Black tie, sometimes known by its French name cravate noir, is a semi-formal dress code for evening events and social functions derived from British and American costume conventions of the 19th century. Traditionally worn only for events after 7 p.m., black tie is less formal than white tie but more formal than informal or business dress. In the United States, the gentlemen’s form of black tie attire is often referred to as a tuxedo.
For men, the elements of black tie are:
- A white dress shirt
- A black bow tie
- An evening waistcoat or cummerbund
- A dinner jacket (called a tuxedo in the United States), of black or midnight blue wool, in which the jacket lapels and trouser braid are of silk or other contrasting material
- Black Oxford dress shoes or patent leather pumps.
Women’s dress for black tie occasions has varied greatly through the years; traditionally it was:
- Evening shoes
- Dinner (ankle) or tea (below mid-calf) length sleeveless evening gown, often accompanied by:
- A wrap or stole and
Today ladies dress for black tie occasions covers a much wider level of formality ranging from just below the white tie standard to a something more informal such as a little black dress. Specifically it can also include:
- Evening shoes and
- A ball gown, evening gown or cocktail dress. Cocktail dresses may be long or moderately short and needn’t be black. Smart jumpsuits are also acceptable.
- In England, evening trousers with a palazzo cut are another acceptable option.
When the dinner jacket (tuxedo in American English) first came into fashion in the Victorian era, it was used as a less formal alternative for the tailcoat which men of the upper classes wore every evening. Thus it was worn with the standard accompaniments for the evening tailcoat at the time: matching trousers, white or black waistcoat, white bow tie, white detachable wing-collar formal shirt and black formal shoes. Lapels were often faced or edged in silk or satin in varying widths. Dinner jackets were considered from the first less formal than full dress (cutaway) and etiquette guides declared it inappropriate for wear in mixed company.
During the Edwardian era, the practice of wearing a black waistcoat and black bow tie with a dinner jacket became the convention, establishing the basis of the current black tie and white tie dress codes. The dinner jacket was also increasingly accepted at less formal evening occasions such as warm-weather gatherings or intimate dinners with friends.
After World War I, the dinner jacket became de facto evening wear, while the evening tailcoat was limited to extremely formal or ceremonial occasions. During this interwar period, double-breasted jackets, turn down-collar shirts and cummerbunds became popular for black-tie evenings as did white and colored jackets in warm weather.
In the decades following World War II, black tie became special occasion attire rather than standard evening wear. In the 1950s, colored and patterned jackets, cummerbunds and bow ties and narrow lapels became very popular; the 1960s and 1970s saw the color palette move from muted to bright day-glow and pastel, as well as ruffled-placket shirts as lapels got wider and piping was revived. The 1980s and 1990s saw a return to nostalgic styles, with black jackets and trousers again becoming nearly universal. In the first decade of the 21st century, midnight blue once again became popular and lapel facings were sometimes reduced to wide edging.
The elements of black tie
Unlike white tie, which is very strictly regulated, black-tie ensembles can display more variation. In brief, the traditional components for men are:
- A jacket with silk facings (usually grosgrain or satin) on a shawl lapel, peaked lapel or notched lapel. Many current fashion stylists and writers see notched lapels as less formal although they (like peaked and shawl) were used (though somewhat rarely) in some of the early forms of the garment.
- Trousers with a single silk or satin braid covering the outer seams, uncuffed and worn with braces
- A black low-cut waistcoat or a cummerbund.
- A white dress shirt (a marcella or pleated bib is traditional) with double (or “french”) cuffs and a turndown collar. While the turndown is most appropriately semi-formal, the attached wing collar has been popular with American men since the 1980s. However, many style authorities argue that the attached version now typically offered is insubstantial with minuscule wings and inappropriately paired with soft pleated fronts.
- A black silk bow tie matching the lapel facings
- Shirt studs and cufflinks. Although it should be noted that some classic etiquette authorities limit studs to stiff-front marcella shirts only and prescribe pearl buttons for soft-front models instead. Alternatively, a fly-front may be substituted.
- Black dress stockings, usually of silk or fine wool
- Black shoes—traditionally patent leather court shoes (pumps); now often highly polished or patent leather Oxfords instead.
