Receiving an invitation that reads “Black Tie” can be as intimidating as it is exciting. We know it means we get to dress up, but do we really know what black tie means? A step above “Cocktail Attire” and a step below “White Tie,” the “Black Tie” dress code is considered formal evening wear. Though all these terms come from traditions we don’t necessarily adhere to anymore, they still come with a certain etiquette that needs to be followed so you are dressed appropriately for your event, no matter your personal style.
Black tie is a dress code for social functions or events that start after 6 p.m., which traditionally meant, this is a fancy affair. The words “Black Tie” on an invitation are a little nebulous and overwhelming, but just know that if you play the rules right, you’re probably in for one of the best evenings of your life. Black tie affairs are one of the few remaining formal dress codes that imply importance and glamor.
Ironically, the black-tie dress code was developed in 19th-century England as “casual loungewear” so men did not have to wear suits with tails every evening to dinner. We’re not sure if we’re feeling just the irony, or also some nostalgia for society’s decline in sartorial standards. Regardless, in the modern world, black tie is usually as formal as it’s going to get. Fashion has moved on since 1865, and the rules of evening wear have also evolved.
While “Black Tie” was originally used to describe the color of a gentleman’s tie, it also applies to the ladies. Men’s fashion is all about the nuances and the details, which should be paid close attention to when dressing for a black tie event. Like, what’s a cummerbund, and who knew there were black tie appropriate men’s socks? For the ladies, there are more options available, but that doesn’t make this process easier. Do I wear a gown? A cocktail dress? Help? Well, help has arrived, and we’re here to clarify some mysteries of this fabulously formal dress code.
While we probably recognize black tie events more commonly as celebrities on a red carpet or royals waving from balconies, black tie events happen in real life, too. A black tie event can be a prestigious gala, high-end fundraiser, company event, extravagant wedding, or even a milestone birthday party. A black tie event requires the most formal attire, so be prepared to not be cutting any corners. How to tell just how classy this event will be? Examine your invitation. Did it arrive on thick paper in the mail with gold print calligraphy and a first-class stamp? Chances are this is quite the formal affair. Did it arrive via email or social media? If so, then you can probably relax a little.
A black tie dress code basically means fancy. But, there are nuances to this formal dress code. The nuances are also more subtle for men than they are for women, such as not showing where your shirt is tucked into your trousers and not wearing a belt. These subtle rules of the game seem negligible, but they stand out like a sore thumb at your black tie event if ignored.
Another dress code quirk is that men will require a special men’s suit, known as a dinner jacket or a tuxedo. Your regular work suit won’t do as it’s not fancy enough, though until now it’s likely the fanciest thing you’ve worn. Wearing a regular men’s suit to a black tie affair is taboo, so get your hands on the correct suit to match this level of formality. Another great plot twist is that you actually don’t wear a tie to a black tie affair, but instead a black hand-tied bowtie. While certain events allow for a variety in color, the most classic and traditional look is to wear a black bowtie to accompany your black tie suit. The idea is to look classy, formal, sleek, and chic. Avoid busy colors or patterns and choose simpler accents that aren’t flashy.
For the ladies, this is the time to shine. The dress code for the ladies, like the gentlemen, is classy, formal, elegant, and chic. Avoid dresses that are too short or too revealing. While cocktail dresses can be appropriate, black tie dress code typically calls for floor-length dresses or gowns. Black tie for women generally translates to “long.” Long dresses are more of an elevated choice than a cocktail dress. Go full length, but if that’s not an option, then wear a special occasion dress that goes below the knees. Don’t wear flats, and do wear sheer tights. Hide undergarments like bra straps and undies with the right underwear, such as strapless or stick-on bras and seamless panties.
For men, you will need the nicest of white men’s dress shirts. Typically, this classic white dress shirt has pleats, features a turndown collar, and has holes for cufflinks on both sides. Plan to wear a dinner jacket, also known as a tuxedo jacket, over your shirt. This is likely the most important part of your black tie event suit, so give it some well-deserved attention. A black tie event usually calls for a black or midnight blue tuxedo suit. This tuxedo jacket should be designed from a wool material, single-breasted with a single front button, and with satin-faced lapels. You have some lapel options here and can choose from a shawl lapel, peak lapel, and notch lapel. Getting the dinner jacket right is key to nailing the formality of your black tie attire.
The appropriate men’s dress pants completes the look. The trousers should be well fitted and matched in color and material to your dinner jacket. Black tie dress pants don’t come with a belt loop and for good reason, you can’t wear a belt. If your pants are a tad loose, keep them held up with suspenders. No, we’re not joking! A cummerbund is essential for a proper black tie affair. It is a piece of men’s clothing that hides the waist so no one can see irregularly tucked shirts. While today’s black tie dress codes are more forgiving about missing cummerbunds, wearing one shows respect for the dress code. If you are not wearing a cummerbund, then opt instead for a white waistcoat with white buttons or a black waistcoat.
You will want to wear a pair of men’s dress shoes that are a step up from your everyday dress shoes. Don’t wear the same shoes you wear to work. Wear black and patent leather shoes as these are classic and pairs well with the suit. Some accessories are appropriate evening socks, simple yet classy cufflinks, and pocket squares. A must is a hand-tied black bowtie to fit the black tie dress code. Remember, you are trying to look formal, elegant, sleek, impeccable, and classy. Anything too bold or attention-grabbing doesn’t really fit with what’s expected of a gentleman to wear to a black tie affair.
For the ladies, embrace this moment to have fun and look your best. For women, our favorite pick is a black dress. If you are looking to wear color instead of black, go for solid neutral hues, classic patterns, and deep rich jewel tones. Opt for a floor-length dressed rather than shorter dresses. Choose opulent fabrics for your gowns such as silks, satin, velvet, chiffon, and lace. Don’t go crazy, but do go dazzling with your choice of shoes. Sleek, elegant, and formal high heels are the top choice for shoes. Accessorize well with classic and glittering jewelry that will add a sparkling dimension to your ensemble. Truly, this is your time to shine. The joy of black tie is that it gives you permission to go all out, so enjoy and make the most of it!
So now that we’ve covered the basics of “Black Tie,” what is “White Tie”? Just when you didn’t think things could get any fancier there is “White Tie.” White tie is as fancy as it gets and typically only happens at royal events, state and livery dinners, royal balls, charity balls, and some weddings. Before World War II, a white tie was the standard evening dress for gentlemen, but these days, it is quite a rarity.
For men (or shall we say gentlemen) this means wearing a black dress coat with tails and matching trousers. For shirts, men must wear a wing-collared shirt with shirt studs and cufflinks under a white waistcoat and with a white bowtie. As the name suggests, the bowtie must indeed be white! Back in the day men also wore silk top hats, dress canes, opera cloaks, and white gloves. These opulent accessories are no longer common for the modern white tie dress code, but they further the point of “as fancy as it gets.”
For the ladies, a white tie means bringing out your most elegant full-length women’s dresses, ball gowns, and opulent jewelry. Think Cinderella and long white gloves, though white gloves are now optional in this modern era.
Truly, there is nothing more sophisticated than a man in black tie attire and nothing more glamorous than a woman dressed for her black tie event. If you have received one of those invitations that says “Black tie event,” then get excited because it’s sure to be a night to remember.