Black Tie Dress Codes
"Black Tie", "Black Tie
The appearance of
on an invitation indicates unequivocally that the host expects
tuxedos to be worn. Black Tie Required or Black Tie Only
the same thing but can come across as heavy-handed.
Hosts should avoid the latter unless they are certain that
there will be guests too naďve or inconsiderate to infer the
mandatory nature of the former.
There will likely be those few guests who will wrongly interpret
Black Tie to simply mean "formal" and arrive in whatever they feel
appropriately dressy. A gracious host will excuse the
appearance of the uninformed among them, viewing the transgression
as a valuable learning experience for these guests. As for the
willfully inconsiderate, the host’s congeniality need last only as
long as the evening.
Wear proper black tie or
send your regrets. It’s
Hosts and organizers do not specify this dress code because they
want you showing up in a black suit. Rather, they have put a
tremendous amount of effort into making the evening exceptional and
are relying on you to respect the unique elegance and traditional
uniformity that black tie so brilliantly imparts. Yet there always seem to be those men who feel
the party is all about them and they can dress as they please.
“Some guys,” observed The National Post, “especially younger
fellows who feel they’re really successful, take pride in flouting
dress codes and showing up in business suits, often not dark, and
without a tie . . . Perhaps kids think it’s too much trouble to rent
or buy a black tie. Grow
up or don’t show up.”
And if you’re tempted to
make an ironic statement, carefully consider the advice of Details
Men's Style Manual: “Don’t try to
bring back lost styles.
You might think you’re sending up the self-serious but you’re really
just being rude.”
"Black Tie Preferred", "Black Tie Requested"
This terminology is used by
those who want to host a very formal party but do not want to
exclude guests that cannot afford a tuxedo.
Invited guests genuinely
unable to meet the expense of buying or even renting a dinner jacket
may wear a dark suit and tie instead. Guests that own or can
easily afford a dinner jacket but cannot be bothered to wear one
should politely decline the invitation. To do otherwise is
boorish as it tells the organizers in no uncertain terms that their
preferences are irrelevant.
"Black Tie Optional"
Black Tie Optional (or Black
Tie Invited) allows hosts to suggest that men wear tuxedos but not
to insist on it. This code is often employed in the context of
large gatherings of civic or business groups, such as a dinner
sponsored by a chamber of commerce.
The reality, though, is that
this dress code is basically the formal equivalent of “business
casual”: an attempt to please everyone that ultimately benefits
no-one. As Canadian fashion columnist Russell Smith explains
in Men’s Style, it is frequently a cop-out employed by
It means that the planners
of the party began by envisioning a glittering formal affair, with
neatly groomed men in stark black and white as sober backdrops for
the dramatic colour and flashes of flesh of the women.
And so they wrote “Black Tie” on the invitations – and then
immediately had doubts . . . What if we are excluding those without
resources to own a dinner jacket?
What if we are insulting the men with beards and Jethro Tull
albums who don’t believe in such elitist dress and who may refuse on
principle to come to such a stuffy affair?
Consequently, these hesitant
hosts deprive men of the reassurance and clarity they seek from a
precise dress code, forcing them instead to partake in a no-win
guessing game. If the
large majority of men decide to wear dinner jackets then the
minority who dress in suits may appear inconsiderate and classless.
Conversely, if the majority shows up in suits then the minority will
likely feel put out.
Smith advises party planners
that such anxieties are illogical.
Firstly, no guest in this day and age will honestly expect to
be barred from a Black Tie party if he can only afford a dark suit.
Secondly, the “optional” aspect will be gleefully seized upon
by the Jethro Tull brigade (described by Smith “rock music critics
or Canadian novelists”) as permission to show up in their comfy
sweaters thus guaranteeing a motley party instead of the swank
affair envisioned by the host.
As for the sensitive men who feel that owning a dinner jacket
would be vaguely decadent?
“Well, if they are opposed to decadent glamour," says Smith,
"then they shouldn’t want to attend the party at all.”
