Whether it’s end-of-year festivities or an upcoming spring wedding, black tie attire is an eventual must-have for most people. Getting fancied up can be fun and easy, but for those who need a refresher, a good formal black tie look can leave a long-lasting positive impression.
What does “black tie attire” really mean?
Black tie attire is what one typically wears to a formal evening occasion. It’s where you’ll most commonly see people donning tuxedos and floor-length evening gowns. These styles are worn for formal events like balls, galas, formal dinners, weddings, and more.
Black tie wedding attire
A more extravagant wedding may require black tie attire. The wedding party will likely feature tuxedos, but for guests, a nice suit will do in a pinch. Dresses and skirts are often floor-length and shorter dresses have a formal flourish. It’s also a great opportunity to showcase elegant jewelry, neck and bowties, and accessories.
Weddings often mean photographs—if you expect to be in a lot of them, consider matching your look to the hosts’ color pallet. The invitation will likely give you a clue, but asking is appropriate so long as you ask well before the event.
In the case of Western weddings, unless the invitation or host specifically states otherwise, all or mostly white is not appropriate cocktail attire for a wedding.
Black tie optional
“Optional” just means that the host has flexibility in formality. The idea is that you shouldn’t need to buy anything you don’t already have, but you should still be sporting your best.
Don’t have a tuxedo? A nice suit and a dress shirt are just fine. Do you lack an evening gown but have a closet full of cocktail dresses? Not a problem, find the one that looks the most formal and go forth.
White tie vs. black tie
White tie is the most formal of formal attire. It’s for very official state events, which most people are unlikely to attend.
It requires bowties, black tailcoats, and ball or evening gowns. It’s most commonly required for Western royal events. If you’re attending a state ball soon, you are sadly on the wrong page.
Black tie vs. cocktail attire
For cocktail parties, wedding receptions, and other less formal gatherings, dress pants, blazers, and above-the-knee cocktail dresses are more appropriate than a tuxedo. Cocktail attire just means it’s a little more relaxed than a formal event.
The two dress codes can sometimes be a substitute for the other in a pinch. Dress pants and dress shirts, for example, would not look out of place at either kind of event.
When to wear black tie attire: weddings, galas, and more
|The dress code
|How formal is it?
|Where to wear it
The most formal
Formal balls, state dinners, royal occasions
Still pretty dang formal
Formal weddings, formal dinners, balls, galas
Black tie optional
Weddings, religious events, galas
Formal, but fun
Parties, wedding receptions, anniversaries, reunions, nice dates
Informal but professional
Workplace, interviews, casual gatherings
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What is black tie attire for men and masculine-presenting folks?
Black tie attire men (or anyone, really) is your most formal, dressed-up look.
Button-up dress shirts are a must — no t-shirts allowed, no matter how cool they are. When choosing a shirt, think about matching colors throughout your suit or tuxedo, perhaps with a pocket square.
How do you know if a shirt is formal? Check for a stiff collar, long tails, and single or double cuffs. Take a look at the fabric — is it soft, does it feel luxurious? You can also check the buttons and the stitching to make sure they’re clean and well-secured.
A tuxedo is a very specific type of formal wear that’s mostly characterized by satin. If you’re wearing a tux, your lapels and buttons will be satin. It’s also paired with a satin bowtie, usually black — hence the term “black tie attire”.
A suit jacket is the top piece of a two-piece suit, meaning that it’s made with an accompanying pair of pants. Compared to a blazer or other coat, the suit jacket is much more structured through the shoulders and more. They’re typically made with more luxurious fabrics like wool, mohair, and occasionally silk.
What’s the difference between a suit jacket and a blazer? Can’t tell which you’ve got? A great way to test is to try it on with a pair of faded jeans. If the jeans feel too casual for the coat, congratulations! You’ve got a suit jacket. However, if the jeans look okay with the coat, it’s probably a blazer or sports coat.
If you want to be cozy at the formal function, a sweater or sweater vest is appropriate so long as it shows your tie.
Dress pants, like a suit jacket, are a part of a pair. They will also be made of luxurious material and should be tailored to fit your height and build.
Closed-toe shoes are the way to go here, this is not a sandals gig! Opt for a clean pair of leather loafers, oxfords, derbies, or brogues.
