 PM on March 7, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I think your best bet to find something that addresses your concerns and is fancy enough for a black tie wedding is to look for mother of the bride full-length gowns. You can go to a department store and shop in person, or google "mother of the bride black tie," and shop online. There are some really awful mother of the bride options out there, but also some genuinely lovely, totally black tie appropriate gowns. (And if your friends really mean black tie, and you're worried about being underdressed, you should wear a full-length gown.)

Prom dresses will be both skimpier than you want and will look cheap next to the other guests.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:50 PM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Some examples just browsing Macy's website:

link 1

link 2

link 3
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:50 PM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's worth remembering that anyone in a sleeveless/strapless dress in SF in the summer is likely to be covered in goosebumps: it's probably pretty cold & foggy. Assuming the wedding is in San Francisco proper, and not Napa or something.

That said, something with short sleeves or a long-sleeved jacket/shrug would not be out of place even at a fancy wedding in the Bay Area, because the weather is so changeable.
posted by suelac at 9:58 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The wedding is inside. Weather is not relevant.

What do you guys think about this?
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:03 PM on March 7, 2016

The first and third dresses that you linked are very pretty; however, if you were to wear them you would violate THE number one wedding attire rule: if you are not the bride, you should not wear anything close to a white dress.
posted by bergamot and vetiver at 10:04 PM on March 7, 2016 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: really, does that rule extend to pale pink and champagne and silver and everything in the extended off white family? gaaaahhh I already ruled out a bunch of plain black ones :(
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:10 PM on March 7, 2016

I agree that even in SF, black tie means a full length skirt.

How about renting the dress from Rent the Runway? They have some beautiful designer dresses in the price range you are looking at.

Also, i think if you throw on a wrap or silk/cashmere cropped cardigan and you could try sleeveless dresses which would open up additional options.
posted by kogester at 10:15 PM on March 7, 2016 [15 favorites]

This is what Rent The Runway is for. And don't discount sleevelsss dresses that come with a scarf, that might work. Shrugs are not really black tie unless they're part of the dress though.

btw, I don't know where this is being held or who your friends are but there is a very formal contingent in SF. Black tie means pretty formal black tie there usually, especially if the wedding is being held at the Presidio or something.
posted by fshgrl at 10:16 PM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

IMO, pink should be fine but wedding dresses come in all forms of off whites, champagne, beige, (mine was oyster) silver, so I would think pastels (pink, light blue, mauve) should be fine but I wouldn't touch champagne or anything off white at all. Very few brides wear stark white dresses as it can wash a lot of people out, most err to some kind of tinted white. This should still leave you with a lot of choice. Do jewel tones suit you at all? They can be stunning and very black tie appropriate...
posted by Jubey at 10:16 PM on March 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: FWIW I see tons of people at weddings in black formal dresses these days. It seems to have become less improper, while the "don't wear anything white-ish and especially not white-ish and lacy" rule is still pretty universal.
posted by celtalitha at 10:17 PM on March 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: really, does that rule extend to pale pink and champagne and silver and everything in the extended off white family?

Yeah, sadly it does (or more precisely: many people think it does, so if you're concerned about being appropriate, you might want to err on the side of caution).

I feel your pain--I much prefer black or whitish dresses to any others, so weddings are very hard for me to dress for. I find comfort in the fact that the no-wearing-black rule is much more flexible than the no-wearing-white rule, especially within fashionable circles. (Here is one source for this claim.)

On preview: yeah, what celtalitha said.
posted by bergamot and vetiver at 10:19 PM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with cecic - the first and third options are a bit too close to wedding-dress colored (although my MIL wore a white dress to our wedding and no-one mistook her for the bride...). The second looks good but lace can look tacky if it's not done right so please try it on in store rather than buying online!

Don't discount sleeveless dresses - worn with a jacket or bolero cardigan that covers your upper arms but still fits the "black tie" brief, it gives you more options. (Shawls / pashminas work too - unless you're like me and after one too many glasses of bubbly, you throw off the pashmina and get on the dance floor, bingo wings and all - luckily the photographer had left by that point)

A simple dress with a colorful necklace or a fascinator / headpiece could work equally well. If you add color with a jacket / cardigan / shawl and jewelry, you can get away with a black dress (in my opinion - but then I'm not an SF fashionista).

