Defining Black Tie

Qualifying The Experts


While there is a universal understanding that black tie is a dress code, definitions of the code’s specific attire can vary widely.  The question then becomes, whose definition is correct?

Before we assess the validity of various definitions we first must place the black-tie code in context:



 the code is used specifically to maximize an occasion’s formality 

 "formal", in turn, is defined as the maintaining of tradition

 traditions evolve  (If they didn’t then the tuxedo would still be  unacceptable in mixed company)

Viewed in this perspective we can determine the qualification of a given definition's source:


the most relevant sources are experts on conventional etiquette and menswear 

because fashion experts focus on the short term their opinions are applicable only when a long-term pattern emerges

sources that heavily emphasize personal flair can be dismissed altogether as they run counter to black tie’s traditional emphasis on uniformity

published sources are more valid than amateur commentators as they are more likely to have legitimate credentials and to influence the population at large



The Expert Consensus


Upon examining the advice of this select group of pundits it quickly becomes apparent that the true definition of black tie lies in its details. 


Furthermore, despite the diversity of the experts sources and the century-long evolution of the dress code, the cumulated details are largely identical.  This fact completely discredits the argument that black tie is simply a matter of personal interpretation.


The Short Answer


Black Tie is a dress code that for men consists of the traditional tuxedo and accompaniments: a black dinner jacket and matching trousers, an optional black formal waistcoat or black cummerbund, a white formal shirt, a black bow tie or alternatively a black long tie, black dress socks and black formal shoes.  In hot weather a white dinner jacket may be substituted and the cummerbund is the preferred waist covering.


The Complete Answer


The simplistic summary above may be suitable for a dictionary but in a practical sense it raises more questions than it answers: What qualifies as a "dinner jacket"?  A "formal shirt"?  "Dress socks"?  Therefore, in order to actually assemble a proper black-tie outfit each of its components requires its own definition: 

1. jacket

    · black wool is the norm
    · midnight blue is equally correct

model can be:
    · single-breasted
    · double-breasted

lapels can be:
    · peaked lapel
    · shawl collar
    · notched lapel is most popular but not accepted by


and can have:
    · satin facing
    · grosgrain facing

no vents is most formal

one button is traditional for single-breasted models but two buttons are becoming acceptable

pockets should not have flaps


2. trousers

same material as jacket

single braid along outside seams to match lapel facings

cut for suspenders (braces in UK)

no cuffs (turnups in UK)


3. waist covering

optional waist covering is traditionally either:
    · black cummerbund made from silk to match jacket facings;

       best suited to shawl collar jacket; not particularly popular in

    · black low-cut evening waistcoat; best suited to peaked lapel


either is worn with single-breasted jacket models but not with double-breasted


4. shirt

white fabric, turndown collar

fronts can be either pleated or piqué (marcella in UK)

shirt traditionally has eyelets for studs; some authorities allow for fly-fronts

French cuffs (double cuffs in UK)

wing collar is considered unflattering or inappropriate for black tie by most authorities; some allow it but only in its traditional white tie form


5. neckwear

black self-tie silk bow tie to match lapel facings

black silk four-in-hand tie (long tie) has become a popular alternative although it is rejected by traditionalists


6.  footwear   

black shoes can be:
    · patent or highly polished leather oxfords (most popular)
    · patent or highly polished leather pumps (most traditional)

black silk or fine fabric hose, over-the-calf length


7. accessories

harmonizing black, gold or mother-of-pearl studs and cufflinks

suspenders (braces in UK) of black or white silk  

optional white silk or linen handkerchief as pocket square



chesterfield coat is most conventional but any other dark dressy coat is acceptable; rain (trench) coats are not appropriate

evening dress scarf of white silk with tassels

Warm-Weather Variation


Acceptable as a substitute to standard black tie year round in tropical climates and in summer in North America.


1. jacket

white or preferably ivory

self-faced lapels

all other details as per classic jacket


2. trousers


all other details as per standard black-tie trousers


3. waist covering

black cummerbund

4. shirt

as per standard black-tie shirt


5. neckwear

as per standard black-tie neckwear


6.  footwear   

as per standard black-tie footwear


7. accessories

optional colored silk or linen handkerchief as pocket square

all other details as per standard black-tie accessories



The Code's Variety


Obviously, proper black tie is a far more specific dress code than anything the average man is likely to encounter outside of the military.  What may not be so obvious, especially to the novice, is just how much of this seemingly restrictive list is actually optional.  Take a second look and you will see that much of black tie’s dress code is not about what you must wear but what you may wear.  It is this extent of choice that lies behind black tie’s genius – not to mention its survival in the face of contemporary trends that have virtually banished the far more austere white tie dress code.


In fact, the amount of choice can be a little overwhelming.  But don’t worry, the Relative Formality discussion will help you narrow down the choices based on what is appropriate for various types of occasions and the Classic Black Tie section will help you achieve your desired look based on how each option impacts the end result.