So you have an invitation that reads ‘black tie dress code’ and wonder what black tie means in an age of casual fashion and digital styles?
We caught up with stylist Liz Teich (whose clients include Tom Brady, Ashley Graham, and the cast of Stranger Things) to share the modern dressing rules for black tie to avoid being underdressed.
Liz explains that there are two formal dress codes: White and Black Tie; White Tie is the most formal dress code possible, except for White Tie Decoration, which is only used for royal ceremonies where the wearer displays medals of honor.
The Black tie dress code is less formal than the white tie and gives room for personal interpretations of the dress code according to the context, such as the event’s formalness or the venue.
Remember that black-tie events are all about following key dressing rules, as the devil is in the details: the bow tie style, the cufflinks, and even the shine level of your shoes.
When worn right, black-tie outfits are excellent opportunities to look rich and the best you ever will.
In this article, we’ll guide you, step by step, on how to dress for the black tie event you’re about to attend.
What is a Black Tie Event?
A black-tie invitation denotes two things:
- The event is highly important: an awards ceremony, a milestone birthday party, an exquisite wedding, a prestigious ball, a black-tie dinner, a wedding reception, or even a wedding cake event.
- The event where organizers expect you to follow a particular dress code; in this case, a black-tie dress code.
What Does Black Tie Dress Code Mean?
Dressing up for evening events has been popular for centuries.
However, the white and black-tie dress codes came into force in the Edwardian era.
The Edwardian era (1901-1914) was the last period in British history to be named after the monarch who reigned over it.
The default after-dark look of those times was plain trousers, a waistcoat, a dinner jacket, and a black bow tie.
Nowadays, a black-tie code describes a formal outfit worn at social functions and events that commence after 6 pm.
The style has retained royal attire elements such as tails, a black-tie shirt’s winged collar, and a bow tie.
Inspired by Beau Brummell’s early 19th-century cravat, the bow tie (often confused with the black-tie dress code) is just a vestimentary accessory, part of the black-tie dress code.
And here’s something I bet you did not know: the traditional tie was not even black.
The choice was midnight blue because it looked even darker than black in artificial lighting.
What to Wear to a Black Tie Event
Let’s get to the core of the matter – what to wear at a black-tie event.
From the dinner jacket to the patent shoes and waistcoats to cufflinks, here’s everything you need for a perfect black tie outfit.
The black-tie dress code means different things for men and women.
According to Debrett’s etiquette guide, a proper black-tie outfit for a man must be made of silk and black wool (barathea).
The jacket should be single-breasted or double-breasted with no vents, silk peaked lapels (or a shawl collar), and covered buttons.
The centerpiece of your black-tie outfits, the dinner jacket is a must-have.
Together with the color of the bow tie, the silk-lapelled jacket is the central part of the black-tie dress code.
Guided by the increasing V depth, there are three different types of lapels:
- Notch Lapel
- Peak Lapel
- Shawl Lapel
With the ‘deepest’ V shape on this list, the latest (shawl lapel) is commonly found on tuxedo suits.
It is also perceived as the most traditional style and arguably the smartest.
Material-wise, traditional dinner jackets are made from silk.
“Wool barathea is equally fine today. Velvet is also acceptable and even favored at times for a more relaxed look“
explains Simon Cundey, Director of Henry Poole & Co.
The most accepted (and used) color at black-tie events is black.
And while white dinner jackets are sometimes worn at black-tie events, that’s acceptable in hot climates, but not in countries like Britain.
While white tuxedos are tricky to match, I’ve seen stunning combos of off-white with black lapels and black trousers.
If you experiment with black tie dress code colors, you might want to google Donald Glover’s black-tie tuxedos, particularly the brown Gucci one!
Or, David Gandy’s grey dinner jacket for a good example of a “not-so-black” black tie in velvet.
And, for an edgy look, google Henry Golding veering from tradition in ostentatious style in a metallic Tom Ford jacket.
And to top it up, you can wear a double-breasted jacket as a brilliant stylistic touch.
But remember, double-breasted jackets are not something you’d see in traditional black tie dress codes.
The choice of trousers for a black-tie event is quite simple.
You’ll be fine as long as the trousers are dark, fitted, match the jacket’s cut, and don’t end up legless during the event.
Here’s one key tip from Simon Cundey, the ‘lord of black-tie attire’:
“The BLACK TIE trousers should have braces to give you vertical lines and the comfort needed to indulge yourself.“
Whether you opt for a break at the hem is up to you; please ensure there’s no more than one.
Oh, and avoid anything that clings, anywhere, at all costs.
