Quick Guide: Black Tie Basics


If you’re just looking for the bare bones of tuxedo etiquette and style, this mini guide explains the basics of the Black Tie dress code and the essentials for assembling your own dashing outfit.  Should you become inspired to master the more advanced aspects of men’s formal wear, each topic contains links to further information within the primary Guide.

Before we get started, be aware that formalwear terminology varies considerably not just between English-speaking countries but also within them.  To avoid any unnecessary confusion you may want to check out this brief summary of relative terminology.  In addition, there are many less well known sartorial terms used throughout the Guide that you can look up in the illustrated glossary as needed.

 

 

I. Etiquette Essentials

 

 

We begin our review of the fundamentals of black tie by establishing the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “why” of the dress code.

 

 

What: Black Tie Defined


Logically, first of the "five Ws" that should be answered is what exactly does “black tie” mean?  The Guide reviewed twenty different works by leading style and etiquette authorities and found that the true definition lies in the dress code’s details.  Furthermore, despite the diversity of the experts and the century-long evolution of the code, the cumulated details are largely identical which puts to rest any misconception that it is merely a matter of personal opinion.
 

The Short Answer


At its most basic, 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 preceding simplistic summary may be suitable for a dictionary but in a practical sense it raises more questions than it answers.  What exactly qualifies as a "dinner jacket"?  Or a “formal shirt?”  Consequently, in order to accurately describe a proper black-tie outfit, each component must be described in turn: 

1. jacket
















fabric:
    · 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

       traditionalists

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

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

       jacket

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

 

outerwear

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

 

The following outfit is 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

black

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

 

 

Obviously, proper black tie is a far more specific dress code than anything the average man is likely to encounter outside of the military.  Take a second look, though, and you will see that much of black tie’s dress code is not about what you must wear but what you may wear.  
 
In fact, the amount of choice can be a little overwhelming.  But don’t worry; the remaining four W’s of black-tie etiquette will help narrow down the options based on what is appropriate for various types of occasions.  Beyond that, your choices are simply a matter of personal preference, which we’ll explore in our summary of the code’s attire.

 


When: Evening Elegance


Black tie and its ultra-formal progenitor white 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 reserves one’s finest attire until after sundown. 

As evening wear, the dinner jacket and tailcoat are ideally not to be worn in daylight.  Because this can be quite unavoidable during summer in some locales, etiquette experts have devised 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 by asserting 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 daytime hours is if he is traveling to an evening event.

 


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.”  This is sound advice considering these are the ages when young men trade in their youthful clothes for grown-up attire at popular coming-of-age ceremonies.  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.

 


Where: Invitation and Implication


Prior to World War II, there was an implicit understanding among polite society as to what type of occasion required what type of attire. Following the war, social standards became much more casual and formalwear rules more subjective.  Consequently, most formal affairs requiring formal attire will now state this explicitly in the invitation or other forms of guest instructions.  Emily Post’s Etiquette advises hosts 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 necessary.” 

However, 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.

Public Entertainments


Premier performances at the opera, ballet and symphony are 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. 

Private Entertainments


There are still a few balls which require white-tie attire by custom but these are primarily in Europe.  Private affairs requiring black-tie attire are most likely to be formal banquets or dinner-dances held by large corporations, professional associations and fraternal organizations.  Ritzy charity galas regularly require black tie but are more accurately classified as semi-private (or semi-public) because tickets are often advertised only to a select pool of potential guests.

Coming-of-Age Ceremonies


At debutante balls the debutante’s escort and father traditionally wear full dress (another term for the tailcoat and its proper accessories), while the other male guests attire themselves in tuxedos.  Proms and their international equivalents usually have a much less sophisticated interpretation of “formal” and even in schools where tuxedos are preferred over regular suits, young men will often opt for outfits that bear little resemblance to proper black-tie attire.  The Quinceañera is a Latin American celebration equivalent to an elaborate Sweet Sixteen where 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 other social occasions and a formal evening wedding is the grandest of all.  Complete details of proper wedding attire for guests and grooms can be found in Formal Evening Weddings.

Formal Nights 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 the average man to don a tuxedo. 
 

Diplomatic Functions


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 affairs since Ronald Reagan left office in 1989.  Consequently, in Washington these types of dinners are now typically black tie.

Institutional Dress Codes


Historic societies at prestigious universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, and fraternal organizations such as Masonic Lodges, often have their members don full dress or tuxedos 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. 

 


Why: Dress Code Benefits


Hosts in recent decades have needlessly complicated the straight-forward Black Tie and White Tie dress codes by devising ambiguous variations.  Consequently, uninformed guests already prone to anxiety at the sight of the standard codes on an invitation become even more stressed.  Therefore, both host and guests should keep in mind the following significant benefits of traditional dress codes.

Social Guideposts


Hosts that avoid setting dress standards for fear of appearing stuffy or alienating invitees are actually doing their guests a disservice.  Without clear guidelines, guests are forced into a no-win game of guessing what type of attire is appropriate.  Conversely, it is ironic that the appearance of Black Tie on an invitation causes panic in so many men.  They frequently view the looming event as an intimidating test of their (sadly lacking) sartorial skills when in fact the black-tie “test” comes with a complete set of answers guaranteed to ensure top grades to any man that follows them.
  

Sense of Occasion


In addition to providing clarity and self-confidence, prescribed attire also helps to generate a sense of occasion.  Combined with a specific code of conduct, it fashions a social ritual that elevates one type of happening above another.  Fine restaurants may go to great lengths to provide a more elegant atmosphere than a local pub, for example, but if their customers import typical pub clothing and behavior then these establishments are robbed of much of their special character.  

Act of Consideration


Just as a host or hostess can show consideration towards guests by providing clear dress guidelines, so does a guest return the favor by being mature enough to honor them.  As Debrett's A-Z of Modern Manners points out, “by being seen to make an effort you are paying your host or hostess a great compliment, as well as making yourself look your most attractive.  After all, the short time required for getting yourself dressed is negligible compared with the hours the hostess might have put in preparing the party.”  Ignoring the event’s prescribed etiquette will make it clear that you could not care less about your hosts’ desires nor your fellow guests’ experience.


Etiquette: Further Reading

 

 

Next: History Highlights