What is Black Tie Attire? Plus Black Tie-Optional, White Tie & More

Black tie looks from Bonobos (L) and Lela Rose (RI)

Black Tie Attire Guide

So you’ve been invited to an event that calls for black tie attire, and you have no idea whether anything in your closet is appropriate, or even what to shop for. We’ve been there.

Black tie attire is a common guideline for upscale events like weddings, professional awards ceremonies and galas.

Whatever type of event you’re attending, understanding and adhering to the black tie dress code will help you put together an outfit that is appropriately formal.

Here, we’ll delve into the nuances of black tie attire, offering guidance for both women and men. We’ll also explore black tie optional events, compare black tie and white tie dress codes, and highlight what not to wear to a black tie affair. We’ve also included a list of where to shop for black-tie clothing for both men and women.

Ahem, after you.

Black Tie Attire Guide for Women

A black-tie appropriate gown from Jenny Packham

For women, black tie attire revolves around floor-length or tea-length formal gowns. Shorter dresses are typically reserved for events that specify cocktail attire.

So what makes a gown or dress formal? It comes down to fabric, silhouette and color. The dress should also be appropriate for the season.

Formal fabrics

Opt for luxurious fabrics like silk or satin, and in the cooler months, velvet. During the summer season, chiffon also works well.

Classic cuts

When it comes to choosing the cut of a dress, you can go for either form fitting, or something more elaborate, like a ballgown. Either works in this case. If you go for a streamlined look, choose a dress with a little something extra: a fun sequin detail, a jeweled neckline, or embroidery can all make a simpler dress feel special.

Most necklines work for black-tie dresses, including strapless, sweetheart, v-neck, and halter. Just avoid anything too revealing.

Color

A timeless black gown is a safe choice no matter the season, but it’s not your only option for a black-tie event. In the fall and winter, jewel tones, metallic shades or deep hues like navy, emerald and burgundy are stunning choices. In the spring and summer, pale colors like champagne, ivory, soft pink, pale gray, and sage greens are also appropriate colors, as are brighter colors and florals prints, as long as the dress still feels formal.

Remember to avoid overly revealing or casual styles; instead, opt for dresses with elegant necklines, such as strapless, halter, or V-neck designs.

Of course, you can also enhance the formality of any dress with the right accessories. In this case, don’t be afraid to bring on the bling. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets and handbags with a little sparkle will make a gown feel even more formal.

Bags should be clutch or minaudière style.

Wondering if your dress is formal enough? Here are some photo examples of black-tie-appropriate dresses.

Image via Neiman Marcus
Image via Neiman Marcus

Black Tie Attire Guide for Men

Image via Bonobos

When it comes to black tie attire for men, the safest and simplest option is a black tuxedo. A black tuxedo with satin lapels and a matching bowtie is a classic choice choice that’ll work every time.

However, if you want to stand out from the crowd, a midnight blue or deep burgundy tuxedo also works, and can add a touch of modern flair. White suit jackets work year ’round, and brocade or velvet tuxedo jackets are a great alternative to black in the winter months.

Pair the tuxedo with a crisp white dress shirt and French cuffs, fastened with tasteful cufflinks. Complete the ensemble with black patent leather shoes and black dress socks. A black formal waistcoat or cummerbund is optional, and best reserved for the most formal events.

Here are a few examples of appropriate black-tie outfits for men that aren’t standard black tuxedos

Image via Mr. Porter

What is Black Tie Optional?

Black tie optional is a dress code that can create a lot of confusion, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

It’s designed to offer a bit more flexibility while still adhering to the overall formality of the event. If the invitation states “black tie optional,” women can choose between a formal gown or a shorter, but still sophisticated cocktail dress.

Men can opt for either a tuxedo or a dark suit paired with a dress shirt, tie, and dress shoes.

Either look will be appropriate, so choose what you feel most comfortable in.

Black Tie vs. White Tie

A white-tie men’s look from Oliver Brown London

If you thought black tie was as fancy as it gets .. there’s more! White tie is even more formal than black tie.

While black tie attire requires a high level of formality, white tie is the epitome of elegance and grandeur. White tie events are uncommon, and generally reserved for the most formal occasions, such as state dinners or royal ceremonies.

White tie attire for men includes a black tailcoat, a white formal shirt with a wing collar, a white bowtie, a white waistcoat, black trousers, black patent leather shoes, and black dress socks.

A full white-tie look from Neiman Marcus

For women, white tie and black tie looks are more similar. Think: a floor-length evening gown or ball gown, plus fine jewelry and/or opera gloves, and heels.

What Not to Wear to a Black Tie Event

This dress might be long, but the fabric and print make it inappropriate for a black tie event.

Just as important as knowing what to wear to a black tie event is knowing what not to wear to a black-tie event. To avoid any fashion faux pas at a black tie event, there are a few key styles, fabrics and designs to steer clear of.

For women, avoid short dresses or skirts, as well as casual fabrics like cotton or linen. Even a long-length dress in a casual fabric like cotton, linen, modal or rayon will feel informal.

If the event is professional in nature, i.e. a business awards ceremony or a traditional fundraising gala, it’s also a good idea to err on the side of being conservative. In other words, skip bold colors and patterns (like neon hues and abstract prints), as well as anything that’s too revealing or low-cut.

At black-tie events with a theme, or private parties, you can get away with bolder choices.

Likewise, men should avoid casual suits, brightly colored tuxedos, or mismatched accessories. It’s crucial to adhere to the formal nature of the dress code and prioritize classic, understated elegance.

Where to shop for black tie attire

Here are a few suggestions for where to shop for black tie attire for both men and women. While black tie clothing is generally more expensive than casual pieces, you don’t have to break the bank to look formal, either.

Where to find black tie dresses for women

Where to find black tie clothing for men