Black tie shirts are also known as dress shirts.
Traditional black-tie shirts are pleated and have a winged collar and holes for cufflinks on the sleeve.
You can also go for cummerbund (nothing to do with Benedict Cumberbatch! – we’ll get to what cummerbund is in a moment).
If so, you should wear black buttons to break up the white space.
And, if you wear a waistcoat, choose white buttons over black.
Never wear your black office shoes at a black-tie event.
A black-tie dress code requires at least a step up from the smart outfit you wear daily; it is an evening, formal wear, after all.
Classic, elegant, and matching well against the suit’s formality, black patent shoes are preferred for any black-tie event.
Black suede shoes are not advised, as suede looks dusty under artificial light.
However, if you decide to wear a velvet jacket or a jacket style with a velvet collar, you must also match it with velvet slippers.
Overall, the combo might give you that extra casual-cool factor that modern celebrities try to pull off nowadays.
When choosing your black-tie socks (or socks for any formal occasions), there are two main things to bear in mind:
Showing your leg skin is crude, so wearing ‘evening socks’ is a must.
However, pay attention not to wear evening socks made of thin material as it’ll show the skin if the trouser leg strays upwards.
Equally, if you choose a sock thicket over the standard evening style, ensure you can still fit your shoes.
Finally, unless you’re a black-tie dress code expert and know how to handle the controversy of wearing colored socks, always wear black.
6. Bow Tie
All requirements regarding the dinner jacket choice apply to the bow tie as well.
Your bow tie should always be hand-tied, so give yourself some extra preparation time.
You might have seen Timothee Chalamet attending a black-tie event without wearing a tie (pic below).
Timothee’s stylistic choice – known as ‘air tie’ – works only if the rest of your outfit is perfectly balanced and impeccably smart.
You also might need to look better, or at least like Timothee Chalamet, but that’s another story.
Bow tie color deviations are accepted as well.
However, don’t do it unless it works stylistically-wise.
What do I mean by that? Well, unless it matches the shoes, jacket, trousers, etc.
Above all, never wear a white bow tie at a black-tie event.
White bow ties are to be worn (as the name suggests) only at white tie events – some of the most elevated dress codes – more about this in a future article.
Black vs. White Tie
White tie attire is also known as ‘full evening dress,’ ‘full dress,’ ‘evening dress,’ or, informally, as ‘tails.’
As one of the rarest dress codes you’ll ever see on an invitation, even celebrities struggle to nail the look.
Speaking on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Anna Wintour revealed that many of her 2014 Met Gala male guests barely scraped by with their white tie outfits.
Unlike black tie, there’s very little room for style maneuvering, as a white tie dress code has strict guidelines.
Men must ensure their outfit includes a black, single-breasted tailcoat in black wool (barathea) or ultra-fine herringbone with silk peaked lapels, which must be unbuttoned.
The coat must be custom fit, shorter at the front than a morning coat, and paired with black trousers with a natural taper and two lines of braids down the outside leg.
A man’s black-tie look is usually finished with a white handkerchief in the left breast pocket and polished black shoes.
Optional black-tie attire includes cummerbunds and waistcoats – though the two should never be worn together.
The word cummerbund entered the English vocabulary in 1616 from India.
The word combines ‘Kamar,’ which translates as waist, and ‘band,’ meaning strap or lacing.
A modern cummerbund is a broad waist sash of various designs, including pleats.
In the past, cummerbunds were worn with double-breasted tail coats, but nowadays are worn with single-breasted dinner jackets (or tuxedos).
Cummerbunds are not a black-tie dress code staple, but they show you respect the dress code and have researched.
“The most important rule of the black tie dress (forgotten nowadays) is hiding the waist, which leads to the construction of a powerful V at the chest.
Shooting up towards the shoulders, framed by silk, peaked lapels…your figure is flattered“
…argues Simon Crompton, author of ‘The Finest Menswear in the World: The Craftsmanship of Luxury.’
According to Henry Poole, a bespoke tailor located at Savile Row in London, wearing a cummerbund is not the only solution.
A smart waistcoat keeps things sophisticated while providing the same functionality as a cummerbund.
Nevertheless, you might want to wear a deeper, U-shaped waistcoat to retain an aristocratic air regarding your overall look.
What black tie accessories do you need?
Here are some good examples:
The watch must be slim, ideally made of gold, and on a black alligator strap.
Now, some of the most popular black-tie watches are Cartier, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Patek Philippe.
That being said, I’ve also recently seen the advent of luxury smartwatches at black-tie events.
