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Dress Code Guide: What Does Black Tie Optional Mean?

Couple dressed in black tie optional formal wear
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

In the world of dress codes, the term “formal” has gone through a series of changes over the decades. Here’s what the term entails.

Formal once implied “as fancy as it gets,” suggesting white tie or black tie. But today, if someone expects white or black tie attire, they’ll usually specify that. When the dress code just says formal, it usually means something more like black tie optional.

“Black tie optional” and “formal” are two common, nearly interchangeable dress codes for fancy events. Although they’re a little more relaxed than white and black tie, you’ll want to make sure you don’t accidentally show up underdressed.

Black Tie Optional: A Definition

The word “optional” here means yes, you can wear black tie attire—but you don’t have to if you don’t want to or don’t have any.

Since people today typically don’t own many truly formal clothes, this dress code gives guests some welcome flexibility. The hosts expect you to look your best, but they don’t expect you to run out and buy or rent a tuxedo.

Black tie optional can also overlap with cocktail and lounge attire, but when in doubt, it’s always best to go a little dressier.

When to Dress Black Tie Optional

Your black tie optional clothes will work best for these occasions:

  • Weddings
  • Fundraisers
  • Galas
  • Dinner parties

If a dress code for an event isn’t specified, you’re usually safe showing up in nothing fancier than cocktail attire. But if it seems like a classy event, you can play it safe with a black tie optional look.

Black Tie Optional Ideas for Women

Women’s black tie optional clothes include these:

  • Fancy cocktail dresses
  • Evening gowns
  • Suits

You can make your black tie optional look more or less formal, depending on what you choose to wear. A short dress will look less formal, so if you wear one, make sure it’s fancy. For a safe dose of glamour, choose a floor-length gown instead. A luxe suit also works well for women who prefer to wear pants.

Wear your heels or dressy flats, and don’t be shy with accessories. These are typically evening events, so you can go big with statement jewelry and makeup. This is also an appropriate time for low necklines and glitzy fabrics, as long as the look remains classy.

Fancy touches, like clutches and long gloves, suit a black tie optional look too—but as the name suggests, this level of fanciness is optional.

Black Tie Optional Ideas for Men

Men should wear these to formal or black tie optional events:

  • Tuxedos
  • Dark-colored suits
  • White dress shirts

Leave the light linen suits at home, and opt for a color like charcoal or black instead. Similarly, swap out your colored dress shirt for a more formal white one (French cuffs with cufflinks are ideal, but not required). You can also wear a tuxedo if you want.

Keep your tie conservative, in a solid color. Bow ties are also appropriate. Wear shined leather dress shoes and a matching belt, with dress socks to match your suit. Consider accessorizing with a pocket square.


Black tie optional dress codes are meant to save you from the hassle of running out to buy a new, event-specific outfit for a formal occasion. A tuxedo or evening gown is great, but your business suit or cocktail dress will work, too. Show your hosts you appreciate the flexibility by putting together your classiest look with whatever you have on hand.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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