White tie (or full dress, evening dress, full evening dress; slang top hat and tails or white tie and tails, tailsuit, tails) is the most formal evening dress code in Western fashion. It is worn to ceremonial occasions such as state dinners in some countries, as well as to very formal balls and evening weddings. The chief components for men are the black dress coat commonly known as an evening tailcoat, white bow tie, white waistcoat and starched wing collar shirt, while women wear a suitable dress for the occasion, such as a ball gown.
As evening dress, white tie is traditionally considered correct only after 6:00 p.m. although some etiquette authorities allow for it any time after dark even if that means prior to 6:00 p.m. (though there are some exceptions). The equivalent formal attire for daytime events is called morning dress. The semi-formal evening counterpart of white tie is black tie.
The invention of white tie is widely accredited to Beau Brummell (1778–1840), who simplified and codified evening dress at the time. Many essential elements introduced by him are still reflected in today's white tie to a certain degree such as the monochromatic colour scheme and the use of coat, waistcoat and trousers.
Although the use of white tie had been slowly in decline since the First World War, there has been a recent resurgence in its interest during the early part of the 21st century, partially due to successful period dramas such as Downton Abbey, the vintage movement and its adoption by prolific people/groups such as The Hives who wear it as part of their band outfit since 2011.
Formal evening dress is strictly regulated, and properly consists of:
- Black or midnight blue dress coat (commonly known as an evening tailcoat) with silk (grosgrain or satin) facings, horizontally cut-away at the front
- Trousers of matching fabric with one wide or two narrow strips of braid down the side seams
- White plain stiff-fronted cotton shirt
- White stiff wing collar, detachable
- White bow tie
- White low-cut waistcoat
- Black silk socks or stockings
- Black court pumps (with black silk bows) or Oxfords
The coat (or 'bodycoat' as tailors call it) is cut to hug the body closely and is detailed in the seams at the back of the coat and the waist seam. The lapels can be pointed or have a shawl collar; faced with either silk satin or grosgrain although other types of silk can be used including moiré and barathea weave. The colour of the facings should be black or, in the case of a midnight-blue coat, be either black or midnight-blue. The coat is cut so it is worn open and cannot be buttoned; the two sides should never meet. There are usually six decorative buttons, three on each side, which are either of polish black horn/bone or covered in silk which could be the same as that of the facings or figured. The cuffs usually have four buttons. The fronts are cutaway at a sharp angle and the tails have a single vent. There are two styles of cut for the coat; the older cut with 'laid-on' lapels where the lapels are attached as a separate piece onto the body, and the modern 'grown-on' lapel with the lapel cut as part of the body and shaped using darts.
The trousers are of the same cloth as the coat and either have a very wide single line of braid or two narrow lines of braid sewn very close together running down both side seams. They are usually cut with a high-rise so the fronts of the coat cover the waistband completely in order for the waistcoat to cover the waistband easily. They are worn with braces (suspenders in American English) to avoid disrupting the lay of the waistcoat in the case of a belt being worn and to keep the trouser creases aligned.
The waistcoat and bow tie are usually made of cotton marcella (known in American English as "piqué"), although plain white, off-white or ivory silk bow ties and waistcoats are sometimes worn. Black wool waistcoats were once the norm for full dress as the alternative to the white but it is now rarely worn. The waistcoat is cut low, that is, the opening is low to allow much of the shirt front with their studs to be displayed. It is either single or double breasted, with or without revers/lapels, and can be fully backed or backless. Button numbers vary depending on style and are almost always detachable to allow the waistcoat to be cleaned and startched. The bow tie also exists in various widths and styles.