Cufflinks are a must regarding the black-tie dress code!
However, don’t go for anything too fancy; the simpler, the better.
Jewelry is a great (and subtle) way of showcasing where your allegiance lies. Not often discussed in a black-tie ensemble, rings are a must.
The rings are created by BLACKHEAD, a unisex jewelry brand founded by the LGBTQ+ advocate Black Liu, in collaboration with MISHKA, a Brooklyn-based streetwear brand.
Wearing a pocket square is optional.
But, if you do, keep it simple.
Above all, no cartoon pocket squares, please.
This is the most ignored part of a black-tie ensemble and, yet, one of the most important.
You must wear a good quality, ideally a custom-made, Eau de parfum.
Most, if not all, people attending a black-tie event are wealthy and able to sense an expensive (and genuine) fragrance from a cheap or, even worse, a fake one.
If you’re on a budget, go for a genuine eau de toilette, cologne, or even a splash of aftershave.
Subtle is the main word here, as you don’t want to smell like you work in Lush.
5 Celebrities Wearing Black Tie Attire
The following 5 celebs are known for wearing black tie outfits to perfection.
1. Roger Federer
Pictured above is a wild Roger Federer at ease in his natural environment, casually donning his pristine black-tie outfit; no qualms, troubles, only smiles.
After attending so many black-tie events, the tennis player is the epitome of high class, silky smoothness, and effortless style.
By sticking by the rulebook and executing them to perfection, Federer’s black-tie outfits (and not only) are always immaculate.
2. Donald Glover
The fantastic thing about Donald Glover is that he can wear a traditional black tie and look like a Greek God.
On the flip side, if he strays from the norm, he looks just as elegant.
For example, that brown velvet dinner suit you see him wearing in the pic above takes massive sartorial knowledge, professional help, and charisma to pull it off.
3. Timothee Chalamet
The art of black tie, black shirt, black blazer, black trousers, black shoes, all-black.
When unsure, take the color signifier in the dress code excessively literally.
Although Timothee’s choice of black-tie outfits is unconventional, at least his dressing sense is fashionable.
4. James Corden
The silvery-white sheen of Corden’s jacket here is a 50/50 split of attention-grabbing and suave.
Corden proves you don’t need to have the metabolism of a rake or a Hollywood personal trainer to give you incredible style when attending a black-tie event.
5. David Oyelowo
Please let us know if you’ve seen a sharper white dinner jacket.
I love the black peak lapel detail as it brings a subtle consistency to a bold black-tie jacket choice.
The 43-year-old actor, most famous for his role in Selma as Martin Luther King, matches it with a patent leather slipper.
6. James Bond
It’s a fictional character, yet the actors playing the special agent have armies of black-tie experts dressing them up, so there’s a lot to learn here.
The best-dressed James Bond was Sean Connery in Dr. No in his 19th-century smoking jacket.
Wearing a black dickie bow, shawl lapel jacket in midnight blue, and midnight blue satin detailing, Sean Connery looked out of this world.
And after almost three decades of Bond films, the directors are returning to the original style.
From the ‘No Time To Die’ poster, we see the return of the midnight blue shawl lapel dinner jacket but with pronounced stitching this time.
It’s a vintage black tie. It’s a vintage Bond.
Black Tie Etiquette Tips
There are a few black-tie etiquette elements that you should be aware of:
For example, never refer to your black-tie jacket as a DJ – (short for dinner jacket).
And please don’t joke about your dinner jacket having excellent musical taste.
Remember that it is a formal event, and a certain amount of formal behavior is required.
Don’t get drunk, stretch over the table, shout expletives, or throw food on the floor just because you’re wearing a black-tie outfit. Don’t be arrogant; smile and be kind.
At the same time, Sathnam Sanghera from the Times argues that:
“The worst type [at a black tie event] is the guy who takes it all too seriously”
I hope this black-tie dress guide has provided you with the much-needed historical background on why we wear the way we wear black ties.
Also, by now, you should know what is traditionally allowed and not on this strict dress code.
You’ve learned what to look for in a tuxedo, what shirt to wear, how to choose your bow tie, and many other black-tie rules you need to know.
Finally, remember to have fun regardless of your choice – a classic style black-tie outfit or a more modern and relaxed one.
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With an AA from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and over five years of experience in the fashion industry, Susan Kim is the founder of Sum+Style Co. - a Seattle-based personal styling company turned online marketplace focused on innovative K-Fashion (Korean Fashion) styles. Kim's expertise in men's and women's styling for the most demanding occasions has her editorial pieces covered by top fashion and style magazines worldwide.