If you’re wearing a suit or a tuxedo, you likely have space for a few accessories. A pocket square is a charming way to add flair to your look.
Cufflinks are also a fashionable option. Meanwhile, a watch with a leather or metal strap can also accessorize a formal tux or suit.
As with any formal event, you’ll want to be neatly groomed for the event. A fresh shave, a haircut, hair styles, and cologne go a long way in turning a truly formal look.
How do you dress formally if you don’t have a suit?
For many folks, formal events may be few and far between. If that’s the case for you and you need a look in a pinch, your dressiest pants and dressiest shirt will do in a pinch. Demin and khaki? Not so much.
Does formal mean wearing a tie is required?
For black tie optional, a tie is up to your preference. Otherwise, at more strictly formal events, a tie may be required.
What is black tie attire for women and feminine-presenting people?
Are you more the type to put the “dress” in “dressing up”? Black tie attire for women (or whomever so chooses) can include skirts and dresses evocative of a fantasy story — and are a lot of fun with a few key rules.
Skirts, dresses, and jumpsuits
Single-piece dresses are the most common black tie attire for women et al. A ball or evening gown is usually reserved for special occasions, and is a great opportunity to make a fashion statement.
Of course, an elegant blouse combined with a formal skirt or dress pants will serve just as nicely for a formal occasion. Mix-and-match pieces are a little less common at typical black tie events but with the right combination of luxurious fabrics, a blouse is doable.
Dress pants for women are less commonly made in pairs with suit jackets, but it’s not impossible to find. But similar to suit material, they will also be made of luxurious material and should be tailored to fit your height and build.
In the event of colder weather, a coat may be required to keep you warm at a black tie attire function. Cashmere, wool, velvet, and even fur are the kinds of luxury fabrics one might pair with a gown.
Stiletto heels are most often seen paired with black tie attire for women — the additional height provided by heels can make a dress with a long train appear even more dramatic and elegant.
But heel height can vary based on the dress length, cut, and individual height. Whether you build your look around the shoes or the dress, skirt, or pants, it’s key to make sure the two work well together. Consider bringing one or the other for reference while doing your event shopping.
Do you have a beautiful pair of chandelier earrings handed down from your grandmother that you just never have the chance to wear? Have I got good news for you!
This is a great opportunity to flash your fancier accessories — earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and rings are a great way to further dress up a look.
Smaller bags are also ideal for black tie events since they tuck neatly under your arm. But your event will likely have a place where you can check your coat and bag, so if you need a larger bag, that’s alright.
Formal up-dos and styles are always a hit at black tie events. If you have long hair, skip the scrunchie and bust out the styling gel or curling iron.
Additional grooming aids you might consider include double-sided tape for securing a dress or blouse with finicky (or no) straps. You may also want to look into corsets or other shapewear to create your ideal silhouette.
What not to wear to a black tie event
Alright, so you know what you should wear for black tie attire — but to prevent any faux pas, let’s make sure we’ve covered the basics.
Is a polo shirt appropriate for a black tie event?
Polo shirts are a more casual version of a casual button-up shirt. As such, even with the finest suit jacket and pants, polos aren’t appropriate black tie attire.
Black tie attire cheat sheet: what is and isn’t okay to wear
|Depends on the event
How to dress in black tie attire
The best thing you can do for a black tie event is to plan ahead and shop with guidelines in mind. It’s also worth considering any similar events you may have in the future. Perhaps you’ve started with a new firm or company and there are several charity galas in your future. Maybe all your fancy friends are just getting married one after the other.
Choosing black tie attire is a great opportunity to show off your fanciest look. Still, the key is to remember the main dos and don’ts that are almost always a part of a cocktail attire dress code.
Black tie attire dos and dont’s
- Do: wear the most formal items in your closet.
- Don’t: sport a t-shirt or a polo shirt with a blazer over it.
- Do: shine your fanciest shoes in preparation.
- Don’t: wear denim.
Where can you buy black tie attire for cheap?
Finding black tie attire is as easy as heading to your local mall. Department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom’s or Nordstrom Rack will carry formal attire from some of the best-known designer brands around.
For those on a budget, Target has its selection of sparkly, dressy clothing options. Formal attire also tends to be donated or available for secondhand purchase pretty frequently. Resale sites like Poshmark are great places to find stylish and vintage black tie attire that will surely start a conversation at your next event.