I want to start off this article with the definition of semi-formal, this definition comes from one of my all time favorite websites, TheBlackTieGuide.com.
Technically when an event is “semi-formal” it requires a black tie, a dinner jacket–more commonly referred to as a tuxedo–while “formal” refers to events requiring white tie. Women should wear full-skirted evening gowns to a “formal” event, while a “semi-formal” requires an ankle length, slimmer dress (think this). (I would like to note that it is much harder for women to dress for specific situations than men; there are millions of dresses and only two formal suits).
Now admittedly this definition emerged in Edwardian England, and was mostly outdated by the 1950s, so I won’t judge you if you don’t abide by the above “rules” (though I plan on wearing my tartan dinner jacket and would certainly appreciate a few fashion compatriots. Just know I read this site).
In general, I don’t think the specifics of what you wear are important, rather it is that you make an effort to look nice. This is, to use a far overused phrase, a classy event, your professors will be there, you are expected to appear professional. Also bear in mind that a collared shirt and tie could help disguise the fact that you just slammed five shots of Svedka.*
For guys I recommend dress pants or corduroys paired with a collared shirt and tie. A jacket or sweater in a contrasting color to the pants (a dark jacket on light pants is easier to pull off) will add a nice touch of class and make you look less like you are at your high-school semi-formal. If you’re lazy, just a shirt and tie is probably acceptable. Your tie should be a darker color than your shirt, obviously, and suits are of course acceptable, but you never pair a jacket with like-colored pants in an attempt to imitate a suit. If you wear a pocket square it should NOT match your tie–that is tacky. For shoes, break out those leather dress shoes, or at least boat shoes, leave the sneakers at home.
Girls, I’m going to be honest, I don’t feel entirely comfortable giving women fashion advice, so I’ll try to keep this to the basics. Nice pants or skirts are always acceptable, paired with blouses and sweaters or blazers. Dresses and skirts can be nicely paired with a pair of tights or leggings for added color and to fight the cold. For a fun twist to your favorite output, dress it up with a hat though not this one.
For everyone, avoid jeans, avoid sweatshirts and sneakers. Look nice, be creative. You don’t have to follow all the fashion rules, but remember what Balzac said: “The boor covers himself…the fool adorns himself, and the elegant man gets dressed.”
*We suggest The Glass Slipper instead.