The original and most formal model of dinner jacket is the single-breasted model. The typical black-tie jacket is single-breasted with one button only, with jetted (besom) pockets and is of black or midnight blue; usually of wool or a wool–mohair, or wool-polyester blend, although other materials, especially silk, are seen. Although other materials are used, the most appropriate and traditional for the dinner jacket are wool barathea or superfine herringbone. Double breasted models are less common, but considered equally appropriate. Dinner jackets were commonly ventless before World War I, but today come ventless, with side vents, or with center vents. The ventless style is considered more formal, whilst the centre vent is the least formal. The lapels (traditionally pointed and shawl) are usually faced with silk in either a grosgrain or a satin weave, but can also be silk barathea. According to the Black Tie Guide, the peaked lapel and shawl collar are equally authentic and correct. The buttons should be covered in similarly coloured material to the main part of the jacket, which would ideally be either self-faced or covered with the same material as the lapels. Some higher-end single-breasted jackets, both new and vintage, tend to be fastened with a link front closure which is visually similar to a cufflink; this method of closure is still common in the United Kingdom.
The double-besomed jetted (slit) hip pocket is the only style understated enough to complement the dinner jacket. Flap pockets are not considered appropriate for formal attire’s refined minimalism due to their busier and bulkier design and are simply an attempt by tuxedo manufacturers to save money by using standard suit patterns (although sometimes they will trim the edges of a flap pocket so that the flap can be tucked in or removed if desired). Besom welts can be of self fabric or trimmed with the label’s silk facing, though classic menswear scholar Nicholas Antongiavanni suggests that for the English this latter touch “is a sure sign of hired clothes.” The dinner jacket should also have a welt breast pocket to hold a pocket handkerchief, which should generally be self-faced rather than covered with silk.
Emily Post, a resident of Tuxedo Park, New York, stated in 1909 that “[Tuxedos] can have lapels or be shawl-shaped, in either case they are to have facings of silk, satin or grosgrain.” She later republished this statement in her 1922 book Etiquette, adding that only single-breasted jackets are appropriately called tuxedos. There is a fashion movement suggesting that a man’s appearance when wearing the wider and higher peak lapel is superior to the narrower notch lapel.
White dinner jackets are often worn in warm climates. They are ivory in color rather than pure white, and have self-faced lapels (i.e., made of the same fabric as the jacket) rather than silk-faced lapels. They are generally worn with the same types of shirts and accessories as black dinner jackets, though the turndown collar andcummerbund preferred to the wing collar or waistcoat. Similarly, the shawl lapel is more common in white dinner jackets. In the United Kingdom, the 20th-century etiquette was that white dinner jackets are never worn, even on the hottest day of summer, but are reserved for wear abroad. Today, white dinner jackets are frequently seen at weddings, formal beach events, and high-school proms, in the United States and at some concerts (famously for instance the Last night of the proms) in the United Kingdom. In tropical climates, such as in Imperial Burma, desert fawn was historically used as the less formal color. At one time, the (civilian) mess jacket was also an option in warmer climates.
It is generally considered inappropriate for a man to remove his jacket during a formal social event, but when hot weather and humidity dictate, the ranking man (of the royal family, the guest of honor) may give men permission by noticeably taking off his jacket. In anticipated hot weather, Red Sea rig is specified in the invitation, although this dress is esoteric in civilian circles, and is particular to certain expatriate communities.
Black bow tie
Traditionally, the only neck wear appropriate is the black bow tie that is a self-tie and should always match the lapel facing of the dinner jacket and braiding of the trouser seams. The bow tie is tied using a common shoelace knot, which is also called the bow knot for that reason.
Black tie trousers traditionally have no cuffs (turn-ups in British English) or belt loops. The outer seams are usually decorated with a single braid of silk or a material that matches the lapel facing. Traditionally, braces (suspenders), hidden by the waistcoat, are used to support the pants. Belts should not ever be worn with black tie trousers. Evening trousers can be flat-fronted or pleated today; pleats first coming into fashion in the 1930s. Whilst flat-fronted trousers are more fashionable at present, pleated trousers may be considered more comfortable by men who have wider hips and a narrow waist.
