Black tie, which is less formal than white tie, is the most frequently encountered formal evening wear, worn for dinners (both public and private), parties and balls, as well as some Season events such as Glyndebourne. It may also be described as ‘dinner jackets’, ‘DJs’, ‘dress for dinner’ or, in America, as ‘tuxedos’. A host may also say ‘we are going to change for dinner’, which will traditionally indicate black tie. It should be described as a dinner jacket, not a dinner suit.
Black Tie: Men
– A black wool (barathea) or ultrafine herringbone dinner jacket, single-breasted or double-breasted with no vents, silk peaked lapels (or a shawl collar) and covered buttons. White dinner jackets were traditionally worn in hot climates but not usually in Britain, even in the summer.
– Trousers are black with a natural taper, and a single row of braid down each outside leg.
– A white evening shirt, with a marcella collar, bib and double cuffs, with a turn-down collar (not a wing-collar), worn with cufflinks and studs. A plain silk shirt with buttons may be worn but any kind of ruffles or frills should be avoided. Alternatively, a fly-fronted shirt, where the buttons are concealed, is acceptable. Adults should avoid novelty shirts and ties.
– Studs may be black or decorative.
– A black hand-tied bow tie (avoid ones which are pre-tied). The size of the bow tie should be proportionate to the size of the wearer.
– Black highly polished or patent lace-up shoes and black silk socks.
– Cummerbunds are not considered essential but may be worn. A matching tie and cummerbund in a non-conventional shade (pastels rather than burgundy and black) should be treated with caution.
– Waistcoats may be worn although they are not seen very often. They would always be considered a smart option. A waistcoat and cummerbund are never worn together.
– A white handkerchief in the left breast pocket is a classic detail.
Variations on Black Tie
In the country for dinner parties with neighbours, and especially in his own home, a man may wear a velvet smoking jacket, usually navy blue, burgundy or dark green, with a black bow tie, dinner jacket trousers and evening slippers. While this dress is acceptable for the host, it would not be right for a guest to wear this for an event with the dress code black tie actually stated on an invitation, which effectively means a dinner jacket.
Evening slippers, sometimes monogrammed or crested, may be worn and are more often found in the country.
Unless national costume is specified the usual form would be ‘when in Rome’ but in practice smart equivalent dress from a person’s home country – for example an Indian Nehru jacket or Arabian robes – may be acceptable.
A fashionable interpretation of black tie, when a black tie instead of a bow tie is worn with a dinner jacket, is often referred to as ‘Hollywood black tie’. For most formal private black tie events in Britain this would look unsuitable.
Black Tie: Women
– Women should wear an evening dress or skirt; long, or at least not very short, is usually best. There is a difference between a formal dinner and a dinner dance; avoid wearing voluminous dresses for a dinner because they’re not practical. However very tight ‘red-carpet’ dresses or those with a dramatic split, while stunning when making an entrance, can be uncomfortable or inappropriate at a formal event that involves both a reception and a sit-down dinner.
– If not wearing a long dress, then a cocktail dress – a fitted dress to very slightly below the knee and with a little décolletage – is an option. The fabric should be suited to evening such as silk, crepe or chiffon.
– Evening trousers are an option, but it is better to go for a palazzo cut, rather than tight-fitting. Flowing, ethnic-inspired tunic tops with trousers may be worn if the event is at the less formal end of the spectrum. If in doubt, consult the hostess.
– Although the dress code is ‘black tie’, dresses need not be black. Equally, wearing black does not ensure the right level of formality.
– Tights should be worn, black or sheer.
– Fine or costume jewellery is appropriate, but not tiaras.
– An elegant evening bag should be used.
– Ideally, an evening coat should be worn, as for white tie.
Parties often do not fit into the more traditional formats of white tie, black tie or smart casual. They may even be fancy dress. The key thing is to change for the event and not to wear work clothes. When an event is themed it may be hard to judge the formality, so take on board the style of event, as indicated by the invitation and the venue, and ask the host. It is now also acceptable for men at relaxed, yet formal, evening events to wear a velvet jacket, Nehru-collared jacket or moleskin suit with an open-necked party shirt. Shirts may feature non-formal prints – for example small flowers – and brighter colours. These jackets and shirts may be coupled with smart dark-coloured jeans or trousers. Such combinations indicate an effort has been made, whereas a dark suit may indicate that a man may not have tried to put together an evening look.
Women should make it clear that an effort has been made. Theme parties can be a minefield. While it is good manners to make an effort and disrespectful to ignore hosts’ requests, that doesn’t necessarily mean, for example, hiring a full theatrical outfit or feeling miserable all evening. At the very least, well chosen accessories or jewellery can indicate the style or period required.