etiquette is the basis
of the name of
After Six, one of the
oldest formalwear manufacturers in America.
► Formal Day Wear
To learn more about traditional attire for
formal daytime occasions see the
► Dress Decorum:
Evening Weddings page for suggested toddler attire.
Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera
"First night" is the term for the
opening night of a performance run, usually in opera or ballet
(which do not have previews and an official opening night unlike theater).
The first night of a performance
season is the dressiest of the year.
Dressed for a Leavers' Ball
The Canadian equivalent of the American
prom is a Grad or
Formal and is usually only held
for the graduating classes of secondary school or junior high
school (grades 7 & 8) as opposed to American proms which are often
the junior and senior classes of these school levels.
Australians also use the term "Formal" for their secondary
Wikipedia's "Prom" article, the British
is Valedictory Ball, Leavers' Ball or
Leavers' Dinner. They have not traditionally been
as formal as their North American counterparts but in 2004 The
Independent reported that "the American-style prom has arrived".
Quinceañeras can sometime rival weddings in
their scope and have been a boon for the formalwear industry that is
suffering from the recession's impact on elaborate proms.
UK Formal Events
MyTuxedo web site features an annual list of
Britain's major formal events.
Shipboard Black Tie
Formal night on Queen Mary 2
Black-tie fans should note
that Seabourn is the most formal of the exclusive smaller
cruise lines, while Cunard, Crystal and Celebrity
the most genteel of the larger lines.
number of formal nights on
a given cruise varies so it's best to contact your travel agent
or visit CruiseCritic.com to chat online with experienced
passengers about exact details.
Nordic White Tie
Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden
Men in Finland, Norway and Sweden are particularly
fond of White Tie and will often wear it at daytime weddings.
Of course, the fact that the sun sets at 3:00 pm or earlier in the
dead of winter gives them a perfect excuse to do so.
A truly formal dinner follows traditional etiquette regarding style of
invitation, style of table setting, number of courses, type of
service and, of course, appropriate dress. At the very
minimum a formal dinner is served by wait staff. At the
highest level of formality such as at a state dinner, there are
strict protocols that govern everything down to the details of
the place cards.
Having established what constitutes black tie and
white tie attire, we now turn to the dress codes' etiquette to
determine when and where that attire should be worn and by
whom. (For answers on how to wear it
– for example, whether or not
to leave a dinner jacket unbuttoned – readers should look to the "Dress
Decorum" sidebars located throughout the
Tie and White Tie
When: Evening Wear Etiquette
White tie and black tie are
the two categories of a class of dress known as evening wear (or
evening dress in the UK), a centuries-old tradition that reserved
one’s finest attire until after sundown. The original purpose of such apparel was to leave behind the
dirt and smell of a day spent on horseback or in the city but after
the advent of the automobile it became primarily aesthetic,
representing what one etiquette guide described as "nothing more
among people of social standing or inclination than the desire to be
clean, neat, and as attractive as possible when they meet for social
purposes.” Prior to the
Second World War the dinner jacket and tailcoat were considered the
only attire appropriate for such evening socializing. Following the war, the business suit (then known as a
lounge suit) became acceptable at informal occasions both night and
day which meant that evening wear was redefined as attire
appropriate only for evenings and became increasingly limited to
only the most formal of affairs.
Regardless of how evening
wear is defined, the ideal for the dinner jacket and tailcoat is
that they should not appear in broad daylight. Because this
can be quite unavoidable during summer – particularly in regions
located far from the equator – etiquette experts have had to devise
more practical guidelines. The most common solution is to
define evening chronologically and discourage the wearing of
corresponding attire in public prior to six o'clock. The other
school of thought allows more latitude for earth’s latitudes and
asserts that evening begins at 6 p.m. or dark, whichever comes
first. In either case, unless he is working as a
waiter the only excuse for a man to be seen in a tuxedo during the
day is if he is traveling to an evening event or attending certain
European state functions.
The protocol of reserving
the dinner jacket and tailcoat for wear after six is self-evident in
Britain which has maintained the elegant custom of morning dress, a
category of clothing designated specifically for formal daytime
events. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, formal day
clothes have all but disappeared since World War II and in their
absence most North Americans have come to view the tuxedo and
tailcoat erroneously as all-purpose “formalwear” and commonly sport
it at afternoon weddings. Consequently, the proper use of
evening wear has become a habit generally confined to the privileged
minority that attend black-tie events often enough to view the
tuxedo as an integral part of a man’s wardrobe rather than as a
Who: Age Appropriate
Evening wear is intended for
adult occasions and so dinner jackets and tailcoats have
traditionally been considered inappropriate for children. According to the
Encyclopedia of Etiquette, “As a general
rule, boys do not wear dinner jackets much before they are fifteen,
or tailcoats before they are about eighteen.” Although published in 1967 this advice remains perfectly
germane considering that these are the ages when young men trade in
their youthful clothes for grown-up attire at popular coming-of-age
ceremonies (see below).