A waist covering should generally be worn as part of a black tie ensemble. Either a low cut waistcoat or cummerbund may be worn, but never both at the same time. Although the English authority Debrett’s consider that wearing a waistcoat is smart, they no longer consider either waist covering to be essential. The American authority, The Emily Post Institute, considers them to be an essential component of proper black tie attire. Waist coverings shouldn’t be matched to wedding theme colours.
A low cut waistcoat (vest in American English) should be worn when wearing a single-breasted coat. The waistcoat plays an important part in black tie’s refined minimalism by helping to conceal its working parts by discreetly covering the trousers’s exposed waistband and the shirt bosom’s bottom edge. Waistcoats come in the ‘V’ or rarer ‘U’ shape, in backless or fully backed versions, double or single breasted, with or without lapels. Single breasted styles typically have three buttons, and double breasted ones three or four rows. Before World War II, while black tie was still gaining acceptance, men would wear a white waistcoat, along with other details now associated primarily with white tie, such as stiff fronted shirts. However, this style, though increasingly viewed as an affectation, is still acceptable in the United States.The waistcoat should be made from either the same fabric as the dinner jacket (traditional) or the same silk as the jacket’s lapels (popular). When a waistcoat has lapels, they should be faced in the same silk as those of the jacket; in this case it is considered more refined if the body is made from the same fabric as the jacket. The buttons may be self-faced or covered in the same silk as the lapels. Vintage waistcoats were sometimes closed with studs made from onyx or mother of pearl, which were often surrounded by a setting of silver or gold.
A waistcoat is never worn with a double breasted jacket. Since this style of jacket is never unbuttoned, the waist of the trousers is never exposed, and therefore does not need to be covered, though before World War II an edge of waistcoat was often shown between the jacket and shirt.
A cummerbund may be worn with a dinner jacket in lieu of a waistcoat and, although it is considered slightly less formal, it is equally correct. It looks especially good with a shawl collar dinner jacket but may be worn in conjunction with peak lapels. The material of the cummerbund should be silk satin,grosgrain (or faille), or barathea to match that of the bow tie. It features upward facing folds, which were originally used to store theatre or opera tickets, and are now considered to be more decorative than functional. Just like the waistcoat, cummerbunds are not worn with a double breasted jacket.
Although the cummerbund should generally be black, the Black Tie Guide endorses deep and rich colours as a tasteful way to introduce some colour into an outfit that is otherwise monochromatic. Bright colours, such as those often worn by members of wedding parties, should be avoided and the bow tie must remain black in any case. Some higher quality models feature a hidden pocket and an elastic loop to fasten to the trousers.
Shirts designed to be worn with black tie are called “formal shirts,” or “tuxedo shirts” in American English and “dress shirts” in British English. Traditionally, the shirt is white, has a bibbed front that is either marcella or pleated, a turndown collar, and double (or “french”) cuffs. In the early-20th century, a piqué shirt with a detachable wing collar and single cuffs such as is worn with white tie was used, and in the 1960s and 1970s ruffled bibs were popular, but neither style is often seen today. The wing collar originally disappeared in black tie after the 1920s when the appropriately semi-formal attached turndown collar shirt became preferred, but it has been popular with American men in a less substantial, attached form since the 1980s. However, many style authorities argue that the wing collar should remain the domain of white tie for aesthetic reasons. Etiquette maven Miss Manners is one of those who feel that while the bow tie’s uncovered band is fine in a white-on-white scheme, “gentlemen with their black ties exposed all around their necks look silly.”
Although some style authorities consider the wing collar to be an acceptable option for black tie shirts, they should not be worn with double cuffs or a pleated bib, and are better suited to the more formal single-breasted peak lapel jacket. They should feature a bib that is either marcella or starched and include stiff single cuffs (secured with cufflinks), made of the same fabric as the bib; this type of shirt is exactly the same as one worn with white tie attire. The collar in this case should be tall and stiff, which may be attached or detachable. When a full dress shirt is worn in this fashion, it should be accompanied by the white marcella waistcoat ordinarily associated with white tie. Wearing white tie accessories in this manner is considered by many to be an affectation. Debrett’s do not endorse the wing collar as being compatible with the black tie dress code.