But you know what? They might be "fashion forward and image conscious". But they love you enough to have invited you to their wedding. So wear something that makes you feel comfortable and makes you feel like "you". It's a happy occasion - turn up wearing something that makes you feel happy!

Enjoy the day!

P.S. I'm from the UK, where white tie means full length, cocktail is knee length, and black tie is either as long as it's dressy. US / SF may be different.
posted by finding.perdita at 10:20 PM on March 7, 2016

One Adrianna Papell, and another - this brand makes a lot of long and 3/4 sleeve, full-length formal dresses, they'd be the first place I would look.

Alex Evenings, lavender
Pisarro Nights, plum and other colors
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:23 PM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

The dresses you've linked are cocktail, not black tie. Strapless is very challenging and I would be very surprised to see many women wearing it. On the other hand, dont knock out sleeveless. That's what wraps are for.

Are you okay with used? This Vera Wang is simple and elegant. The color of this Monique Lhuillier is stunning. This Adrianna Papell is very wearable.
posted by 26.2 at 10:30 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I do love the Pisarro Nights ones. I was hoping to get away without spending $200 on a dress but if I love it, it's not the end of the world. What about this? Is the naked effect slightly obscene, or just sexy?

And it seems to need clarification so I hope the mods won't count this as argument - I can't wear any additional layers of any sort. No wraps, no boleros. It has been tried. It has never ever worked. I disrobe within seconds. Dress has to have real sleeves.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:32 PM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're worried that the naked effect might be slightly obscene in person why not get it in plum?
posted by town of cats at 10:52 PM on March 7, 2016

Best answer: Hi I also have big hydraulic-scaffolding boob needs and a desire to cover my arms and also get sweaty easily etc etc, and I have been to a black tie wedding in the SF area. You want a full length gown, sorry.

But also I think you might be pleasantly surprised at how comfy a full length skirt can be, even in annoying formal fabrics. Especially if you get a light cotton slip to go under, and a fuller skirt, you can get away with no stockings and less undergarments than you might otherwise, and there's lots of air flow under the skirt.

The search term you want is probably "modest formal gown". It won't get you the most cutting edge fashion, but it will get you the coverage you want and the length.

Unique Vintage might be a site for you to peruse. I like this navy one.

There's also eShakti's maxi dress offerings, many of which can have sleeve lengths adjusted (and the custom sizing really does work). As-is most of them aren't really black tie formal because they are more casual fabrics, but if you added a big statement necklace and a silk belt and fancy hair they'll inch up in formality, and frankly if you are really not living the formal beaded gown kind of lifestyle I think you would do well to just fit the silhouette more than the fabric type. You'll look nice in pictures!
posted by Mizu at 10:56 PM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think the second Pissaro Night one you linked to yourself is great, but to me the eShakti ones are obviously not formal, sorry. Just one person's perspective, but they look less formal than anything you've linked to so far, to my eye.
posted by jojobobo at 12:04 AM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I do agree that the eShakti dresses are not formal and will require a lot of extras to nudge them up into acceptable but still kinda out of place territory, but personally I'd rather have a dress that fits that I'm more likely to wear more than once in my life than not stick out a little at a wedding.

Anyway, there might be some better options for you from Kiyonna. You are right on the edge of their sizing but good news, it is much easier to get something too large tailored to fit than too small. I think the Screen Siren Lace Gown would be incredibly flattering on many body shapes and it looks like it will be appropriate for most seasons so you can wear it for different things.
posted by Mizu at 1:12 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

What about this?
posted by DarlingBri at 1:59 AM on March 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is a sideways suggestion, but are you from an ethnic background that has their own formal wear, such as a sari (if you're South Asian)? Don't appropriate, it'll just come off as costumey and uncouth, but if there is actually something in your ethnic background that involves formalwear that could be another alternative - I've had family members do it.
posted by divabat at 2:26 AM on March 8, 2016

echoing what everyone said about Nordstrom - very good bet to find something. I always find it easier to try these things on in person anyways; online shopping seems so convinenet but when it comes to boob scaffolding, trust me, I know, it's great knowing for sure you found a dress that fits and works with your undergarments, instead of waiting on a package (and potential disappointment) to arrive.

