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Black tie dress code

The term ‘black tie’ is a deceptive one, as this dress code has no tie at all – ‘bow tie’ would be more suitable, as that is part of the basic equipment required. Guests at upscale events are asked to wear outfits which look like something more than an important day at the office. Use this guide to make sure that you are suitably elegant when attending a sought-after evening do.

All about black tie


Glamorous events

Toasting the bride and groom at a sophisticated wedding breakfast, enjoying a theatre premier with honoured guests, or adjusting a bow tie before the gala begins: the typical black tie dress code of a dinner jacket and bow tie is for official and celebratory events.

Originally all evening events would automatically fall into this category once the church clock had tolled six, but this has since branched off into numerous variants ranging from ‘red carpet black tie’ to ‘festive black tie’ to the less formal ‘black tie optional’. Today, guests are explicitly informed of the relevant dress code so that they are correctly dressed for the type of event.

Black tie is a dress code with significantly more rules to follow than business attire or smart casual. Given the official, celebratory character of the events they are used for, proper implementation of black tie and white tie dress codes is expected. For a traditional black tie event, a tailored dinner jacket (if you are British, a tux for the Americans) is a must.

Basic getup

The basic outfit includes the following:

  • A black self-tie bow tie
  • A dinner jacket in black or midnight blue
  • A white shirt with a wing collar
  • A waistcoat or cummerbund with a single-row jacket
  • Black patent-leather lace-up shoes or smooth leather shoes

However, formal dress codes such as black tie would not be part of etiquette if the things to remember could be counted on one hand.

Small, yet powerful – the bow tie sets the tone of the entire dress code. If tied carelessly, then not only will the bow tie look bad, it will also have a negative impact on the entire outfit and result in the wearer immediately giving the initial impression of being absent-minded. There is no problem with allowing a few unpredictable deformations and wearing a bow tie with a little more composure and lack of concern. Perfection is not expected, but a pinch of such nonchalance is enough for black tie events. Use your eyes or the outside edge of your face as a width guideline for your bow tie, with your shirt collar being the maximum.  

Trim and cummerbund

A jacket with one row of buttons is known as single-breasted, one with two is double-breasted. If you go for a double-breasted jacket, it should generally be kept buttoned up and worn without a waistcoat or cummerbund. Otherwise you can dig out either a cummerbund or a low-cut waistcoat in the same colour as the black bow tie.

Cummer... what now? A cummerbund is a wide silk sash which men wear around the stomach to cover the point where their shirt meets the waistband. Worn correctly, it has several upward-facing pleats. In higher-quality models, the deepest pleat contains a hidden embroidered pocket so that you can keep your opera tickets easily to hand.

Dress trousers do not have any loops for a belt, as this is replaced with braces. The seam down the side of the leg has a silk stripe trim. Trousers with turn-ups (folds at the ends of the legs) or flaps on pockets (piping) are also dispensed with. Double fabrics are too sporty for an elegant evening. Instead, allow the smooth material to gather slightly on your black patent-leather lace-up shoes, and reach just as far as the top of the heel. Smooth leather shoes are a viable alternative, provided that they are polished to a shine.


It’s collar time

Shirts seem so simple, but there are countless variants: Kent collars, cutaway collars, pointed collars or upturned collars, to say nothing of buttons. Only wing collars and standard turn-down collars are relevant to black tie. A wing collar is stiff with ends that point forward, making it the more modern version of the upturned collar. A rising lapel in the same material as the silk or satin trim ensures a coherent overall picture.

Some of the few visible buttons or connections are cufflinks, as the strip of buttons on the shirt should be covered. If there are others on the outfit, they must be covered with fabric to avoid compromising the elegance of the harmoniously rounded combination of shapes and colours.

What details do I need to pay attention to?


A love of detail

Perfect evening attire demonstrates considered style choices if close attention is also paid to individual details. The fit is right if there are no creases on the back, the jacket can be buttoned up easily, and the trousers sit comfortably without a belt. A back pocket bulge that betrays a thick wallet affects the cut and aesthetic. A money clip should be all you need to carry important cards and any necessary money.

How you feel under all this gear will determine how you come across. By this we mean literally under: for example, your vest should not be visible through your shirt. White, finely woven underwear and black knee-high socks will keep you comfortable beneath your outfit.

The opportunity to add a personal touch comes with a scarf, breast pocket handkerchief or cufflinks. Cufflinks in gold, silver, stainless steel or black pick up the colour of a wristwatch and add the necessary gleam. A pocket watch is even better, as you would not normally wear any jewellery with a dinner jacket.

A classic option is a breast pocket handkerchief made from fine silk, often white or alternatively in a colour designed to match a dress scarf. It should sit one centimetre out of the breast pocket parallel to the pocket edge or folded into a more modern triangle or crest.

Ladies’ choice

Women and men show that they are together by presenting a consistent image. If the man is wearing a black dinner jacket, the woman will be clad in a long evening dress. However, a more modern midnight-blue dinner jacket can stand next to an elegant cocktail dress that is at least knee length. Women can use accessories such as jewellery and bags to enhance or simplify their appearance. What is important is the balance between sumptuous or showy elements and discreet touches.


Black tie optional

If guests are being afforded more freedom in their appearance, the invitation will display the wording ‘black tie optional’ or ‘alternative black tie’. This does not mean that you can decide to leave your dinner jacket in the wardrobe, but it does mean that you can make a few individual changes – a tie instead of a bow tie, a pattern instead of black, a belt instead of braces. All in all, however, you are best off sticking to the intended elements and using muted colours except for the possible accent.

More expansive freedom of interpretation is offered by ‘festive black tie’ or ‘creative black tie’. For example, it can be more flamboyant for the groom or witnesses at a wedding, or more festive for Christmas events. Creativity is the order of the day if the season or region are key elements. A white jacket, a cowboy hat, a flower on your lapel, or a coloured shirt can make a good impression depending on the theme.

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