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Dress Code Guide: What Does Black Tie Mean?

Couple dressed for a black-tie event, the man is wearing a tuxedo and the woman is wearing an elegant gown
Viorel Sima/Shutterstock

Have an invitation to a black-tie event in hand and want to be sure you’re properly attired? We’re here to help.

Black tie may be the second-most formal of evening dress codes, but for many people, it’s the most formal they’ll ever need to dress. White-tie invitations are rare unless you’re wealthy, famous, or in politics. But the chances are high that you’ll be invited to a black-tie event at some point in your life.

Never fear! Formal dress codes are often easier to navigate than casual ones, although the clothes are usually more expensive. While terms like “dressy casual” leave room for interpretation, black tie gives you straightforward limitations regarding what you can wear. Keep this guide as a reference, so you can impress everyone the next time you attend a black-tie function.

Black Tie: A Definition

Black tie is sometimes called the “tux” or “tuxedo” dress code because that is what men are expected to wear.

Tuxedos appeared in the mid-19th century, offering a casual alternative to tailcoats. (At the time, even casual wear was much fancier than it is today.) But post-World War I, the Autumn Ball in New York’s Tuxedo Park gave the garment both its name and its fame. The ball had historically been a formal white-tie affair, but the dress code changed to the less-formal tuxedo after the war.

Tuxedos were initially designed to strike a balance between informal lounge suits and highly formal tailcoats. They were first called “dinner jackets,” as they were perfect for informal evening events (the term is still used today).

These days, tuxedos and other black-tie attire are reserved for very formal events, as dress codes overall have shifted toward the casual. You may not need this knowledge often, but it’s valuable to know how to dress to impress at a black-tie function.

When to Wear Black Tie

You’ll never need to wear black-tie attire unless it’s expressly requested. Black-tie events can include:

  • Formal weddings
  • Formal dinners
  • Balls
  • Galas
  • Fundraisers

Black-tie events are sometimes labeled “black tie required” to distinguish them from the less formal “black tie optional.” Other invitations may indicate “black tie preferred” or “black tie requested.” At those events, men should wear a tuxedo (if they can afford one) or a dark suit (if they can’t). However, if you see only “black tie” as the dress code, you should assume that it’s required.

“Creative black tie” is a similar dress code option. This means that you should still follow the rules of black-tie attire, but you can get creative with interesting colors, fabrics, and trends.

At many black-tie events, some guests wrongly interpret the dress code to mean “formal.” Although the hosts will hopefully be understanding when people accidentally underdress, it’s best not to be one of those people—and since you have this guide, you won’t!

Black Tie for Women

The black-tie dress code obviously emphasizes the tuxedo. Women have it a little easier because the same dresses and gowns often work for formal, black-tie, and white-tie events. You should wear a long dress or gown, or a formal cocktail dress.

While floor-length silhouettes are most common, a short-but-fancy cocktail dress will often work for a black-tie event. You might even be able to put together a black-tie look using formal separates, like a long skirt with a nice blouse. However, this is difficult to do without looking overly casual, so it’s best avoided.

Any color will work, although if you opt for white, take care that it doesn’t look too much like a wedding dress (and of course, never wear white to a wedding). Black, other dark colors, and jewel tones are always safe choices.

Even though the dress code is formal, black-tie events can lean toward the more formal or more laid-back. For traditional events, you’ll want to opt for classic designs, but for other occasions—like creative black-tie events—you can have fun with interesting trends in your dress or accessories. No matter what, make sure your dress is well fitted and made with high-quality fabric.

Heels are traditional, but if you can’t or don’t want to wear them for the health of your feet, fancy flats can work. Add jewels, long gloves, clutches, and other formal accessories to elevate your look. Hair can be up or down, and makeup can be anything you want as long as it’s polished.

If it’s cold out, make sure to invest in a formal overcoat, or a nice wrap or shawl. Leave your practical puffer coat at home!

Black Tie for Men

Men don’t have quite as many options as women do here. If the dress code says black tie, you have to wear a tuxedo. But even in a tuxedo, you can express your personal style.

First, there’s the color of your tux. While black is traditional, dark blue makes a great alternative if you want something a little different. White dinner jackets stand out in a crowd and work well in the summer. Different colors and fabrics, and even some patterns, can work for a creative black-tie occasion.

Then there’s the material: a velvet jacket instead of a traditional fabric looks vintage and interesting. You can also choose between different lapel styles, like the structured “peak” or the minimalist “shawl.”

Your trousers should match your jacket with some exceptions. For instance, you should wear regular trousers with a velvet jacket, or black trousers with a white jacket. Make sure to get your tux tailored, including the trousers, so the length and fit are just right. A slim cut strikes the perfect balance between modern and classic.

You’ll typically wear a simple white dress shirt and a black bow tie. Make sure to pick a formal dress shirt with holes for cufflinks—this isn’t your everyday button-down. If the dress code says “creative black tie,” you can wear a black dress shirt, a red bow tie, or some other trendy variation. For a more formal event, you can show a bit of personality with a unique bow tie. However, avoid wearing a white bow tie unless it’s a white-tie event.

Waistcoats (vests) are optional and should match your tux (plain black is traditional, but textured fabrics or other dark colors can add variety). If you don’t wear a waistcoat, you might wear a cummerbund that matches your bow tie, but both are slowly becoming optional for black-tie events. Make sure to wear one or the other for the most formal black-tie occasions, though.

Polished patent leather dress shoes, like oxfords, are a safe choice, but you can also choose more creative options, like formal velvet slippers. Wear dress socks that match your trousers. You should definitely wear cufflinks, but other accessories, like a dress watch or pocket square, are optional. Keep accessories simple and classic.

In the winter, you can also add a formal overcoat to your look. In all seasons, impeccably groomed hair and facial hair is crucial.

For most people, black-tie invitations are relatively uncommon. If you’re lucky enough to get one, take the opportunity to go all out and look your best. By expressing yourself within black-tie rules, you might find that dressing for formal events can be fun.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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