Have you booked a cruise that has a formal night or two? Formal night on a cruise can be a highlight of your vacation! But if you don’t know what to wear on formal night, no worries—here’s everything you need to know.
Read on to find out all about cruise formal night—from how to find out how many nights will be formal, what the formal night dress codes are for the major cruise lines, and what to do if the idea of dressing up on a cruise just isn’t your thing.
I’ve even put together some cruise formal night outfit ideas for men, women, and kids to inspire you!
Be sure to read my cruise formal night FAQ at the end for quick answers to the most frequently asked questions about formal night on a cruise.
What is formal night on a cruise?
Formal night on a cruise ship is the evening when passengers don dressy clothing for dinner, photos, and special activities. The main dining rooms usually will serve an elevated menu, with fancier options like filet mignon, prime rib, or lobster tail.
Some cruise lines have the Captain’s welcome party the evening of the first formal night, with the opportunity to meet the captain and mingle with the other guests.
Your cruise line might use an alternate name for formal night, like “Evening Chic”, “Gala Evening”, or “Cruise Elegant”, but it’s essentially the same thing—a night when most passengers dress in their finest clothing for dinner and evening festivities.
Why do cruise lines have formal nights?
During the golden age of ocean liners, guests staying in first class cabins were required to wear formal attire after 6 PM in all public areas of the ship. In the early decades of modern cruise travel, women wore evening gowns and men donned white tie in the evenings.
Learn more: The Story of the First Cruise Ship: SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise
In the 1960s, when standards of dress became less formal in general, cruise lines began to alter their dress codes to appeal to a more modern aesthetic—as well as to the less well-heeled guests who were now able to afford a cruise vacation.
Today, many passengers enjoy having the opportunity to dress up once or twice during a cruise. In an increasingly casual world, this tradition is unique to the cruise industry!
Do all cruise lines have formal night?
If you really don’t like dressing up, you might want to choose one of the cruise lines that doesn’t have formal nights. These cruise lines don’t have a specific formal night with dressy attire required in the main dining rooms:
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Virgin Voyages
- Oceania Cruises
- Paul Gauguin Cruises
- Regent Seven Seas
However, most of these cruise lines do have “formal optional” evenings, when many passengers do dress up in the evening—but it’s not required.
What should you wear for formal night on a cruise?
When people ask me what to wear for formal night on a cruise, I usually advise them to dress like they would for an elegant evening wedding—a dark suit and tie for men, and a cocktail dress or dressy evening separates for women.
You’ll often see people dressed to both ends of the “formal” spectrum on many ships—some wear tuxedos and full-length gowns, and others will wear chinos and a dress shirt or a more casual dress.
On more traditional cruise lines like Holland America or Cunard, you’ll notice the general level of dressiness to be a bit higher. But as long as you’re within your cruise line’s dress code, feel free to be as dressy or as casual as you prefer.
Where to find the formal night dress code for your cruise line
The idea of “formal night” may conjure up different images to different people, so the cruise lines have come up with guidelines to help cruisers understand the dress code expectations before they pack for vacation.
Here are links to the formal night dress codes for many of the major cruise lines:
- Carnival Cruise Line – look for “Cruise Elegant”
- Celebrity Cruises – look for “Evening Chic”
- Costa Cruises – look for “Formal”
- Cunard Line – look for “Gala Evening”
- Disney Cruise Line – look for “formal” and “semi-formal”
- Holland America Line – look for “Formal”
- MSC Cruises – click on “Gala Evenings”
- Princess Cruises – click on Clothing Recommendations and look for “Formal”
- Royal Caribbean – look for “Formal nights”
Where is formal night attire required on the ship?
If you’re opting out of formal night attire, you don’t need to stay in your stateroom all night! Formal night dress code is generally only required in the main dining room during dinner. (Some cruise lines also require formal attire in specialty restaurants on formal nights).
The buffet’s dress code will always be more casual, and of course no one expects you to lounge on the Lido deck in your suit or cocktail dress!
However, in the central area of the ship, especially after 5 or 6 PM, you’ll see most people dressed up for pre-dinner photos or cocktails. If I’m skipping formal night (or I’m having a late dinner and haven’t changed yet), I tend to avoid the atrium or the busiest part of the ship. You can feel a bit out of place in a t-shirt and shorts when everyone else has changed into their nighttime best!
Cruise formal night outfit ideas
Need some inspiration for your cruise formal night outfit? I’ve included ideas for men, women, and kids—with options ranging from semi-formal to black tie.
Cruise formal night outfit ideas for women
Retro sleeveless pencil dress
You can’t go wrong with a little black dress, and this one’s extra special with a draped ruffle and flattering pleats at the waist. Add some cross-strap heels and an elegant gold bracelet to complete your evening outfit.
