Do or Don’t? Formal Nights on Cruises

This dress will be coming out on our upcoming cruise. The tuxedo? Probably not.

I was on the phone with a friend last week, talking about my recent blog post: Don’t Dress To Travel, You’ll Spill Your Burrito. While she agreed with my sentiment, and we both decided that looking like a dirty slob is never the answer. Then we started talking about other things. Like cruises. And formal nights. Specifically, formal nights on cruises.

Formal night from a Caribbean cruise a few years ago aboard Seabourn. Cocktail dress. No tux. Still worked.
Formal night from a Caribbean cruise a few years ago aboard Seabourn. Cocktail dress. No tux. Still worked.

As I have an impending transatlantic cruise coming up on Seabourn, I assume it will be dressier than say, a week in the Caribbean. Plus, I have a lovely, hardly worn, purple, floor-length dress just waiting to make an appearance. But here’s the thing: the purple dress? It requires special shoes. Can those shoes be repurposed with another outfit? Can I wear the purple frock more than once? I do have a post on How to Pack for a Longer Vacation in the hopper, but here’s my simple answer: yes.

Let me backtrack for a moment. I’ve been on a lot of cruises over the years. I dug deep into my box of old travel documents and have found you examples of what cruise lines define as formal wear from 2000 – 2002. In Royal Caribbean’s Cruise Vacation Guide that came with my tickets for the Majesty of the Seas in December 2000, the very first question is What Should I Pack? The answer defines formal nights as “cocktail dresses for women; suits and ties or tuxedos for men.” Holland America Line, in their Know Before You Go booklet from July 2000, states “on festive formal evenings, women usually wear cocktail dresses or gowns and men often wear business suits or tuxedos. (Gentlemen: Though business suits or tuxedos are suggested, they are certainly not required. You are welcome to wear a jacket and tie on formal evenings.)”

Finally, my Celebrity Cruises vacation documents from aboard the Millennium in December 2002 states “On formal nights you’ll want to be seen in: cocktail dresses or long gowns, dinner jackets or dark suits, or a tuxedo (If you do not have a tuxedo, one can easily be rented through Celebrity’s tuxedo representative. See Tuxedo Rentals section.)” 

There was a whole section of the booklet on tuxedo rentals. My how times have changed in just a few years.

I am all for flip flops and yoga pants, and in fact, wear both of those items on a near daily basis. It seems that most people have embraced the concept of dressing down, and generally, I embrace that. But there is something to be said for lounging by the pool all day then getting dressed up for dinner just because you can.

Today’s cruise standards are a bit different. On Royal Caribbean, while “for formal nights you’ll need cocktail dresses for women, suits and ties – or tuxedos – for men,” there is still an option for those that do not want to dress up. “Casual dress dining is available nightly in the Windjammer Cafe.

Holland America offers the pretense of needing to dress up, but then admits that a polo shirt is also acceptable. “Gala Nights evoke the grand traditions of cruising as guests dress to impress for special events on board, including a five-course gourmet dinner in the Dining Room. For gentlemen, jacket and tie are appropriate, collared shirt and slacks are required in all restaurants except those on Lido Deck which permit jeans, shorts, and T-shirts.” Or, go to the buffet wearing shorts.

Celebrity Cruises has done away with formal nights entirely, now calling them Evening Chic. “Now, on up to two nights on every cruise, Evening Chic activities are being introduced, and Evening Chic attire is replacing Formal attire. While dressier than Smart Casual, Evening Chic is intended to be less dressy than Formal attire. Yes. Evening Chic means that you can get glamorous and be sophisticated in your own way. If you would like to still wear a tuxedo or formal gown on Evening Chic nights, you absolutely should.”

Confused? You’re not alone.

There is one (very vocal) side of the argument that proclaims “it’s my vacation, and I’ll dress how I want to!” I get that. I really do. And so there are choices. You can wear shorts and eat at the buffet on many ships. However, many people extend the casual-on-formal-night look to the theater or casino, where most cruisers are still dressed up.

The other anti-formal argument lies with the airlines. Luggage fees are here to stay. The more you pack, the more you pay. I say, learn how to fit more in your bag. Don’t be the person wearing a swimsuit to dinner in the buffet because you are too lazy to put on pants.

So there you have it. I am decidedly pro-formal night. Which in my mind, does not mean a tuxedo and gown, rather wearing something that I would not normally wear to, say, a meeting. Suits, ties, short-but-fun dresses are all good in my opinion. After all, going on vacation should be a little different than what you do on a regular basis at home. I can assure you I have never had dinner in my own home in a cocktail dress.

What do you think? Is it worth schlepping the extra dress/tie/shoes/whatever along? Does it depend on where you are going?


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