Rockford Bride Central

Black-Tie Dress Codes for Men

Many a gentleman lives in fear of the moment when a black-tie invitation – or, God help him, a white-tie invitation – will arrive in the mail. The prospect of that moment, however, should actually fill him with calm, since a request for black tie leaves little margin for error. 

Black Tie

The appearance of this term on an invitation indicates unequivocally that the host expects dinner jackets to be worn. Black Tie Required is sometimes used to mean the same thing but its wording may suggest that the host believes guests are too naive to infer the mandatory nature of the former. (Unfortunately this belief is often quite justified.)

There will likely be those few guests who will interpret black tie to simply mean formal and arrive in whatever they feel appropriate. The host will graciously excuse the appearance of the uninformed among them, viewing the transgression as a valuable learning experience for these guests. As for the willfully inconsiderate, the host’s congeniality need last only as long as the evening. 

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Black Tie Preferred

This terminology is used by those who want to host a very formal party but do not want to exclude guests that cannot afford a tuxedo. Invited guests genuinely unable to meet the expense of buying or even renting a dinner jacket may wear a dark suit and tie instead. Guests that own or can easily afford a dinner jacket but cannot be bothered to wear one should politely decline the invitation. To do otherwise is boorish as it tells the host in no uncertain terms that his or her preferences are irrelevant.

Black Tie Optional

Black Tie Optional (or Black Tie Invited) allows hosts to suggest that men wear tuxedos but not to insist on it. This code is often employed in the context of large gatherings of civic or business groups, such as a dinner sponsored by a chamber of commerce. 

The reality, though, is that this dress code is basically the formal equivalent of “business casual”: an attempt to please everyone that ultimately benefits no-one. As Canadian fashion columnist Russell Smith explains in Men’s Style, Black Tie Optional is frequently a cop-out used by insecure hosts:

It means that the planners of the party began by envisioning a glittering formal affair, with neatly groomed men in stark black and white as sober backdrops for the dramatic colour and flashes of flesh of the women. And so they wrote “Black Tie” on the invitations - and then immediately had doubts . . . What if this seems too snobby? What if we are excluding those without resources to own a dinner jacket? What if we are insulting the men with beards and Jethro Tull albums who don’t believe in such elitist dress and who may refuse on principle to come to such a stuffy affair?

Consequently, these hesitant hosts deprive men of the reassurance and clarity they seek from a precise dress code, forcing them instead to partake in a no-win guessing game. If the large majority of men decide to wear dinner jackets then the minority who dress in suits may appear inconsiderate and classless. Conversely, if the majority shows up in suits then the minority will likely feel put out. 

Smith advises party planners that such anxieties are illogical. Firstly, no guest in this day and age will honestly expect to be barred from a Black Tie party if he can only afford a dark suit. Secondly, the “optional” aspect will be gleefully seized upon by the Jethro Tull brigade (described by Smith “any rock music critics or Canadian novelists who happen to be invited”) as permission to show up in their comfy sweaters thus guaranteeing a motley party instead of the swank affair envisioned by the host. As for the sensitive men who feel that owning a dinner jacket would be vaguely decadent? “Well, if they are opposed to decadent glamour," says Smith, "then they shouldn’t want to attend the party at all.”

Guests faced with the frustrating dilemma posed by hosts too tepid to decide between Black Tie and Business Attire should contact the organizers to find out how men have dressed for the event in the past. If this information is not applicable or available then experts offer a number of choices that are perfectly kosher:

  • If a man enjoys any opportunity to wear his tuxedo he should do so (this was Frank Sinatra’s preferred solution to the "optional" conundrum)

  • If a man fears being mistaken for the wait staff he should opt for a dark suit

  • If a man refuses to play this no-win guessing game he should steer clear of the event altogether

One other option we recommend is to take advantage of this rare opportunity to tinker with proper black tie and pull together an ensemble that is a practical compromise between Black Tie and Business Attire such as a notched lapel tuxedo with a black four-in-hand tie. 

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Creative Black Tie

This designation is defined by Emily Post’s Etiquette as a “tuxedo combined with trendy or whimsical items” which most experts suggest be limited to the shirt, bow tie and waistcoat or cummerbund. 

However, the details are largely irrelevant because the code should be avoided by hosts out of consideration for their guests. As Russell Smith points out, “If the words ‘black-tie optional’ on an invitation hit a panic button for most men, the words ‘creative black tie’ are even worse. Who would want to go to a party, unless it’s a fancy dress ball, to be judged by his costume?” Smith's advice is that it is better to use a dress code such as Festive Formal which offers guests the same latitude in their choice of attire and to leave Black Tie to its intended purpose of providing precise guidelines for authentically formal occasions.

Guests should be equally leery of this unfortunate by-product of the 1980s. The expert consensus is that only those men who are well versed in sartorial style and the fundamentals of proper black tie can ascertain what type of ensemble successfully qualifies for this category. In the hands of the uneducated it can all too easily be used to degrade the venerable dinner jacket into a sophomoric gimmick. As Smith so succinctly puts it, “There is nothing more pathetic than a failed flamboyant.” Black-tie aficionados should instead heed the advice of A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up which reminds us that when confronted with such “clever” dress codes as Creative Black Tie, “a gentleman has every right to dress as traditionally as he chooses.”

Relative Formality

Whether you wear a tuxedo out of necessity or out of choice, there are a substantial number of options available to you regarding the details of your dinner suit. Experienced guests will recognize that not all black-tie events are created equal and will therefore look to each occasion’s level of formality for cues as to which sartorial variations are appropriate.

The most formal types of black-tie affairs include prestigious soirees such as state dinners, business awards and formal evening weddings. In such circumstances refined guests will display their respect for their hosts by choosing attire that meets the requirements of proper black tie. Better yet, they will opt for classic black tie, the highest possible standard for the dinner jacket.

Black-tie parties and celebrations, on the other hand, offer more latitude. Swank invitation-only gala dinners and upscale cultural fetes, for example, still suggest a preference for proper black tie but are also appropriate opportunities for personalizing your look with classic alternatives. Black Tie Optional affairs, semi-private black-tie parties (such as a New Year’s Eve celebration at a night club), and public events with an unwritten black-tie tradition (such as opening nights at the theater or opera) offer the greatest amount of leeway. Here guests may opt for contemporary variations by taking a few liberties with the institution's traditions while still respecting its overall form and function. Similarly, formal nights on elegant transatlantic crossings suggest more conservative choices than do those on budget-priced Caribbean cruises.

To learn more about these classic and contemporary variations we now move on to the details of black-tie attire, beginning with its colorful history.


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