Vintage glam v-neck gown
A floor-length gown in a stunning shade of red brings to mind old-school Hollywood glamour, just right for your elegant evening! (I’m picturing this with a peekaboo wave hairstyle, à la Veronica Lake). Pair it with vintage-style gold stilettoes and a crystal necklace and earrings set for a little sparkle.
Floral lace cocktail dress
This elbow-sleeve lace cocktail dress features eyelash lace at the scalloped hem and cuffs and an elegant v-neck at the back, making it perfect for a formal night updo. Add gold chain link earrings and kitten heel pumps for a polished evening ensemble.
Side ruffle slit tailored evening dress
An elegant yet simple long gown would be stunning for formal night, especially in this dark teal hue. A side ruffle and asymmetrical cap sleeves give it extra visual appeal. Just add metallic heels and gold bar drop earrings for a refined evening look.
Jeweled neckline halter sheath dress
This sleek charcoal sheath dress features ruching at the waist and an embellished halter neckline that adds just a hint of sparkle. Add a pair of black strappy heels and a crystal cuff bracelet to complete your formal night look.
Lace overlay fit and flare dress
This pretty knee-length fit and flare dress with lace overlay would be perfect for formal night—and it comes in burgundy and black options as well! Pair it with some neutral sandals and gold-plated drop earrings for a simple yet elegant outfit.
Plus size 3-piece evening ensemble
These lightweight georgette dressy separates make an elegant formal night option. The embellished top pairs with a matching flowy jacket and elastic waist pants—just add some strappy heels and crystal tassel earrings to finish the look!
Cruise formal night outfit ideas for men
Slim-fit classic suiting separates
I love this classic Calvin Klein suiting in a slim fit—in lightweight wool with a little Lycra for stretch, it’s a good choice for any cruise year-round. It comes in several darker hues including navy, black, and charcoal, and the jacket and trousers are sold separately so he can choose the perfect fit.
Pair it with a classic dress shirt in any color, plus a silk tie (pocket square optional) to look dapper on formal night.
Linen two-piece vest + pant
If your cruise line’s formal night dress code is a bit on the casual side, this beige linen-cotton blend vest and trousers would look amazing for a summertime cruise. Pair it with a classic white dress shirt, fun tie, and loafers for a dressed-up but comfortable look.
Modern fit tuxedo separates
These 100% wool tuxedo separates are perfect for an elegant look on formal night. The slim-fit single-breasted tuxedo jacket and matching trousers look great with a classic tuxedo shirt and black bow tie.
Shop this look on Amazon: Jacket and Trousers
Cruise formal night outfit ideas for kids
Striped box-pleated party dress
This adorable striped party dress in shades of pink, champagne, light blue and navy is an unfussy formal night choice for a little girl. Pair it with some ankle strap gold flats to match the included belt.
He’ll look ship-shape for formal night in this navy boys’ three-piece suit! It comes with a shirt and tie, so you’ll just need dress shoes and a matching belt to complete the look.
Chiffon tutu-skirt dress
She’ll feel like a princess on formal night with this long-sleeved tutu dress featuring 3D appliqué flowers. Pair it with sparkly flats and a jeweled headband to amp up the fairytale look.
Nautica Baby Boys’ 4-Piece Set
Your littlest cruiser doesn’t have to miss out on formal night! How cute would this “suit” set be for a dressy family photo? The four-piece set is comfy for fussy little ones with an elastic waistband and spandex for stretchiness.
Style it with some adorable leather dress shoes that come in the tiniest sizes!
Renting formal wear for your cruise
If you’d prefer to rent formal wear for your cruise, some cruise lines do offer tuxedo rentals. You’ll usually need to book this through the cruise line at least a couple of weeks before you sail.
Links and phone numbers for cruise line tux rentals:
- Carnival: Call the Fun Shops at 1-800-522-7648
- Cunard (tuxedo rental on board, no need to pre-order. Type “tuxedo” in FAQ search bar to see pricing)
Some cruise lines, including Disney and HAL, traditionally partnered with a company called Cruiseline Formalwear. Unfortunately, this company closed permanently during the pandemic. Instead, many cruisers have been renting tuxedos from local formal wear shops and carrying them on board.
For cocktail dress or gown rentals, you can check sites like Rent the Runway or Armoire (they’re especially great for maternity formal wear rentals). You’ll be able to rent a formal dress for far less than buying, and they take care of the cleaning for you.
How many formal nights will there be on my cruise?
When you’re deciding what to wear for formal night on a cruise, it’s a good idea to know how many formal nights your sailing will have.
In general, cruise lines that have formal nights will have two each week on a seven-day cruise. On short cruises (less than five days), there often isn’t a formal night.