Many menswear authorities today assert that the bottom of the waistcoat should not be visible below the front cutaway of the tailcoat. This has been the prevalent view in the United States since the 1920s, where actors such as Fred Astaire popularized the look of the unbroken black line from neck to feet which lengthened their silhouettes on-camera. The practice was also reinforced repeatedly by authorities dating back to at least World War I and is adhered to in numerous fashion magazines dating back to at least the 1840s. However, since full evening dress is the most conservative form of men's dress, and has otherwise changed very little since the 1870s when the bottom of the waistcoat was visible below the cutaway of the tailcoat, some traditionalists (especially in Europe and among the aristocracy) tend to wear the waistcoat with its hem extending below the cutaway of the tailcoat by 1–2 cm. As for British royal authority on the matter, the waistcoat does not extend below the fronts. Worn either style, the waistcoat must cover the trouser waistline (which should never be seen).
The shirt should have a detachable stand up or wing collar, with a plain but stiffly starched bib front and cuffs, though shirts with attached collars are becoming more prevalent. Shirt fronts can be plain linen, plain cotton or cotton marcella and are closed with studs.
Shirt studs, cufflinks and waistcoat buttons could be silver, gold or other precious metals, faced with mother-of-pearl or other semi-precious stones and ideally all matching in a set. A white pocket handkerchief and boutonnière may be worn although in France both may not be worn simultaneously and the boutonnière is traditionally a gardenia). The timepiece is of either a pocket watch suspended from a ribbon fob (worn inside the fob pocket of the trousers) or Albert chain (worn in a pocket of the waistcoat). Wrist watches are never to be worn.
At occasions of state, and in the presence of royalty, state decorations are worn by those who have been awarded them: miniature medals plus up to four breast stars, a badge suspended from a narrow neck riband and a broad riband (sash).
The hat should be a black silk top hat which may be collapsible — a tradition which arose from the fact that opera houses traditionally lacked a cloak room to hand in a top hat. The overcoat should be a dark dress coat such as a Chesterfield overcoat, Inverness cloak, or opera cloak. White gloves were traditionally considered essential and are often worn for dancing but must be removed when dining. A silk scarf and cane are optional extras.
At some state and heraldic occasions in Britain, knee-breeches and silk stockings are worn instead of trousers, also known as 'alternative court dress'. This is particularly necessary where the garter of the Order of the Garter is intended to be worn. If a Knight of the Garter wears breeches, he wears his garter under his left knee. Ladies of the Garter wear their garters above their left elbows. (Buckled shoes, however, are not correct wear with white tie; rather, 'court pumps' (low-cut patent shoes with black bows) may be worn - either with breeches or with trousers.)
Other than opera pumps (which can have pinched or flat bows), patent or highly polished calf leather Oxfords (with or without toe-cap seam) are correct to wear with white tie, especially with black satin ribbon laces. In the past, other types of shoes have been worn but now rarely are which includes patent button boots (with black wool or silk galoshes) and Chelsea boots (sometimes with bows). The socks are of black or midnight blue silk or fine cotton. The trend to wear coloured socks with white tie is incorrect because it draws unnecessary attention to the feet, distorts the run of black from waist to toe and is illogical to the black-white colour scheme.
Although female dress is not as formally codified as that of men, women are expected to wear full-length dresses such as ball gowns. Dresses with lengths above the ankle (such as cocktail or tea-length dresses) are frowned upon and considered inappropriate. Depending on the formality of the event, bare shoulders may or may not be acceptable. Shawls and long gloves are common accessories. Women's gloves should be white and upper-length/opera-length and are never taken off until seated at a table. Then they are to be put on again after the meal is finished. At the most formal debutante balls, ball gowns are often required to be white. At hunt balls, ball gowns are often required to be black, white, silver or gold.
Where state decorations are worn it will usually be appropriate for royal and aristocratic women to wear tiaras.
Military mess dress may also be seen at a white-tie event on appropriate occasions. At hunt balls (run by fox hunting clubs) members who are entitled to may wear a scarlet tailcoat. This hunt attire is colloquially known as "drinking pinks", to distinguish it from the "pinks" intended to be worn while riding. A hunt ball invitation in America would generally specify the dress code as "black tie, or scarlet if convenient".