Guests faced with the
frustrating dilemma posed by tepid hosts that can't decide between
the standard "Black
Tie" and "Business Attire" codes should contact the organizers to find out
how they expect their guests will actually dress.
If this information is not available then experts offer a
number of choices that are perfectly kosher:
if a man
enjoys any opportunity to wear his tuxedo he should do so (this was
Frank Sinatra’s preferred solution to the "optional" conundrum)
if a man fears
being mistaken for the wait staff he should opt for a dark suit,
white dress shirt, conservative tie, dress socks to match the suit
and well-shined calfskin dress shoes
if a man
refuses to play this no-win guessing game he should steer clear of
the event altogether
"Creative Black Tie"
This designation is defined
by Emily Post’s Etiquette as a “tuxedo combined with trendy or
whimsical items” (usually related to the party’s theme) which most
experts suggest be limited to the shirt, tie or accessories.
GQ’s Style Guy describes it as “Dressing like the fashion
victims you see on the Oscars.
Tuxedos with black shirts.
Tuxedos with no ties.
Tuxedos with bolo ties.”
However, the details are
largely irrelevant because the code should be avoided by hosts out
of consideration for their guests. As Russell Smith points
out, “If the words ‘black-tie optional’ on an invitation hit a panic
button for most men, the words ‘creative black tie’ are even worse.
Who would want to go to a party, unless it’s a fancy dress
ball, to be judged by his costume?”
It appears that party
planners are getting the message judging by a 2008 Wall Street
Journal article titled “Uncreative Black Tie Please” which reported
on a backlash brewing against “goofy” dress codes.
It quotes a spokeswoman for the Emily
Post Institute as saying that “The range of options can often be
more frustrating rather than helpful for the invited” and that good
manners require a host to make guests feel comfortable, not
insecure. A Fort
Lauderdale event planner who learned her lesson the hard way tells
the newspaper “I would rather throw a party and receive 25 calls
after, saying ‘What a great party that was,’ than [get] 25 calls
beforehand asking, ‘What does this mean?’”
The moral of the story:
leave the Black Tie code to its intended purpose of providing
clarity, uniformity and sophistication.
Guests should be equally
leery of this unfortunate by-product of 1980s
The expert consensus is that only those men who are well
versed in sartorial style and the fundamentals of proper black tie
can ascertain what type of ensemble successfully qualifies for this
category. In the hands
of the uneducated it can all too easily be used to degrade the
venerable dinner jacket into a sophomoric gimmick.
As Smith so succinctly puts it, “There is nothing more
pathetic than a failed flamboyant.”
Black-tie aficionados should instead heed the advice of A
Gentleman Gets Dressed Up which reminds us that when confronted with
such “clever” dress codes as Creative Black Tie, “a gentleman has
every right to dress as traditionally as he chooses.”
Whether you wear a tuxedo
out of necessity or out of choice, there are a substantial number of
options available to you regarding the details of your dinner suit. Experienced guests will recognize that not all black-tie
events are created equal and will therefore look to each occasion’s
level of formality for clues as to which sartorial variations are
The most formal types of
black-tie affairs include prestigious soirees such as state dinners,
business awards and formal evening weddings.
In such circumstances refined guests will display their
respect for their hosts by choosing attire that meets the
requirements of proper
black tie. Better
yet, they will opt for classic black tie, the highest possible standard for the dinner
Black-tie parties and
celebrations, on the other hand, offer more latitude.
Swank invitation-only gala dinners and upscale cultural
fetes, for example, still suggest a preference for proper black tie
but are also appropriate opportunities for personalizing your look
Black Tie Optional affairs, semi-private black-tie parties (such as
a New Year’s Eve celebration at a night club), and public events
with an unwritten black-tie tradition (such as opening nights at the
theater or opera) offer the greatest amount of leeway.
Here guests may opt for contemporary variations by taking a few liberties with the
institution's traditions while still respecting its overall form and
formal nights on elegant transatlantic crossings suggest more
conservative choices than do those on budget-priced Caribbean