In fact, the only time that
children younger than these ages are likely to attend a formal
affair is when they are invited to participate in
a wedding. In these circumstances only junior
ushers should wear the same clothing as their adult counterparts.
In the end it all boils down
to a simple rule of thumb: if a boy is too young to tie a formal bow
tie then he is too young to wear one.
Where: By Custom
Prior to World War II there
was an implicit understanding among polite society as to what type
of occasion called for what type of attire. Throughout
Victorian and Edwardian times the tailcoat was expected at every
evening function where women were present – originally including
dinner in one’s own home – while the newly invented dinner jacket
was deemed appropriate only for informal stag affairs. Then during the interwar period the tuxedo supplanted the
tailcoat as standard evening wear and white tie became reserved only
for very formal occasions such as balls, elaborate formal dinners or
a box at the opera.
Following the Second World War social standards became even
more casual and formalwear rules more subjective. The tuxedo
was increasingly associated only with special occasions such as
formal parties, fine dining or an opening night at the theatre,
traditions which dwindled during the counterculture movement of the
sixties and seventies. Although yuppie consumerism brought
about the return of the swanky soirée in the eighties the universal
customs of old had long been replaced with conventions determined by
geographic region and socio-economic status. Thus it is today
that in the United States alone there can be significant
differences in formalwear standards between the country’s east, west
and gulf coasts and even within these regions there will be
different expectations at upscale galas and cosmopolitan debutante
balls versus middle-class weddings and suburban proms.
Consequently, most formal affairs requiring black tie will
now state this explicitly in the invitation or other forms of guest
instructions. Yet there remain a few occasions where evening
wear is expected, or at least welcomed, largely by implication.
If you are looking for excuses to enjoy your black-tie finery or
just want to ensure that you will not be noticeably underdressed, it
would be wise to research local custom before attending
the following formal functions.
Opera has traditionally been considered the most prestigious of all
the arts and has consequently required patrons to dress in the most
formal style of apparel.
In fact it was the great opera houses of Europe that originated the
term "dress circle" for the section of seats limited exclusively to
ladies and gentlemen who were properly attired. While the days of mandatory tailcoats
– not to mention
elaborate opera-box social protocols – are long gone, it is still
common in many cities to see the best seats occupied by
aficionados dressed in their finest evening wear for special
performances such as first nights and season openings (see sidebar). Premier performances at the ballet and symphony are also
often implicitly Black Tie Optional affairs as are opening nights of
major theatrical productions.
A word of caution though:
the balcony is a “don’t dress” section unless you and your companion
will later be attending a formal function. As etiquette maven Amy Vanderbilt once explained, “A couple
in evening dress but sitting in the balcony might seem to be
slumming, though it is true that those who know music and the dance
prefer the vantage point of the first balcony to the more
At the most formal end of
the spectrum, black tie has taken over from white tie at many
occasions where the latter would previously have been worn.
According to Emily Post’s Etiquette, only if the invitation
specifically states White Tie (or the equivalent) must a man wear a
tailcoat. However, there are still a few balls which require
full dress, more so in Europe. Wikipedia lists a number of British examples as well as the
world-famous Viennese Opera Ball which is actually open to the
public (or at least those who can afford the ticket price). In
America the white-tie opportunities are fewer
and mostly limited to debutante balls as well as grand Carnival
balls where the dress code is traditionally worded as Costume de
Private black-tie affairs, in contrast, remain relatively
popular. They are most likely to be formal banquets or
dinner-dances held by large corporations, professional associations
and fraternal organizations.
One type of formal dance
that the Emily Post book specifically highlights as an unwritten
white-tie affair is the debutante ball: the formal introduction of
young ladies – usually 17 or 18 years of age – to affluent society. Dating back centuries, this custom is rich in tradition
including the practice of the debutante’s escort and father wearing
full dress while the other male guests attire themselves in black
As the middle-class version
of debutante balls, proms and their international equivalents (see
sidebar) usually have a much less sophisticated interpretation of
“formal”. Even in the
schools where tuxedos are preferred over regular jackets and ties,
young men will often opt for outfits that bear little resemblance to
proper black-tie attire.
The Quinceañera (pronounced
keen-say-ah-NYE-ra) is a relatively new tuxedo tradition in America. It translates roughly as “fifteenth birthday girl” and refers
to a Latin American celebration that is equivalent to an elaborate
Sweet Sixteen or a debutante ball. The celebrant is customarily accompanied by her escort plus a
“court” of fourteen other couples, usually dressed in formal attire.
Evening Wedding Ceremonies
Marriage ceremonies are
commonly held to more traditional standards than are most other
social occasions and a formal evening wedding is the grandest of
all. If you are invited
to a ceremony that begins after 6 o’clock, takes place in a
cathedral and is followed by an elaborate reception then chances are
that the guests will be adorned in traditional black tie. If you are asked to actually participate in such a ceremony
then expect to be wearing white tie.
