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Dress Code Guide: What Does White Tie Mean?

Man tying a white bow tie for formal white tie dress
Elena Yakusheva/Shutterstock.com

The pinnacle of Western formality is white tie attire, as seen on red carpets and at government functions. Here’s how to ensure you nail the look.

White tie dress codes aren’t common, so getting this kind of invitation can be special and exciting. However, you’ll also need to do your homework—showing up underdressed to a white tie event is  especially gauche.

To wrap up our Dress Code Guide series, we’ll help you navigate white tie occasions. And even if you never get invited to a white tie event, GQ says wearing white tie attire to a black tie event is okay—so if this guide makes you want to try out this formal look, we’re sure you’ll find a way.

White Tie: A Definition

Unlike other semiformal and formal dress codes, which started out as casual and became formal over the years, white tie has always been formal. The attire replaced the frilly, fancy formal wear of the 1700s, and hasn’t changed all that much since it first caught on about 200 years ago.

While black tie offers some room for interpretation (think “creative black tie” invitations), a white tie look allows little creativity. As with morning dress, you’ll need to follow the rules and stick to tradition. Fashion rules are generally made to be broken, but breaking the rules of white tie can come off as rude and disrespectful to your host.

Also, note that not all white tie invitations say “white tie” on them. If you see a request for tails, dress suits, or full evening dress, prepare to show up in white tie attire.

When to Dress in White Tie Attire

White tie events are few and far between, but include:

  • Banquets
  • Balls
  • Government functions
  • Formal awards ceremonies
  • Formal weddings

Even though GQ promises that white tie is permitted at black tie events (it’s better to overdress than underdress, after all), you’ll want to avoid dressing fancier than your host. This means that most of the time, you should avoid white tie attire unless it’s requested.

And if it is requested, you have to wear it. There’s no “white tie optional” invitation.

White Tie Ideas for Women

woman descending a staircase outdoors in a beautiful long red satin dress
Focus and Blur/Shutterstock

Ladies, it’s time to break out the ball gowns. For a white tie event, you can wear:

  • Long, formal dresses and gowns
  • Ball gowns

Although the line between dress and gown is blurry, a gown implies something more formal, and formal is the way to go here. This isn’t the place for a cocktail dress or a breezy maxi dress. Short dresses and pants are out of the question.

To make the look formal enough, opt for fancy, structured fabrics. Typically, a ball gown has a tight bodice and a full skirt, but you can find less-structured gowns and formal dresses that will work, too. It’s essential that whatever style you choose fits nicely.

While there is the occasional “creative white tie” event (like the Met Gala), most white tie occasions require formality, rather than trendiness. You can show some personality with the style and color of gown you choose, but don’t veer too far outside the box of tradition.

Wearing low-cut, thin-strapped, or strapless dress styles is appropriate her. If the evening will require dancing, however, make sure your dress will stay put through the night.

Gloves are no longer required for white tie occasions; if you wear them, opt for a long, white pair. Wear formal shoes, such as heels, but make sure they’re comfortable enough to get you through the night. If you can’t wear heels, fancy flats will work, especially if they’re hidden under your long dress.

This is the right time to glitter in lots of jewelry, but avoid anything that looks too cheap or costumey. Whether it’s up or down, make sure your hair is nicely styled, and complement your look with whatever makeup feels right.

For cold-weather events, make sure to wear an appropriate evening wrap—fur is traditional, although we absolutely suggest opting for faux fur rather than the real deal.

White Tie Ideas for Men

To make a white tie suit, men will need these items:

  • Evening tailcoats
  • Trousers
  • Waistcoats
  • Evening shirts

And, as you can imagine, a white bow tie is a must. You’ll need a white waistcoat to match it, and you should hand-tie your bow tie since pre-tied is never as formal.

Your evening tailcoat will be short in the front and long in the back, like a morning coat, but the cut is slightly different. You’ll need peaked lapels (white tie suits don’t give you options, unlike tuxedos), and your coat always needs to be unbuttoned. Yes, a buttoned coat seems like it would be more formal, but we didn’t make the rules.

Unfortunately, you can’t repurpose your other dress trousers here. White tie trousers need lines of grosgrain, satin, or braid on the outside, and should be high waisted so the top is hidden by the waistcoat. It’s best to opt for a black wool tailcoat and trousers to stick with tradition, although some sources say dark blue is also acceptable. As with morning dress, you’ll need suspenders to keep your trousers in place.

You’ll also need a special white evening dress shirt for this occasion. These dress shirts have winged collars and holes for cufflinks (but the cuffs should be single, not double). Swap out the buttons for classy, light-colored studs.

If you want to accessorize further, add an optional top hat or white dress gloves—or both! You’ll need patent leather dress shoes and black dress socks (evening socks if you want to really follow the rules—but no one’s likely to notice if you wear regular dress socks instead). Adding a dress cane is acceptable, though these are rare in the modern day.

Finally, wear a formal black overcoat if it’s a cold-weather event. And, of course, make sure to visit your tailor—the point of formal attire is lost if it’s not fitted correctly.

You may never have a white tie event in your life, unless you make one yourself. (And why shouldn’t you?) But just in case you do, this guide will have you covered—and if you don’t, be sure to check out the rest of the Dress Code Guide series to help you navigate the more common Western dress codes you’ll encounter.

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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