That being said, if you are willing to ease up on your 3/4 sleeve requirement, ASOS curve has a number of lovely options that are in your price range (and, speaking as a size 16/18, imo, bigger ladies can and totally should wear sleeveless dresses - especially if you are hot and uncomfortable in longer sleeves. There are plenty of options for someone size 12/14, which isn't even considered plus size in most stores)

blue dress with flutter sleeves
another lace sleeve dress
black "kimono" dress (could be elevated with the addition of some jewelry, shoes. very wearable again after the wedding)
posted by nuclear_soup at 4:52 AM on March 8, 2016

I agree that the eshakti maxi dresses are really too casual, though you do have one option there that might work. If you took something like the Chelsea dress and had it made with sleeves and full length -- both of which are options on that page, and which add very little to the price -- that would work. It's tencel, so a much more luxe fabric than they usually use. The Chelsea has a fit that usually works well with big boobs. I might choose the wider neckline option if you have a decent strapless bra -- that'll let you wear bolder jewelry and look more dramatic without uncovering your boobs.

They also have two silk dresses, but those don't seem to allow for the full length options.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:57 AM on March 8, 2016

Best answer: Yeah, full-length, no white/cream/blush/etc. I don't see an issue with black but that's up to you.

Rent the Runway has tons of great options. They'll send you two sizes of the same dress (or 3, I think, with current coupon code), in case one doesn't fit, and their customer service is very good if you get in a tight spot. If you like a dress, reserve it sooner than later, especially since I've heard that sizes 8-14 get nabbed quickly.

Here's all their offerings with 3/4 or long sleeves, and floor length.

Here are some that may work in particular. I aimed at bra-wearability and of course sleeve length and gown length. Some of them have leg slits- since they just show the front of your leg, and most of them aren't super split open, I think you'll still feel comfortable, but if not, there are other options.

Badgley Mischka, in black

Nicole Miller, in berry

David Meister, in navy

Badgley Mischka, in red

Nicole Miller, in black

Carmen Marc Valvo, in gold

I stayed at $100 rental fee and under, except that last one, which I included because it is stunning.
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:30 AM on March 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

I will second that this sort of situation is what the personal shoppers at places like Nordstrom are totally for. I had a friend who had two black tie events last year for work, and she's in tech and never does black tie and was freaking out. She went to Nordstrom, told the personal shoppers what she did and did not want in a dress, and they hooked her up with two lovelies and alterations and she looked amazing.

Bonus, you could go ahead and ask them to fit you into a couple more casual things as well, so that you'd be set for future events in this friends set. You will end up spending more than you want to now (and I get that often that's just not doable, but if it is...), but you'd be good to go for awhile. Change your nails and jewelry and hair and shoes, and if anyone notices that you've worn the same dress to two events, they're paying too much attention. :)
posted by joycehealy at 6:14 AM on March 8, 2016

Check out BHLDN -- the bridal line from Anthropologie -- for mother-of-the-bride dresses. I think they're pretty fashionable and most of them are floor-length with 3/4 sleeves. The "Viola" dress sounds like what you're after. The "Darby" dress is a sorta longer version of the red lace number you linked to.
posted by pinetree at 6:24 AM on March 8, 2016

There are many beautiful dresses here but... to me, black tie means REALLY fancy. Like, someone would wear it to the Oscars fancy. I think the winner is the Adrianna Papell one that LobsterMitten linked to above - gorgeous silver lacy dress.
posted by silverstatue at 7:11 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

When exactly is the wedding? If you can wait until after prom season, you could probably pick up a formal dress on sale for a good price at some bridal/formalwear shop. Sales start in June/July.

I'm a size 10/12 and my sister and mother are a size 16/18. We've found a good selection of dresses over the years for $10-75 at these sales. If you find something that fits but doesn't have sleeves, you can find a bolero jacket or some other kind of translucent top to wear over the dress. A blazer on top could also be very nice, which would hide bra straps.
posted by lizbunny at 8:06 AM on March 8, 2016

Response by poster: The wedding's in late August, so if formalwear goes on sale June/July I will probably wait til then to get this sorted. There's no way in the world I'm paying more than $200 for a dress I'm probably never going to wear again, and less would be much better. Rent the Runway would be ideal, but ugh FASHION. Apparently tight and slinky is in, judging from the lovely things that have been suggested so far. My thighs do not love tight and slinky.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:43 AM on March 8, 2016

