The Top Fashion Decoding of the Black Tie Dress Code

The Top Fashion Decoding of the Black Tie Dress Code

Have you ever received a black tie invitation and wondered what it meant? Well, this is the second formal dress code that comes right after white tie dress code. For the ladies, it means wearing a flow-length gown or a short cocktail dress. It is however recommended you consult with the hosts in case you are not sure about what you should wear. For the men, you should go for a tuxedo, a black bow tie, black vest or cummerbund and leather shoes to complement the look. There are several instances of black tie invitations;

  1. The invitation says formal or black tie optional- in this case, the occasion is less formal. For men you do not need to wear a tuxedo but you should make sure you still wear formal clothes. For the ladies, opt for a long dressy or a cocktail dress.
  2. When the invitation indicates semiformal or dressy casual- for the evening go for darker colors and if the event is during the day, go for brighter and lighter colors. Ladies should wear a cocktail dress or a long dress. For the men you can wear a suit and tie bright or dark based on your preference.
  3. The invitation indicates festive attire- this is a dress code that is relatively new. For this kind of invitation, the hosts give guests the liberty to play around with color and design of their clothing. For the ladies, go for a colorful cocktail or party dress. The gents can opt for a suit and a brightly colored tie.
  4. The invitation indicates casual- this gives an indication of the event being held outdoors meaning it will be liberal on what you are expected to wear. Guests have the liberty to wear even shorts as long as they are decent. For the ladies, a summer dress is suitable for this kind of event. Gents can go for dress or khaki pants with a button down shirt, and tie. You can replace the tie with a jacket or sweater.

History of Black Tie Dress Code

The first record of a dinner jacket (tuxedo) was recorded in a ledger in 1865 which was ordered by the then Prince of Wales. He had ordered a short midnight blue jacket. The tuxedo became the preferred piece of clothing for men as opposed to the tailcoat which was worn by wealthy men. The men wore matching trousers, a white or black waistcoat, white bowtie, white wing-collar formal shirt and black leather shoes to accompany the look. Lapels were made of silk or satin. During the Edwardian era, tremendous changes were witnessed in the field of fashion. Some of these include;

  • The two piece dress gained momentum. Skirts were made to be tighter at the hips and flare at the hem.
  • Skirts made in 1901 had colorful hems with fabric and lace while some had long trains. Tailored jackets gained momentum in 1900.
  • In 1904 skirts were made larger in size as opposed to being too clingy.
  • In 1905, skirts reduced in soft folds that curved inwards then at the hemline, they flared outwards.
  • From the period 1905-1907, the waistline was made higher.
  • In 1901, the hobble skirt was introduced which is a tight fitting skirt that restricted the movement of a woman.
  • Lingerie dresses also called tea gowns were meant to be worn indoors were made of soft fabrics.
  • By the year 1913, women’s dresses opted for a lower or v-shaped neckline as opposed to wearing high collar clothing.

The Edwardian era, it was common to see a black waistcoat accompanied by a black bow tie and a dinner jacket which set precedence for what is currently being worn that is black tie and white tie dress codes. The tuxedo also gained momentum during this era not only for formal occasions but less formal as well. The tuxedo became a must have when going for evening occasions after World War 1. The tailcoat on the other hand was the preferred piece of clothing when attending more formal functions. Double breasted jackets, collared shirts and cummerbunds became popular when attending black tie events.

The period following World War II saw black tie dress code as the preferred mode of dressing when attending special occasions as opposed to an everyday evening wear. Brightly colored, cummerbunds, bow ties, lapels and patterned jackets gained momentum in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s saw palette move to bright colors, ruffled-placket shirts and lapels got wider. In the 1980s and 90s saw the return of the black jackets and trousers. In the 21st century, has seen tremendous changes in that it is more flexible in terms of what someone is expected to wear. In the past black tie was considered informal while nowadays, it is considered semi-formal.

Examples of black tie pieces of clothing

  • A jacket with silk facings on a shawl, peaked or notched lapel.
  • Single braided trousers covering outer seams, uncuffed which are worn with the help of braces.
  • A low-cut waistcoat or cummerbund.
  • A white shirt with cuffs and turn -down collar.
  • A black bow tie with matching the lapel.
  • Studs and cufflinks for the shirt.
  • Black stockings to go with a dress.
  • Black shoes to accompany the look.


The first jacket was the single-breasted containing only one button with besom pockets. The color should be ideally black or midnight blue. Tuxedos were ventless before World War I while today the vents can be located at different places. The ventless sytle is seen as being more formal while that with the center vent is least formal.

Black bow tie

It is traditional that the bow tie be self -tie and should ideally match the lapel and trouser braiding. It follows a shoe know in the way it is tied.


Traditional trousers didn’t have cuffs or a place for belt loops. Outer seams had a single braid of materials as the lapel facing. When it comes to shape, there were two options; flat fronted or pleated. Pleats gained momentum in the 1930s and are comfortable for men with wider hips and a narrow waist.

Waist coverings

This is one of the accessories for the black tie look. You can go for a low cut waistcoat or cummerbund but never at a go. When it comes to waist coverings, opinion is divided. Some institutions consider it to be essential for a black tie event while some dispute its essentiality.


When wearing a single-breasted waistcoat, go for a low-cut waistcoat. A waistcoat is essential in achieving a black tie look by concealing the shirt’s edge and the trousers’ waistband. In the period before World War II, men would wear a white waistcoat which has now been classified as a white tie look. You will still be considered as conforming to black tie code of dressing were you to dress that way in the US. It is important to note that a waistcoat should never be worn with a double breasted jacket. This is because in this form of dressing, you should not unbutton your jacket, the waist is therefore not visible and consequently no need to cover.


They are often referred to as formal or tuxedo shirts. In Britain dialect they are referred to as dress shirts. In most cases a formal shirt should be white, double cuffs and a turn down collar. In the 20th century, a pique shirt with single cuffs was common. Wing collar shirts declined in the 1920s, only to gain momentum again in the 1980s. The shirt should be accompanied by cufflinks and studs to complete the look.


Patent leather opera pumps are considered to be the most official and traditional footwear. They were decorated with grosgrain bows. Today, operas have been replaced by the Oxford shoes with a rounded toe tip. Black shoes should ideally not contain any design patterns. It is advisable to avoid shoes with open lacing because most of them are not considered formal.


Handkerchief – traditionally worn in the breast pocket while pocket squares should be white and should be of a different color from the waist covering and bow tie.
Boutonnière-some of the common flower colors include; red and white carnation, blue cornflower and rosebud.

Outwear – unlike before, gloves are not considered a must have for the black tie dress code. Overcoats are supposed to be black, dark or charcoal blue. Before the 20th century, gloves and scarves were a must have in order to complete the black tie look.

Hat-in the 20th century, a black tie look was not complete without being accompanied by a black or midnight blue hat.

Black tie occasions

Black tie code of dressing is flexible and considered as semi-formal as opposed to white tie code of dressing. It is mainly worn when attending private and public dinners, evening parties and balls. It is worn when attending events after six o’clock or after sun down during winter period. Some of the occasions where you can opt for black tie code of dressing include;

  • Opera and ballet.
  • Cruise ships.
  • Weddings
  • Debates.
  • Private parties.
  • Birthday parties.

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