Retro Essentials: Formal PinUp

Pinup and modern vintage outfits tend to range from casual to cocktail. However, there’s very little style advice and outfits that are focused on formal events. This is for all those of you who might have a ball, a formal wedding, or large event coming up and who struggle to combine your personal style with the dresscode. As always, I’ll try to keep it budget friendly and give advice on how to adapt my recommendations to suit your personal needs. Yes, you’re getting a repeat of this photo because I don’t really dress up in formal wear that often and don’t usually take full bodied photos when I do.


Respecting dress codes: When you attend an event, abiding by the dress code is to show respect and appreciation for the amount of work the organisers have put into the event. It’s like showing up on time, adjusting your behaviour to suit the formality of the occasion, and paying any ticket prices on time. They have most likely spent a lot of time and funds on creating a holistic vision of the event, especially if they have been tasked with organising the event or if it is something that is deeply personal for them (say, a wedding). Do not be the asshole who shows up to a masquerade without dressing up as someone other than yourself. Don’t be the dick who wears sneakers to a ball. Show some respect to the organisers and other individuals who did make the effort and put some thought into their outfit. I’ve heard people who have objected against the formal dress codes of student balls and formals with “But if I feel more beautiful in a tunic, I should be allowed to wear one”. Newsflash, it’s not always about you. You are a guest, respect the rules of the host.
So let’s go through some common components of formal wear.

The shoe debate.
If you can’t wear heels for medical reasons or just can’t stand wearing them, then obviously don’t wear them. Opt for a nice pair of flats or fancy sandals depending on the season. If the event calls for closed toe shoes, accept that. There’s also the option of wearing low and comfortable wedges if you’re not used to walking in heels, this is also an option that is easy to find. Only opt for wedges if they’re low since the taller versions tend to look too bulky for formal wear.
Again, it depends on the event but a solid black pump is always a safe bet and can often be bought cheaply. You can always go for a classical option with a bit of a twist to show some personality. Again, this is more about the level of formality as opposed to reading dress codes as if they were instructions for how to create uniforms. Beyond that, there’s endless variations of fun and cute heels that you have probably seen in other posts on this site. If not, check them out.

What if I hate dresses?
You have two options, a suit/tux depending on the level of formality, or a dress. Sure, not everyone is happy with individuals who opt for the garments typically associated with another gender, however, times are changing. If you are a non-binary person, then opt for whichever option is the most comfortable to you and most in line with how you generally present yourself. Suits and garments along that line are obviously more androgynous than dresses. Do not decrease the level of formality. If it’s just a case of ‘I hate gender norms’ and you are wanting to make a political statement, think twice. Is the event you are attending the right time to make this statement? If it’s a university ball, you’re probably fine, but if it’s your cousin’s wedding and the entire family is very conservative… Don’t steal the show or cause an inconvenience for the people who invited you. That’s the key rule to follow. Again, you’re a guest at someone else’s event, be there on their terms. If you think the event won’t be tense due to a woman wearing a tux, go for it.

Makeup – adjustable
Classical pinup and vintage makeup works great for a very glamorous event. There’s seldom any need to adjust this aspect of your regular pinup self unless it’s a themed event. Look at different eye shadow options for an easy adjustment. Same thing here, less conservative events that are still formal allow for more experimentation than conservative ones, regardless of their level of formality. Lighter makeup is typically favoured for day events, and heavier makeup is more common at night.

Hair flowers are a yes. Bows and bandanas less so. Bows can be worn to daytime events but tend to look out of place at a formal night time event. Here too, there is a scale of elegance and formality that needs to be observed. Poor quality hair flowers can look really sloppy and ruin an otherwise well put together outfit. Roses are a safe bet, especially the ones that have a velvety texture to them. Opt for classical vintage up-dos rather than modern rockabilly ones for formal events.


General vintage vibe – Opt for classical clean patterns and embroidery for timeless elegance, if you can’t find a vintage cut then opt for a colour that is timeless. Lace is always a classic option that is easy to adapt style wise through the use of accessories. I’ll loosely go through three decades commonly used in vintage wear. Please note that this is not a 100% accuracy thing or a lesson in vintage fashion, but rather a ‘if you’re looking to be inspired by one of these decades, here’s somewhere to start’ kind of classification.

1920’s style – People are still throwing The Great Gatsby themed parties, so having considered a few options that are inspired by the 1920’s is usually wise. This typically means dresses with very little shape but with gorgeous embellishments. This style of dress tends to work really well for women with rectangular bodies, but an also be a good option for apple shaped individuals.

1930’s – The 1930’s were rather conservative in that a high neckline was favoured. At the same time, it often showed a decent amount of skin on the back for a subtle but sexy elegance. Luxurious fabrics were common. A playful modern option for those who want a showstopping dress would be this one. For a more classic option, here’s a luxurious lace dress. There were some dresses that were still inspired by the 1920’s that can be echoed for those whose bodies don’t agree with the subtle hourglass shapes of the 1930’s. That particular dress can be used to recreate even older vintage looks too. This dress is good for those wanting to wear a more discrete option that still works with a classic vintage style.

1940’s – more unusual shapes, varied fabrics and silhouettes. A modern take on a classic 1940’s dress is this ivory option. Although the draped rounded necklines are really unusual these days, an option is to opt for a v-neck with draping or a collar. Combining a v-neck with a bolero might be helpful in creating that unique variation of a sweetheart neckline. This is another kind of neckline that works really well for this style. Strapless dresses were starting to become more common in the 1940’s.


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