The more formal marcella version of the shirt fastens with matching shirt studs. These are most commonly in silver or gold settings, featuring onyxor mother-of-pearl; various geometrical shapes are worn, e.g., circles (most common for studs), octagons, or rectangles (most common forcufflinks). There has been no consistent fashion preference for gold or silver, but studs with mother-of-pearl are more formal and therefore often associated with white tie. The soft-front pleated version of the shirt should be fastened with mother-of-pearl buttons, typically supplied with the shirt on a separate strip of fabric. Alternatively, a fly-front shirt, appropriate with both the marcella and pleated bibs, conceals the placket for a more minimalistic look.
There are several types of cufflinks that may be worn with black tie. The most formal and decorative are the double-panel type, which dress both sides of the cuff and are connected by a chain or link of metal; this model conceals the mechanism by which the cuff is secured. The most common, and least decorative, are the swivel bar type; whilst these are acceptable, they leave the inner side of the cuffs and mechanism exposed which is incongruous with formal dress.
The most formal and traditional shoes are patent leather opera pumps (court shoes) decorated with grosgrain bows. The more popular alternative currently is the black lace-up Oxford shoe, in patent leather or calfskin, with a rounded plain toe. Broguing or any other decorative patterns should never be seen on Black Tie footwear. Matte finish pumps are also seen. Shoes are almost invariably black and patent leather is considered more formal than matte finishes while pumps are considered more formal than lace-ups. Generally considered too informal for black tie are shoes with open lacing, such as the Derby shoe (bluchers in American English). Notable alternatives include the black button boot (primarily of historical interest only) and the monogrammed Albert slipper which was originally worn only at home. The black Gucci loafer in leather is also considered as an alternative, especially in urban British settings. Hosiery is black socks made from fine wool or silk.
Most etiquette and fashion guides of the current decade recommend keeping color touches and favoring a single color, usually dark; muted reds, such as maroon, are a traditional choice.
Handkerchief: A handkerchief in linen (traditional), silk, or cotton is usually worn in the breast pocket. Although precedents for tasteful exceptions exist, pocket squares are normally white, and should not match the waist covering or bow tie.
Boutonnière: A flower may be worn. Red and white carnation, blue cornflower, and rosebud have all been popular at times. In France, the boutonnière is usually a gardenia, and boutonnières and handkerchiefs are not worn simultaneously.
Outerwear: Black-tie events do not involve outerwear and coats and gloves are no longer considered part of the dress code. However, etiquette for what to wear in public in transit to and from black tie occasions was stiffer in earlier eras and remain an option: Matching overcoats are usually black, charcoal, or dark blue, and traditionally of the Chesterfield style. A guards coat was also once popular, and a lighter topcoat can be worn in summer. Historically, anInverness coat was also worn. Until the mid-20th century, gloves and scarves were always worn, and are still occasionally seen in gray leather and white silk, respectively. White kid gloves have never been standard with black tie, remaining exclusive to white tie dress.
Hat: The 20th-century standard hat for black tie was a black (or midnight blue) Homburg in winter, or straw boater in spring and summer. Fedoras were originally regarded as too informal but have become more common recently. Top hats were originally worn with black-tie, but had been reserved to white tie and morning dress from World War I. Black-tie dress does not require a hat today.
Decorations and orders: Military, civil, and organizational decorations are usually worn only to full dress events, generally of formal governmental or diplomatic significance. Miniature orders and awards are typically worn on the left lapel of the jacket, and neck badges, breast stars, and sashes are worn according to country-specific or organizational regulations. Unlike in white tie, where decorations are always permitted, the dress code will usually give some indication when decorations are to be worn with black tie.
Timepiece: Traditionally visible timepieces are not worn with formal evening dress, because timekeeping is not supposed to be considered a priority.Pocket watches are acceptable.