Vintage could be fun!
chevron dress on etsy
green formal dress
gold brocade
blue satin
pink satin
posted by jillithd at 9:23 AM on March 8, 2016

Echoing previous comments: be careful with boleros, they tend to dress down a formal gown. And please don't wear a blazer over your black-tie dress, unless it's a REALLY fancy silk or satin piece and looks like it was made for the dress. Even if you don't buy a dress from Nordstrom because of $$, go there and ask their personal stylist to recommend an appropriate shoulder-covering topper.
posted by serelliya at 9:36 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd recommend looking at Tadashi (Shoji) gowns. Lots of appropriate options with sleeves, flattering across a full range of sizes (Octavia Spencer's worn Tadashi Shoji a lot on the red carpet). They are beyond your price range if you pay full price, but that's why God invented eBay. I would go to Nordstrom to try a few on so you know your size and the way they fit, then you can set up a filtered eBay search with email alerts. (Bit of hassle but you can of course resell the dress afterwards on eBay, or consign it.)
posted by mama casserole at 10:24 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This might not be applicable, because you didn't say how tall you are, but I am a size 12/14, 5'5" and 40. With chunky arms that require sleeves and boobs that mean business (36 ddd/dddd). I like to try on formalwear for fun sometimes, even though I never wear skirts or dresses in real life. If I had to go to an Occasion, I'd go to the big Nordtrom and straight to the Adrianna Papell. They seem to design well for women who have to wear serious bras and want a bit of upper arm coverage, and the ones I've tried on have actually been comfortable.

I still remember the AP dress I tried on for my brother's wedding, when I was at my heaviest at a 16/18 and had even bigger boobs. That was the dress I should have bought and worn. I still regret leaving it on the rack.
posted by monopas at 10:48 AM on March 8, 2016

Concur that Tadashi Shoji is great for black tie. I went to a black tie optional wedding last year (in SF) and wore a Tadashi Shoji cocktail length dress and got tons of compliments. Their gowns would be perfect -- pricey but lovely.
posted by radioamy at 11:07 AM on March 8, 2016

Response by poster: Hey monopas do you find the sizing of those AP dresses consistent? Like if I find the size that works for me in the store could I then buy something in that size off ebay without too many surprises? I like the styling and there are Nordstrom stores near me I can check out. (I am your height.)

I like the look of some of those Tadashis too, a lot, and may try same strategy, but they seem to be getting more into the serious designer $ range.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:37 AM on March 8, 2016

In my limited experience, sizing for AP is reasonably consistent, but I'd be very wary about buying a style that you haven't tried on. At least for me, differences in styles make enough of a difference in fit that I wouldn't want to take the chance if I couldn't return the dress. Especially important if the dresses are made of totally different materials.

I don't think I've tried on a Tadashi, but they are pretty. Reading the reviews on some of the dresses in the line suggests that they often run smallish and may not work well with curves, at least the lace ones. (Yes I have tried one on, but it was an older one with no lace. Can't forget that neckline. Felt like a princess, even if my bra was visible. I have narrow shoulders.)
posted by monopas at 4:33 PM on March 8, 2016

My preferred method is to order a dozen or so dresses from Nordstrom online, some in more than one size, and try them on at home. The lighting is better. No one is looking at me. I don't feel weird being naked. I can take my time. I can try them on several times before buying. I can wear different bras/shoes/accessories to see the whole package. And because shipping is free both ways, I can return all the dresses but one. Nordstrom has some surprisingly inexpensive formal dresses. Look in the mother of the bride section, specify floor-length. Some pages let you specify sleeve length, too. They have a great search engine for your purpose.

And I wouldn't assume you'll never wear this dress again. It's a wonderful thing to have a single formal dress in your closet -- weddings, fundraisers, awards ceremonies, opera/symphony opening nights, New Year's Eve, galas of all kinds, and of course costumes. For this reason, it's best to buy something that's fairly plain and accessorizes well so you can wear it to multiple events and change its appearance with accessories — a wrap can magically transform a simple black dress.
posted by Capri at 5:24 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The gold draped gown that rachaelfaith suggested is described as particularly flattering and comfortable by people with curves. Have you been poking through the customer photos on RTR? You can see what these dresses look like on people who aren't size 0/eight feet tall. Some of the ones that I would have guessed were super-tight and unflattering on the model look fantastic on real people.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:30 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

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