Clergy man wear, in place of white-tie outfits, a cassock with ferraiolone, which is a light-weight ankle-length cape intended to be worn indoors. The colour and fabric of the ferraiolone is determined by the rank of the cleric and can be scarlet watered silk, purple silk, black silk or black wool. For outerwear the black cape (cappa nigra) also known as choir cape (cappa choralis) is most traditional. It is a long black woollen cloak fastened with a clasp at the neck and often has a hood. Cardinals and bishops may also wear a black plush hat or, less formally, a biretta. In practice, the cassock and especially the ferraiolone have become much less common and no particular formal attire has appeared to replace them. The most formal alternative is a clerical waistcoat incorporating a Roman collar (a rabat) worn with a collarless French cuff shirt and a black suit, although this is closer to "black-tie" than white-tie.
Scottish Highland dress
As a specific example of national dress, Scottish Highland dress may also be worn by men at most white-tie events.
The traditional white-tie version of Highland dress consists of:
- Formal kilt doublet in barathea or velvet— the regulation doublet, Montrose doublet, Sheriffmuir doublet, and Kenmore doublet are suitable in a variety of colours. Velvet is considered to be a more formal material. The Prince Charlie (coatee) is considered to be less formal, although when introduced it was to be worn with a White lace jabot. Tartan jackets are also seen.
- Waistcoat in white marcella, tartan (usually to match the kilt), red, or the same material as the doublet; no waistcoat is worn with the Kenmore doublet
- Kilt with formal kilt pin
- White stiff-front shirt with wing collar and white gold, or silver studs and cufflinks for the regulation doublet, or a white formal shirt and optional lace cuffs for the Montrose, Sheriffmuir, and Kenmore doublets
- White lace jabot; a black silk or white marcella bow tie may be worn in place of the jabot with the regulation doublet (highland wear often includes a black bow tie even at white-tie events)
- Black formal shoes or black buckle brogues
- Tartan or diced kilt hose
- Silk garter flashes or garter ties
- Silver-mounted sporran in fur, sealskin, or hair with a silver chain belt
- Black, silver-mounted, and jeweled sgian-dubh
- Short belted plaid with silver plaid brooch (optional)
- Scottish dirk (optional)
- Highland bonnet with badge (only worn out of doors)
Traditional white-tie Lowland dress is a variant of the normal white tie that includes tartan trews rather than the usual trousers and includes a suitable Scottish jacket or doublet instead of the tailcoat. Trews are often worn in summer and warm climes.
These are the usual occasions when white tie would be expected to be worn. Almost always, the dress code would specify 'white tie' or 'full evening dress', with or without decorations depending on if it is a state event. Nothwithstanding these usual events, private parties may demand or allow people to wear white tie.
- State dinners (e.g. dinners with visiting heads of state)
- Some commemoration balls and May balls at the old universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham
- Very formal evening weddings
- Hunt balls
- Carnival balls
- Caledonian Reeling Balls such as the Skye and Oban Balls and Reeling Balls at universities including amongst others Durham, Edinburgh and St. Andrews
- CUCA & OUCA Chairman's Dinners & Termly Dinners
- Cambridge University Heraldic and Genealogical Society formal dinners
- Public Business Meetings of the Oxford Union by Junior Officers
- Some balls during the London Season
- the Lord Mayor of London's Mansion House Banquet (although Gordon Brown famously ignored the dress code whilst he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.)
- The most formal banquets in the City of London of the Livery Companies at either the Mansion House, the Guildhall or in a Livery Hall.
- International Standard and American Smooth ballroom dance competitions
- Christmas parties where the dress-code is "red carpet ready"
The dress coat is also part of other related codes, such as civilian day court dress in the royal court (in the United Kingdom). However, these alternatives are now being replaced by standard white tie for formal state occasions, such as for ambassadors at the State Opening of Parliament.
In the United States white tie has been replaced by black tie for many formal occasions such as evening weddings, the Academy Awards and even presidential inaugural balls. It is still occasionally seen at:
- very formal balls and cotillions
- very formal evening weddings
- some Masonic events
- In addition, musical conductors and members of an orchestra or symphony playing classical music often are dressed in white tie, as well as many college level choirs and glee clubs, and the occasional barbershop quartet.