Black tie is worn to private and public dinners, balls, and parties. At the more formal end of the social spectrum, it has to a large extent replaced the more formal white tie. The black tie code is sometimes classified as “semi-formal” in contrast to the “formal” white tie, or as “formal” in contrast to the “most formal” of white tie. Once more common, white tie dress code is now fairly rare, being reserved for only extremely formal occasions. Black tie is traditionally worn only after six o’clock in the evening, or after sundown during winter months. Black tie’s rough daytime equivalent is the stroller, which is less formal than morning dress because (as with black tie) it replaces the tailcoat with a lounge coat. Curiously, in opposition to the trend seen in evening dress, the less formal stroller is now extraordinarily rare, whereas morning dress is still relatively common.
Traditionally black tie should be worn to the opera although a dark lounge suit is also now acceptable. In the 21st century, many opera houses in the English-speaking world do not stipulate black tie. For example, neither the Royal Opera House nor the Sydney Opera House have a black tie dress code. Black tie is customary at English country house opera, such as during the summer Festival at Glyndebourne.
Black tie should also be worn at a ballet or orchestra gala.
At formal dinners on cruise ships the dress code will typically be black tie although a dark lounge suit may be worn as a substitute. In 2013 Cunard, noted for its adherence to formal dress codes, relaxed its dress standards. As of 2015 Cunard requires one of a dinner jacket, a dark suit, formal national dress or military uniform for gentlemen diners on formal evenings. Similarly, the luxury cruise liner, Seabourn, stipulates either a tuxedo or a dark business suit on formal evenings.
Black tie at weddings
In the last few decades, black tie has been increasingly seen in the United States at formal day wedding in place of the traditional Morning dress. However, etiquette and clothing experts continue to discourage or condemn the wearing of black tie before 7 pm. Prior to the late 1930s, black tie was even discouraged as too informal for evening weddings, with Amy Vanderbilt arguing that “no man should ever be caught in a church in a tuxedo.” Indeed, Emily Post would continue to argue in preference of white tie at evening weddings into the 1950s.
In England and Wales, black tie is seldom worn at Church weddings or civil ceremonies as morning dress or a lounge suit is normally favoured. However, in recent years black tie is sometimes worn at evening receptions. At Jewish weddings, however, black tie is often stipulated. In Scotland, a dinner jacket is also not common but highland dress is often chosen.
Corresponding forms of dress
For formal dining, uniformed services officers and non-commissioned officers often wear mess dress equivalents to the civilian black tie and evening dress. Mess uniforms may vary according to the wearers’ respective branches of the armed services, regiments, or corps, but usually include a short Eton-style coat reaching to the waist. Some include white shirts, black bow ties, and low-cut waistcoats, while others feature high collars that fasten around the neck and corresponding high-gorge waistcoats. Some nations’ armed services have black tie and white tie equivalent variants in their mess dress.
Red Sea Rig
In tropical areas, primarily in Western diplomatic and expatriate communities, Red Sea rig is sometimes worn, in which the jacket and waistcoat are omitted and a red cummerbund and trousers with red piping are worn instead.
Scottish Highland dress
Scottish Highland dress is often worn to black- and white-tie occasions, especially at Scottish reels and ceilidhs; the black-tie version is more common, even at white-tie occasions. Traditionally, black-tie Scots Highland dress comprises:
- Black, or other solid colour, barathea jacket with silver buttons — Regulation Doublet, Prince Charlie (coatee), Brian Boru, Braemar, and black mess jackets are suitable. There is some contention about whether the Duke of Montrose and Sheriffmuir doublets are too formal for black-tie occasions. The Argyll jacket is a popular alternative choice; however, it should be worn with a three button waistcoat rather than the five button vest.
- Miniature medals (if authorized)
- Matching or tartan waistcoat
- White shirt with shirt studs, French or barrel cuffs, and a turn-down collar (wing collars are generally reserved for white tie in the United Kingdom)
- Black bow tie or white lace jabot
- Evening dress brogues
- Full-dress kilt hose (diced, tartan or off-white)
- Silk flashes or garter ties
- Dress sporran with silver chain
- Black, silver-mounted sgian dubh
- Dirk (optional)
- Highland bonnet with crest badge (only suitable out of doors)
Traditional black-tie Lowland dress is a variant of the normal black tie that includes tartan trews rather than the usual trousers and may include a suitable kilt jacket instead of the dinner jacket. Trews are often worn in summer and warm climes.