Black Tie on the Nieuw Amsterdam

Nieuw Amsterdam first formal night Peter

I recently returned from a Caribbean cruise that was not only a wonderful vacation but also a thought-provoking reminder of how far I’ve come in my black tie journey.

As I explain in the introduction to The Black Tie Guide, the site originated with preparations for my first cruise in 2004.   I wanted to be sure that my tuxedo purchase would be suitable for formal nights on a very traditional ocean liner but found there was scant information available about the etiquette of evening wear.  I eventually succeeded in my quest and from the moment I first donned my outfit aboard the ship I realized the integral role that proper formal wear plays in elevating the pleasure of formal affairs and  I was hooked.  As soon as I returned home I began to seek out more information on black tie and more opportunities to enjoy it.

Flash forward nearly nine years later and I found myself once again donning my tuxedo for formal night aboard an elegant cruise ship.  The parallels triggered a distinct sense of having come full circle in my black tie adventure and prompted a personal reflection on the intervening years.  For starters, the small web site I created soon after my original journey has grown in leaps and bounds, evolving from a tentative consolidation of third-party opinions to an authoritative original work drawing over 75,000 visitors a month.  On a more personal level, I have evolved from a novice formal dresser just hoping not to screw up his outfit to a seasoned veteran who feels more at home in a dinner jacket than just about any other clothing.

The best part, though, is that experience has not dulled the excitement.  By its very nature black tie is associated with exclusive special occasions which means that  my tuxedo  has come to symbolize visiting elegant venues, meeting interesting people and enjoying delectable meals.  Regularly adding new accessories to the outfit also helps keep my black-tie experiences unique and exciting.  In fact I finally got a chance to sport my first white dinner jacket on this most recent outing.

What a great journey it’s been so far.  I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Nieuw Amsterdam second formal dinner

I would definitely recommend Holland America Line for those seeking a traditional formal cruise.  Readers who are unfamiliar with cruising might presume that this type of tradition is standard on any ship but the fact is that different cruise lines offer very different experiences.  Cunard’s ships, for example, feature tasteful décor, cerebral activities and personalized service that recall the glory days of ocean liners.  Consequently you will find that their passengers love to dress up for formal nights, particularly on transatlantic crossings.

On the other end of the scale is Carnival Cruise Lines which prides itself in providing an experience akin to Walmart on a barge: gaudy décor, sophomoric entertainment and a clientele obsessed with getting as many freebies as humanly possible.  The “formal nights” on my Carnival cruise were notable for golf-shirted men guzzling bottled beer and waiters singing from table tops.  In fact, Carnival has subsequently ceased using the term “formal” in favour of “cruise elegant” (whatever that means).

The Holland America experience definitely leans towards the Cunard end of the scale.  This is particularly true for their newest ship the Nieuw Amsterdam on which I sailed.  Not coincidentally, passengers on this line skew older and that was certainly the case on my cruise due to a huge seniors’ group booking.  This very well may have been why 20-30% of men wore tuxedos on formal nights even though the dress code allows for suits.

Nieuw Amsterdam shuffleboard

Cruising may be the last occasion that calls for black tie by tradition rather than being dictated by invitation.  But like opening night galas and New Year’s Eve extravaganzas before it, this tradition is fading as people opt for increasingly informal alternatives.  Thus the century-old shipboard convention of set seating times and communal tables is rapidly giving way to the restaurant-style practice of impromptu reservations for tables for two.  Like so many other activities  the notion of dinner as a social occasion is becoming ever more rare.

In a similar vein, many people on cruise discussion forums love to complain about the inconvenience of packing anything more than swimsuits and T-shirts.  For them a vacation is all about putting in as little effort as possible.  But for me the extra effort is an integral part of what makes a cruise unique from any other type of vacation.  Anyone can pack flip-flops and head to the beach but there’s something immensely civilized about boarding a ship with a skillfully packed wardrobe extensive enough to allow for the complete gamut of leisure and social activity.

Keep in mind that a tuxedo is not just dinner wear, it’s evening wear.  The higher-class cruise lines will in fact request that guests remain in their formal attire for the duration of the evening “in order to complement your fellow guest” as Holland America’s literature so nicely puts it.  In fact, this post-dinner socializing is what I enjoyed most about my most recent formal nights at sea.  Taking in the after-dinner theatre show, strolling the moonlit promenade deck and even playing an impromptu late-night game of shuffleboard would no doubt be enjoyable in a golf shirt and blazer but in a dinner jacket and bow tie the experience was elevated to the level of the sublime.   At moments like this the idea of basing one’s cruise experience on packing as lightly as possible seems like wasting a rare opportunity to get the most out of life.


  1. David V

    Great post!
    I see Holland American’s Nieuw Amsterdam has real deck chairs.
    My wife and I think sailing on a cruise ship is more than a stay at a floating theme park. Ships that cater to an older, less “family oriented”, clientele tend to have a more formal outlook.

  2. Anonymous

    when they ask what you do, did you say you are the owner of Black tie? or already know it

    1. Peter Marshall

      Funny you should ask because this cruise was the first time I have ever had strangers tell me they had read my web site! I typically join in online discussion forums with future fellow passengers before going on a cruise and my signature on those forums includes a link to my site. So some of the people in those forums somehow connected the dots when they met me in person (I suspect they recognized me from my picture on the site). It actually felt pretty awesome to be recognized like that!

  3. Ismail almurtadza Nik

    I like your white/ivory dj.What cloth?


    1. Peter Marshall

      It’s wool. You can find out more about it at

  4. omschiefslr

    Well done! You and your SO look great! I will be cruising on Carnival again to the Eastern Caribbean in July. The White and Black DJs come along with the entire kit. Everything you offer about Carnival is true. We have a 7 year old, so it is where we belong. All the best!

    1. Peter Marshall

      I agree that Carnival is hard to beat when kids are involved. My Carnival cruise was actually an extended family cruise paid for by my parents and no other cruise line offered the same attractions for the grandchildren at the same low cost.

  5. John


    Congratulations on your achievement with The Guide! I am curious if you would be willing to go into a little more detail about your “skillfully packed wardrobe.” In this case, not the wardrobe itself, but the packing techniques. I know I tend to have trouble with this aspect of black tie events that require travel prior to the event.


    1. Peter Marshall

      What kind of packing problems do you typically have? Wrinkled garments? Forgotten accessories?

      1. John

        It is more the former than the latter – my accessories seem to be uni-taskers that stay together. I have a small velvet bag that holds my studs, cuff links and collar stays and I keep that in my formal shoes shoe box.

        The wrinkling has been an issue though. Hanging in the shower has had limited success. The other option seems to trying to spot press, but I have to say, trying to iron a suit coat in a hotel room with the provided iron and board makes me very nervous!

        1. A. R

          Have you considered a garment steamer? Travel-sized versions are available, and I tend to carry one with me.

        2. Peter Marshall

          I guess I’m lucky because my suits always seem to respond well to a brief sauna (so to speak). Additionally, when I take my suits out of town I always seem to be travelling by car which allows me to lay my suits flat in a garment bag or I’m flying to a hotel or ship for a multi-day stay that gives me plenty of time to take advantage of their laundry and pressing services. If these options aren’t available then I think A.R.’s suggestion sounds like a very smart idea.

  6. Joe Zasada

    For travelling, I have found that I can take wrinkled suits and hang them in the bathroom… I set the shower on as hot as it will go and leave it for 1-15 minutes; the steam will straighten out everything…. the iron in the room can fix anything that’s left after that.

    1. Peter Marshall

      For safety reasons, irons are not allowed in cruise ship staterooms.

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