Check with the cruise line or your travel agent to see how many formal nights are planned for your particular voyage.
Having photos taken on formal night
Once you’re all dressed up for the evening, why not plan to have some formal portraits taken to commemorate your cruise?
On most mainstream cruise lines, the roving photographers are ready to snap your pic in locations around the ship. But during formal night evenings, the photo team is out in full force!
They’ll often set up in the atrium or main public area with professional lighting and backdrops to capture your family or group in your formal night best.
Unlike a photoshoot on land, you won’t need to pay to have your pictures taken (although some cruise lines do have a portrait studio where you can book a photo session for a fee). You’ll only pay for the photos that you like, and prices are reasonable for formal shots.
A single 8″x10″ will run you about $25, and you’ll be able to purchase a discounted photo package if you want several prints to take home.
How to keep your cruise formal wear from wrinkling
Many cruisers worry about their dressy clothes for formal night wrinkling from being stuffed in a suitcase while traveling to the cruise port. You do have some options that will keep your formal wear looking good when you’re ready for that special night!
Although you can’t pack your own clothes iron or steamer (they’re a fire hazard on ships), some cruise lines do have passenger laundry rooms with an iron you can use to touch up your outfits.
But if your formal wear is too delicate for an iron, I have a few tricks you can use to get the wrinkles out:
- Use wrinkle release spray and hang to dry
- Use a home dry clean kit in the laundry room dryer
- Hang your outfits in the bathroom with a hot shower running for a few minutes
Read more: How to Prevent Wrinkled Clothes on a Cruise
Can you skip formal night on a cruise?
If dressing up just isn’t your thing, you can absolutely skip formal night on a cruise! The main dining room will have a formal dress code, but you can always have dinner at the buffet or order room service.
Many cruise lines have a “smart casual” dress code in their specialty restaurants, making them a popular choice on formal nights for those who want to avoid dressing up. But double-check dress codes—some cruise lines (Carnival for example) have the same dress code in their specialty restaurants as in the MDR on formal nights.
Cruise formal night FAQ
As long as you don’t have dinner in the main dining room or a specialty restaurant with a formal night dress code, you don’t need to dress up for formal night. Instead, you can eat at the buffet, a quick-service restaurant, or order room service.
Some cruise lines do require a jacket and tie to enter the main dining room on formal night. Check your cruise line’s formal night dress code for details.
Cruise lines that have formal nights don’t specify that women need to wear a dress on those evenings. Dressy evening separates, like an elegant top paired with a matching skirt or trousers are fine for formal night.
If your cruise line has formal nights, kids who are eating in the main dining room with their parents will need to adhere to the formal night dress code.
Several cruise lines don’t have formal nights, including Norwegian Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages, Azamara, Oceania Cruises, Paul Gauguin Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas. However, there may be an optional dress-up night on your sailing.
Many cruise lines offer tuxedo rentals, but you should reserve your tux at least several weeks before you sail.
I’d love to hear your opinions about what to wear for formal night on a cruise! Do you go all out, do the minimum, or skip it altogether? Let me know in the comments below!
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Sunday 13th of March 2022
I was wondering if it would be inappropriate to wear a simple wedding dress during formal night. My fiancé and I are eloping but the cruise is our honeymoon and much of his family will be there! I thought it might be fun! Nothing too poofy, just a lace sheath dress. TIA!
Monday 14th of March 2022
Hi Darby, I think a simple white lace sheath would be perfect for formal night on most cruise lines! As long as it doesn't actually look like a wedding dress, you'll be fine. Congrats on your upcoming wedding!
Friday 17th of December 2021
I always enjoy formal night when we cruise. We don't dress up often at home so this is always special and so much fun!
Thursday 16th of December 2021
What a great idea! I feel like not many people think about needing such a formal outfit for a cruise!
Friday 17th of December 2021
Hi Alex, lots of new cruisers don't know about formal night on their first cruise! Thankfully it's optional - you just need to eat dinner on those nights in a casual-friendly environment. But hopefully lots of first-time cruisers read this post so they know how to join in on the fun! :D
Thursday 16th of December 2021
I like the fact you don't have to attend a formal evening if you don't want to - i'd be the one in the buffet or getting room service ;-) Although I may be tempted to bring a cocktail dress for a long cruise!
Friday 17th of December 2021
Hi Hannah! I totally get skipping formal night (I sometimes do if I'm tired)! It's great that it's not mandatory and you're free to do your own thing :D
Thursday 16th of December 2021
I love formal nights on the cruise, definitely my favorite theme night
Friday 17th of December 2021
Hi Elyse, I agree! I love a chance to get dressed up and enjoy the fancier meal choices on formal nights. Thanks for stopping by!