Black tie is considered one of the most prestigious dress codes in Western culture, reserved for the most classy and sophisticated occasions. Black tie can be confusing – often mistaken for white tie – but it has a clear set of criteria that must be followed.
If you want to understand about the history of black tie, how it translates into the modern-day sartorial realm, and how you can wear it correctly, this is your ultimate guide.
Black tie: a brief history
Black tie dress code is a an attire that originated in the 19th century in Britain and America, worn by the aristocrats in the upper classes typically at events commencing after 6pm. Black tie is “semi-formal” – less formal than white tie (which is considered the ultimate formal attire in Western culture, reserved for royalty and high-powered individuals and consisting of tailcoats, top hats and white bow ties) but more formal than any other attire, such as business wear or smart casual.
The black tie dress code can be characterised by a dinner jacket with silk lapels, with a matching stripe on the outseam of the suit trousers; a crisp white dress shirt with a waistcoat or cummerbund over the top; a bow tie; and patent black leather shoes – brogues or similar. Other elements of the ensemble include a bowler hat, but this accessory is not prevalent by today’s sartorial standards.
The principal feature of the black tie dress code is the dinner jacket/dinner suit, which is also commonly referred to as a tuxedo. It is a common misconception that dinner jackets are traditionally black. In actual fact, traditionally speaking, dinner jackets are meant to be a deep midnight blue hue (which is confusing, considering the name of the dress code is black tie), because this shade actually appears darker when seen in dim lighting (the setting in which all black tie occasions should be) than black does.
Black tie: the occasion
The occasions in which black tie is most appropriate include balls, formal dinners, milestone evening celebrations, galas, award ceremonies and any other VIP events. It is often discouraged to wear black tie to a wedding.
While black tie is directed towards men instead of women, it signals to a woman that she must wear a formal evening gown or cocktail dress of a similar calibre. The overall look of the room where guests are expected to dress in black tie should be the epitome of glitz and glamour. No creases, rough edges or deviation from the dress code is permitted.
How to put a black tie ensemble together
There aren’t many times in a man’s life where he will be asked to wear black tie, so it makes sense to get it right for the few times that the opportunity presents itself. To hit the black tie criteria, follow this checklist.
A silk-lapelled dinner jacket
According to black tie tradition, the dinner jacket should have silk lapels. These should be coordinated with a black stripe of silk on the outseam of the suit trousers.
There are three styles of lapel, including a notched lapel, a peak lapel and a shawl lapel, all with varying degrees of width and depth. Dinner jackets/tuxedos commonly have shawl lapels, which have no gorge as the lapel and collar are one piece. Shawl lapels are also deeper than notched and peak lapels. So, to complete the look correctly, ensure your dinner jacket has a shawl lapel.
A white dress shirt
Black tie calls for a white dress shirt. These are typically pleated and have a winged collar, and have holes in the sleeves for cufflinks. The buttons on a dress shirt can be either black or white, but the general rule is: if you are wearing a black cummerbund, the buttons on the dress shirt should be black.
A waistcoat or cummerbund
According to tradition, a man must wear either a waistcoat or a cummerbund over their dress shirt. A waistcoat is sleeveless with buttons and a cummerbund is a thick black band. Both conceal the waist and accentuate the V of the dress shirt which is created by the silk lapels.
The waistcoat is more popular in modern black tie, but if you want to follow tradition, a cummerbund is slightly more formal.
The right trousers for black tie have to be two things: the right match to the dinner jacket and tailored to perfection (ensure you get your whole black tie ensemble tailored to fit you correctly, or else you risk butchering the overall effect). Traditional black dress also requires the trousers to coordinate to the silk-lapelled dinner jacket by having a stripe of silk on the outseam of the trousers.
A black bow tie
The pièce de résistance of black tie dress is the bow tie. While some men will take this an opportunity to inject some colour into their ensemble, according to tradition bow ties should be black.
Black patent leather shoes
The appropriate footwear for black tie is a simple black patent leather shoe, such as a brogue or a classic Oxford shoe or a Derby shoe.
Black tie: accessorising
Accessorising correctly is key for elevating a black tie ensemble. Accessories that complement black tie are a boutonnière, an evening scarf, a bowler hat, a watch, cufflinks and a pocket square. Use this opportunity to accessorise to your advantage; black tie can be quite regimented and dressing in such a way can feel like ticking boxes, but with accessories you can add your own flare and individual style – as long as the accessories in question are stylish, classy and sophisticated.
Receiving an invitation to an evening’s festivities that calls for black tie signals that the event in question is a sophisticated affair. Take it as an opportunity adopt the black tie dress code in all its glory, and most of all, enjoy it!