White tie dress code is also known as ‘ full evening dress’, ‘ full dress’, ‘evening dress’ or, informally, as ‘tails’. White tie is the most formal of dress codes and is not common today. Before the Second World War it was standard evening dress for gentlemen, as may be seen in period dramas on television.
Today white tie is worn in the evening at certain royal ceremonies and balls, and state and livery dinners. White tie may also be specified for formal evening weddings and for some charity balls. It is also the dress code for some Highland balls, for those men not entitled to wear the kilt. It is no longer seen at the theatre or opera, and opera cloaks and silk top hats, along with canes and white gloves, are now only seen on stage.
‘White tie’ will always be stated on the invitation itself. Many organisations hosting events will say ‘white or black tie’, as they are aware that the former may be difficult for some invitees.
White Tie: Men
– A black single-breasted tailcoat in black wool (barathea) or ultrafine herringbone with silk peaked lapels, often grosgrain (worn unbuttoned). The coat is shorter at the front than a morning coat.
– Black trousers with a natural taper and two lines of braid down the outside leg.
– A white marcella (cotton piqué) shirt with a starched detachable wing collar and double cuffs.
– Cufflinks and studs. The shirt will usually be closed with studs rather than buttons. These may be plain white or decorative.
– A low-cut, white marcella evening waistcoat (double or singlebreasted).
– A thin, white hand-tied marcella bow tie.
– Highly polished or patent black lace-up shoes, worn with black laces (traditionally ribbon) and black socks.
– In winter, a black overcoat and white silk scarf may be worn.
White Tie: Women
– Full-length, formal evening dresses. It is traditional, but not essential, to show décolletage. Shorter dresses or trousers, no matter how smart, are not acceptable.
– Jewellery can be striking; this is the time for the finest jewels and gems, including tiaras. Traditionally these were worn for the first time by brides, and it is incorrect for young girls to wear tiaras on any occasion.
– Evening bags should be small and elegant.
Long evening gloves are traditionally worn at balls and dinners when the dress code is ‘white tie’ but are no longer compulsory at many events. They work best with sleeveless dresses but older women may wear them with cap or short sleeves. With long sleeves it is better to dispense with gloves, rather than wear short ones. Gloves should be worn en route to an event, in a receiving line, when shaking hands and dancing. They are removed when eating (even a canapé) and at the dinner table – they should be taken off finger by finger and rested on the lap under the napkin.
Women’s Evening Coats
For formal evening events, daytime coats look out of place. A smart evening coat, cloak, pashmina or wrap in a suitable material is preferable.
Variations on White Tie
An alternative to white tie on certain occasions may be national costume, for example Indian, Chinese or Arabian. This will usually be stated on an invitation.
Certain societies or clubs may give balls at which their own evening dress coats are worn (usually coloured tail coats, red, blue or green, with special facings). These are worn with a white tie and waistcoat, but often with ordinary dinner jacket trousers. Non-member male guests, not entitled to the club coat, usually wear black tie.
The dress code ‘full-dress ceremonial’ is occasionally seen for very formal or state occasions. For evening this may usually be interpreted as white tie for civilians but it is important to ask and check with the host or organiser. For daytime events such as state funerals it can mean dress uniform for those in the services, robes for peers or judges, or particular vestments for clerics, and usually morning dress or simple business attire for others.
If it is white tie dress code and the event is a royal or state occasion, or a very formal event in, say, the City, then the dress code may state ‘Evening Dress—Decorations’. It is correct to wear decorations in the presence of The Queen but very unusual to wear them at a private event or charity ball, however grand. It would generally be more of a mistake to wear them than not to do so.
If decorations are asked for, then knights and dames should wear the most senior chivalric orders to which they belong rather than all their decorations. Stars such as the Garter or Thistle are displayed on the left side of the evening coat or dress. Knights Grand Cross of an order may also wear a sash and badge. There are also medals that may be worn on a ribbon round the neck, just below the tie. Others may be worn as miniatures on a bar, and this is also usual when the dress code is black tie and decorations.
In practice, ex-service people are usually familiar with the wearing of medals, as are members of orders. If in doubt when attending a royal event then the best thing is to ask the Palace or relevant private secretary. It goes without saying that no one should wear decorations to which they are not entitled. Even as fancy dress these may give offence, for example to genuine veterans, so treat with care.