What to Wear for Cruise Dinners & Formal Nights
by Tina Boomerina (Christina Gregoire)
What do women wear for dinners, formal nights, and evening events on cruise ships? Well, there are variations of clothing rules for different cruise lines, but here are some general guidelines about what you might want to pack for your cruise vacation.
The following guidelines are based on what I've seen on large, popular cruise ships, such as those from Norwegian Cruise Lines, Princess, and Holland America. If planning to sail on an unfamiliar cruise ship, you should browse the cruise line’s website and the Cruise Critic forums, to double check what you need to pack. Some lines are less formal than others.
What to Wear for Cruise Dinners
New cruisers often fret about what to wear to dinner on a cruise ship.
Well, in general, evening cruise wear is less formal than what you have seen in the movies or on TV. However, I have stood in line to be seated (on formal night in the main dining room) behind several women over 50 who truly looked like they were ready to walk the red carpet… with fabulously coifed hair and rhinestone-studded, floor-length gowns and everything else you might imagine. If they had told me they'd just flown in on a private jet, I wouldn't have been shocked.
So, I want you to know that you CAN get all dolled up if you have a gorgeous dress that you haven’t worn in years… or if you’re in the mood to go shopping.
Kid-friendly cruise lines like Disney are not going to be high-end, luxe fashion shows. However, I have never been on a Disney cruise or on any ship with a waterslide or an indoor promenade “deck.” If I wanted that type of ambiance, I would go to Las Vegas.
What to Wear in the Main Dining Room
For dinner in the main dining room, most women wear casual dresses, nice pantsuits or cute tops with slacks or skirts. The dress code for the dining room (of most ships) is somewhat flexible, but people dress exactly as they would for an upscale restaurant back home.
Depending on your destination (what part of the world you will be sailing), you can wear a preppy, tailored outfit or a cute, flowing, tropical floral dress… which you should consider if you are trying to warm up after spending the last few months weathering winter snowstorms in Minnesota or Alaska.
As I recall, most ships won’t let you into the main dining room in shorts, but capris are usually okay if your outfit looks well put together. But, don't quote me on this. I think it depends on the maitre d', so check out what other diners are wearing.
Most big cruise ships have a formal night (or two) and a Captain's Reception, where women will be dressed up a bit more than at regular dinners. Upscale cruise lines like Oceania do not have formal nights, however the passengers are always smartly dressed and you could drop them off in Paris and they would fit right in.
What to Wear on Cruise Formal Nights
On the larger cruise ships that most of us sail for reasons of economy, women can be seen wearing anything from casual frocks and cheap polyester pantsuits - from God-Knows-Where - to sequined cocktail dresses and full-on gowns. (While formal gowns are less common, you can still live by the Oscar Wilde quote which says, "You can never be overdressed or overeducated.")
Ask your travel agent or post a question on cruisecritic.com for accurate answers, from real-life people, about specific cruise lines and specific ships and specific itineraries.
Most women wear something black on formal night, and black is always classic and appropriate. However, women who are more casual or playful can stand out by wearing fuchsia, turquoise, silver, or anything other than black. One imaginative idea for those of you who are party girls or hippie chicks is to add a cocktail hat or fascinator (maybe with a feather) to your outfit. Cruises are meant to be fun. That's why people cruise.
On formal nights, there are often photographers set up around the main decks or roaming through the main dining room, and part of the fun is to try to get a good photo to use for your next Christmas card or for your trip album so you can impress your neighbors. You are not obligated to buy these photos. So, click away.
Shoes for Cruise Evenings
Sandals are always good, but remember that it is sometimes tricky to wear heels while your ship is rolling on the high seas, so pack some back-up flats. High heels are fine if you have good balance, but I wouldn’t recommend stilettos in rough weather, and if you must wear them, hang onto the railing.
Alternatives to the Main Dining Room
I would like to point out that you don't have to eat in the main dining room or one of those exclusive (extra fee) cruise restaurants.
The Cruise Ship Buffet: Cruisers who are too maxed out from another grueling day in paradise usually have the option of eating at an informal buffet (or something similar). Some folks are seen wearing shorts and tees, though shorts are frowned upon for inside dining (in the evening) on some ships. It's better to wear something more than shorts, though there is no bouncer who will throw you overboard for impropriety.
