Black tie is a dress code for evening events and social functions derived from British and American costume conventions of the 19th century. Worn only for events after 6 p.m., black tie is less formal than white tie but more formal than informal or business dress. It is also more formal than recent intermediate codes of “creative,” “alternate” or “optional” black tie.
For men, the elements of black tie are:
- A white dress shirt
- A black bow tie
- An evening waistcoat or cummerbund
- A suit, of black or midnight blue wool, in which the jacket lapels and trouser braid are of silk or other contrasting material
- Black dress shoes.
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 women's dress for black tie occasions is:
- Evening shoes and
- A cocktail (knee) length dress.
- 1 History
- 2 The elements of black tie
- 3 Black-tie social occasions
- 4 Corresponding forms of dress
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
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, turndown-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 2000s (decade), midnight blue once again became popular, lapel facings were sometimes reduced to wide edging and long ties were often substituted for the iconic bow tie. Black or colored shirts were more frequently worn.
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 collar, 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
- A black cummerbund (traditionally appropriate only in warm weather) or a low-cut waistcoat
- A white dress shirt (a marcella or pleated front is traditional), French cuffs and cufflinks, and a turndown or winged standing collar (detachable collars, winged, are preferred, though they have become somewhat rare.)
- A black silk bow tie matching the lapel facings
- Shirt studs and cufflinks. Less formally, a fly-front or button down shirt 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 typical black-tie jacket is single-breasted, and black or midnight blue; usually of wool or a wool–mohair, or wool-polyester blend, although other materials, especially silk, are seen. 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. The lapels are usually faced with silk in either a grosgrain or a satin weave.
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 and cummerbund 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 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, were used to support the pants but belts are often worn today in less formal settings. Evening trousers can be flat-fronted or pleated today; pleats first coming into fashion in the 1930s.
Waistcoat or cummerbund
A waistcoat (vest in American English) or cummerbund should be worn when wearing a single-breasted coat. However, according to Debretts, "cummerbands or low cut black evening waistcoats are rarely worn nowadays". Waistcoasts 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 cummerbund, derived from military dress uniform in British India, is worn with its pleats facing up, and is normally of the same cloth as the bow tie and lapels though strictly, the cummerbund, bow tie and lapels should be of different material. Maroon, a color commonly worn to accompany black tie, is often used for the cummerbund in less formal or summer situations. A cummerbund is never worn with a double breasted jacket, and a waistcoat now very rarely. 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.
Recently, and particularly in the United States, it has become more common for men to remove their jackets at less formal events such as weddings and proms. Because of this, full-back waistcoats have become more common; unlike the traditional waistcoat, these are often high, single breasted, and with the full five or six buttons of a daytime waistcoat.
Shirts designed to be worn with black tie are called "formal shirts," or "tuxedo shirts" in American English and "dress shirts" in British English. The shirt is conventionally white or off-white cotton or linen with a bibbed front that is either marcella or pleated. In the early 20th century, a stiff front such as is worn with white tie was sometimes used and in the 1960s and 1970s ruffled bibs were popular, but neither style is often seen today. Indeed, a trend in the 2000s (decade) has been to dispense with the bib front altogether. Shirts worn with black-tie have double (or "french") cuffs. In the late 19th century and through the 1920s, stiff shirts with winged detachable collars were common. Thereafter, collars for formal shirts were typically attached with either the standard fold-over collar, or the "winged" version of the standing collar.
The original and most formal version of the dress shirt fastens with matching shirt studs. Dress shirts with a fly-front placket are also traditional. However, lately it has become quite common to allow buttons to show, although this is less formal. Studs and links are most commonly in silver or gold settings, featuring onyx or mother-of-pearl; various geometrical shapes are worn, e.g., circles (most common for studs), octagons, or rectangles (most common for links). There has been no consistent fashion preference for gold or silver, but mother-of-pearl is more formal and therefore often associated with white tie.
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. 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.
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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.
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 guard's coat was also once popular, and a lighter topcoat can be worn in summer. Historically, an Inverness 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.
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.
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.
Black tie is worn to private and public dinners, dances, 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. English country house opera, such as at Glyndebourne, is more likely to require black tie.
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 condemn the wearing of black tie before 6 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.
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 cèilidhean; the black-tie version is more common, even at white-tie occasions. Traditionally, black-tie Scots Highland dress comprises:
- Black barathea jacket with silver buttons—Regulation Doublet, Prince Charlie (coatee), Brian Boru, Braemar, Argyll, 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.
- 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.
- "History: Late Victorian Era". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "History: Edwardian Era". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "History: Jazz Age". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "History: Depression Era". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "History: Postwar Period". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "History: Jet Age". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "History: Counterculture Era". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "Classic Black Tie: Tuxedos (Dinner Suits)". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "Classic Black Tie: Shirts". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "Attire Guide: Dress Codes from Casual to White Tie". Emily Post. Retrieved 2011-05-12.
- "Black Tie 101". Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved 2011-05-12.
- "Classic Black Tie: Warm-Weather Black Tie". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "Special occasions - dress codes - black tie". Debretts. Retrieved 2011-12-23.
- "Classic Black Tie: Waist Coverings". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- Gavernas, Mary Lisa, The Fairchild Encyclopedia of Menswear, Fairchild Publications, New York, 2008
- "Classic Black Tie: Shirts". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- "Classic Black Tie: Footwear". Black Tie Guide. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- MacKinnon, C. R. (1970). Scottish Tartans & Highland Dress. Glasgow/London: Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. p. 98. ISBN 0-00-411114-1.
- Apparel Arts magazine, an account of 1930s fashion and style; some issues more relevant than others, such as those reproduced with comment at The London Lounge: Vol II. No. II and Vol I. No. III (numbering: London Lounge, not original)
- Flusser, Alan (2002). Dressing the Man: Mastering the art of Permanent Fashion. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-019144-9.
- The Emily Post Institute provides a breakdown of traditional categories of progressing formality in dress for men & women.
- Media related to Black tie at Wikimedia Commons