Such affairs are relatively
rare though – particularly in Britain where weddings are not held in
the evening – and the most formal type of ceremony the average man
is likely to attend will only require tuxedos of the groomsmen.
Complete details of proper wedding attire
for guests and grooms can be found in
Evenings at Sea
Many traditionalists lament
the loss of shipboard formal tradition but the present situation
isn’t quite as bleak as some like Miss Manners make it out to be:
Dressing on cruise ships has
become Standard Tourist . . . Miss Manners deeply regrets the
general passing of wearing black tie to dinner, and applauds those
few ships and passengers who steadfastly stick to the custom.
Of course, one does not so dress the first night out, the last night
out, the night before getting into port, nights when the ship is in
port, or nights when the ship is leaving port. On most
cruises, this accounts for every night there is, but Miss Manners
would still like to see evidence of the intention, such as a steamer
trunk full of evening clothes in case the ship is unexpectedly
stranded at sea.
While it is true that black
tie is no longer mandatory for evenings at sea thanks to the advent
of budget-priced mega-ships, the fact is that, other than weddings
and proms, cruises provide the most popular opportunities for most
men to don a tuxedo. In
fact, some cruise lines pride themselves on their formality after
six, a few going so far as to remind passengers that they are
expected to dress not just for dinner but for the duration of the
evening. Even those
lines that market frivolity over formality usually offer onboard
formalwear rentals for the benefit of tradition-minded passengers.
The number of formal nights
on a cruise can vary widely depending on the itinerary, the cruise
line (see sidebar) and sometimes even the ship itself.
Generally speaking though, the first and last evenings are never
formal since most of a passenger’s wardrobe is packed away on these
nights. Days in port are
also informal as they do not provide adequate time for passengers to
change before dinner. To
maximize your black-tie evenings, seek out itineraries with more sea
days such as transatlantic crossings which are very formal,
especially aboard Cunard ships.
White tie is eminently
suited to ceremonial diplomatic functions such as state dinners. While
these extremely formal evenings remain a tradition in the royal courts of Europe,
American presidents have hosted only two such dinners since
Ronald Reagan left office in 1989. President
Bush the junior also put an end to wearing white tie for the
traditional White House reception for the diplomatic corps after he
took office in 2001.
More often than not, White House functions are now typically black-tie
On a related note, U.S.
presidents frequently speak at two of the last white-tie dinners
still held in the country: the Gridiron Club dinner hosted by the
oldest journalistic organization in Washington and the Alfred E.
Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner which is a Catholic charities
fundraiser held in New York each year.
Institutional Dress Codes
Historic societies at
prestigious universities such as Cambridge and Oxford and
fraternal organizations such as Masonic Lodges will also have their
members don full dress for special events. These groups may have their own versions of traditional
formalwear codes which makes their attire more of a uniform than
evening wear per se.
This is not a breach of etiquette provided that these variations are
limited to private functions.
Black-tie and white-tie
events are now almost exclusively indicated by invitation rather
Originally it was considered
gauche to state a dress code on an invitation because of the
aforementioned universal understanding of what attire was
appropriate for what type of event. This was especially true in the
case of weddings and private parties where an invitation that was
engraved and written in the third person was the unmistakable mark
of a formal affair and guests knew implicitly that evening dress or
morning dress was expected depending on the time of the event.
(In fact, should you ever receive such an invitation, it would still
be a wise idea to confirm that this is not the case.)
In North America however, so
few parties today are truly formal that even the conservative Emily
Post’s Etiquette allows hosts to include dress instructions on
invitations in order to make it clear to guests that an event is
formal. The author advises readers that “‘black tie’ or ‘white
tie’ is conventionally printed in the lower right corner of
invitations to proms, charity balls, formal dinners or dances, and
any event for which clarification of dress standards may be
Yet despite the
black-and-white simplicity of this system, hosts in recent decades
have taken it upon themselves to needlessly complicate matters by
devising ambiguous variations of the clear-cut Black Tie label.
To understand where these deviations came from – and why they are to
be shunned – we will begin with a look at the role of dress codes in
general and answer the last of the five W’s, why.
Evening wear is meant for
Boys should not wear adult formal wear until they are old
enough to dress themselves (like these fine young
By the early 1950s black tie was
becoming special-occasion attire although it was still worn much
more frequently than today.
performances of major productions are often perfect
opportunities to wear one's finest.
Black-tie gala at the
Tuxedos worn to proms often have
little to do with black tie . . .
. . . while Debuts continue to
call for highly traditional formal attire.
Black tie is only appropriate for weddings that
begin after 5 p.m.
A Caribbean cruise is the perfect
opportunity to wear a white dinner jacket.
Sophisticated cruisers wear
their formal attire for the duration of a designated formal night
Queen Elizabeth II hosts a white-tie state dinner for
Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2009.