Room Service on Cruise Ships: Most ships have free room service, though your choices are from a more limited menu. On large ships, some kind of food is available 24 hours a day. And, as far as I know, no one has ever starved to death on a cruise ship.
Evening Shipboard Activities
On most large cruise ships, there are usually several options for after-dinner or pre-dinner shipboard activities.
- Vegas-Like Shows on Cruise Ships: In the theater, most women wear whatever they wore (or will wear) to dinner in the main dining room. Shorts or very casual “buffet-wear” would look out of place in most theaters.
- Cocktail Lounges: Women dress up in the same styles they would wear to a similar lounge in Las Vegas. Some gals are sparkly and some are sedate. You should consider bringing several types of shoes while packing for your onboard evenings. Bigger ships have ballroom dancing, free-style rock-and-roll dancing, line dancing (complete with a few gals in cowboy boots), cocktail-lounge music and piano bars, as well as tables for drinks out on the pool deck.
- Cruise Ship Casinos: The only dress requirements for cruise ship casinos are clothing, shoes, and a ship card/cabin key (which is used in place of money).
You Don't HAVE to Wear Glittery Glam
If you don't want to dress like you're on the red carpet, you don't have to. It just depends on your personality.
The blue dress or the red tunic outfit (in the photo above) will look just fine on most cruises... even on formal nights. If you aren't sure whether this type of outfit will have the appropriate level of glam, bring some big blingy earrings or a statement necklace. I think both of these semi casual, but "put together", looks are fine for a formal night in the real world. Personally, I would wear humongous rhinestone earrings and some great costume jewelry with either outfit, but no one will laugh if you don't. Well, you won't make the cover of Life Magazine if you don't glam yourself up a bit ... but who knows if Life Magazine even exists anymore. So, it's probably a moot point.
If you're feeling neglected because you're underdressed, just get up and dance on the table. You'll be the hit of the ship and you'll gain a cult following.
Bring a Jacket
No matter what weather is predicted for your cruise, you should always pack a windbreaker, sweater, shawl or something for warmth. The interior of your ship will not be a problem, but if you are out walking around the promenade deck, you can get cold no matter what the temperature is (especially at night). Most warm-weather itineraries will not require a wrap, but be prepared like a Girl Scout and bring something just in case.
What Do Men Wear on Cruise Ships?
Your partner or boy toy should wear something that "goes" with your outfit. No one cares what your husband is wearing as long as it is clean and it doesn't involve shorts, black socks, and sandals. If your man reads this and uses it as an excuse to pack a pair of ratty old sweats instead of a nice sports jacket, leave a comment at the bottom of the page, and I'll tell him why he should listen to your superior fashion advice.
While it is surprisingly easy to pack a ton of fabulous outfits for your cruise, a magnificent wardrobe is not necessary. You can (if you want) wear the same simple dress with assorted (rotating) faux beads and baubles for a different look every night. And, the same pantsuit (or jogging suit) will look different with a nautical scarf than with fake pearls.
Most cruise guests are fairly relaxed about what others wear. If you have the money, buy something new. If you don't, you don't. So, just go and have fun.
More Articles for Baby Boomer Women:
Photo Credits: Prshots.com (All website links ship to US unless noted.)
- Main Photo: Marisota, 2013.
- Cute striped outfit for cruise dinner: F&F, 2013, does not ship to US.
- Cruise Formal Dress - What to Wear on Formal Nights: Vestry, 2013.
- What to Wear on Formal Night Cruise (photo of a real person): HeatherOnHerTravels Flickr Creative Commons.
- What to Wear to Dinner Cruise Formal Night: All outfits MandCo, 2013.
- Wear a Nice Dress or Pantsuit for Formal Night: Plus size Joanna Hope at Marisota, 2013.
- You Can Sparkle as Much (or as little) as You Want: Marisota, 2013.
- Final Thoughts: A pair of huge statement earrings and a little costume jewelry don't take much room when packing. Bring them just in case.
- This article has been updated. If you have any questions about old photos, leave a comment.
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