In Finland and Sweden as well as the Netherlands many academic traditions (disputations, commencement ceremonies, and academic balls) still require white tie, even during day time. In these countries, academic traditions require a black waistcoat for day-time ceremonies. If no ladies without doctoral degree are present, it is customary to wear a black waistcoat even in the evening. For formal academic balls of student unions, student nations, and other student organizations, couleur is worn with the white tie.
In some universities (most notably Aalto University), doctoral regalia includes a black tailcoat with facings bearing the insignia of the university, embroidered in gold or silver. Doctors from these universities may wear this regalia at all occasions requiring white tie. On the other hand, doctoral swords are not usually worn during normal white-tie occasions.Doctors may wear their doctoral headgear instead of opera hats even for non-academic occasions.
In Japan, white tie, or a variant combining the bow tie with a black lounge suit, is worn for school graduation ceremonies by the school principal and the teachers of the graduating students; and also for certain government functions. White tie is worn at the Imperial Court for ceremonies.
Related forms of dress
White ties were historically worn by clerics and in the professions that formerly were filled by priests and minor clerics. In various forms they are still worn as part of:
- Clerical dress (by persons in holy orders)
- Clerical dress (by clerks etc. in Parliament)
- Court dress (in courts of law)
- Court dress (in the royal court)
- Academic dress (in the older universities such as Oxford, Dublin Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, St David's College and St Andrews)
- The form of school dress known as 'stick-ups' is used to recognize senior pupils of note at Eton College
- The head boy at Harrow School has the distinction of wearing full white tie on Sundays and formal events; the School Captain of Whitgift School 'and his deputies' are also entitled to the privilege of wearing white tie at the school's Graduation Ball and the annual Prefects' Dinner.
White ties are not usually worn with military mess dress, where black ties are most often worn even with the most formal variants, though there are exceptions. In the Royal Navy, mess dress requires a white waistcoat but a black tie.
- "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails", 1935 Irving Berlin song celebrating invitation to a high class party. Written for the film Top Hat, it was introduced by Fred Astaire wearing white-tie apparel.
- "Formal Tradition". The Black Tie Guide. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
- "Defining White Tie". The Black Tie Guide. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
- "Dressing the Man", "Indispensable Guide to Classic Men's Clothing, "Mr. Jones Rules" (UK), History of Men's Fashion: What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing Today" (UK)
- "Vanity Fair" 1918, "Esquire" Jan 1935, "Esquire" Dec 1936, "Esquire" Nov 1939, "Esquire" Jan 1939 (actually says that the points may extend a trifle below the front of the tailcoat fronts but "never, never at the sides"), "Men Too Wear Clothes" published 1939, "Esquire" Jan 1940, "Esquire" Nov 1940
- fashion plates reprinted in "The History of English Costume in the 19th Century" and "Men's Fashion: The Complete Sourcebook", original fashion plates from various issues of "Gazette of Fashion", "Gentleman's Magazine of Fashion"
- Trendell, H. (ed.) (1921) Dress and Insignia Worn at His Majesty's Court, pp. 76. The description does not say that the waistcoat should not extrend below the fronts but the plate illustration of the New Style Court Dress clearly shows that the waistcoat does not extend below the fronts so it is implied that the waistcoat should be worn in this way and is relevant to the full evening dress as it is cutaway the same way as the New Style Court Dress coat given the New Style Court Dress essentially is based slightly on full evening dress of the time.
- Trendell, H. (ed.) (1921) Dress and Insignia Worn at His Majesty's Court, pp. 36
- Canadian Heritage (1985). "Dress". "Diplomatic and Consular Relations and Protocol" External Affairs. Retrieved 2008-11-09.
- MacKinnon, C. R. (1970). Scottish Tartans & Highland Dress. Glasgow/London: Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. p. 99. ISBN 0-00-411114-1.
- Moore, Matthew (2007-11-13). "Gordon Brown gives in to Lord Mayor's dress code". Telegraph. Retrieved 2007-12-27.
- Sillanpää, M. Karonkkaperinne. University of Turku. (Finnish)