Getting dressed up for a black or white tie party might be a lot of fun, but it can also be a wardrobe minefield.
How long or short should you go with your dress? What style of jacket should you wear? What exactly is the difference between black tie and white tie?
As you’ll have probably gathered from watching period dramas, dressing up in the evening has been popular for centuries, but black and white tie dress codes first came into force in the Edwardian era, when the practice of wearing a waistcoat and black bow tie with a dinner jacket became the default after-dark look.
But what are the black and white tie dress code rules? To save you from turning heads for the wrong reason, we’ve complied a complete guide for both men and women - with a few shopping ideas thrown in too.
What is a black tie dress code for men?
According to etiquette guide Debrett’s, a true men’s black tie outfit will feature a dinner jacket made from barathea (a super soft silk, wool and cotton weave) or ultra-fine herringbone.
The jacket should be single-breasted or double-breasted with silk peaked lapels (or a shawl collar) and covered buttons.
White dinner jackets have also been traditionally worn for black tie in hot climates, but not usually in Britain.
Traditional black tie also features a white evening shirt in marcella, a slightly stiffer cotton fabric, with a bib detail and double cuffs. The shirt should have a turn-down collar (not a wing-collar) and should be worn with cufflinks.
Black tie trousers should be smart with a natural taper, and (if you’re a real black tie purist) a single row of braid down the outside of each leg.
As for the black bow tie itself? Debrett’s advises men select one that’s proportionate to head size, to avoid a comedy clown look. A man’s black tie look is usually finished off with a white handkerchief in the left breast pocket and polished black shoes.
Optional pieces of black tie attire include cummerbunds and waistcoats - though the two should never be worn together.
What is a black tie dress code for women?
Women tend to have more flexibility with a black tie dress code, though Debrett’s advises ladies avoid “tight ‘red-carpet’ dresses” or “those with a dramatic split as they can be uncomfortable or inappropriate at a formal event that involves both a reception and a sit-down dinner.”
A dress can be full length or knee-length, but no shorter, and should only reveal a little décolletage. Trousers are another acceptable option for women, but Debrett’s recommend a palazzo cut, rather than anything too form-fitting.
Costume jewellery or simple bracelets and necklaces are most appropriate, instead of anything too bling (that’s apparently reserved for white tie).
Tiaras are also apparently a no-no for black tie (though that’s probably not an issue for most of us). Although the dress code is ‘black tie’, dresses do not need to be black, unless explicitly stated on the invitation.
What is a white tie dress code for men?
White tie has been known as ‘full evening dress’, ‘full dress’, ‘evening dress’ or, informally, as ‘tails.’
Before the Second World War, it was the regular evening dress for gentlemen. Today, a white tie dress code is typically reserved for presidential dinners, state dinners with royalty and events like Le Bal Des Debutantes in Paris.
As one of the rarer dress codes you’ll see on an invitation, even celebrities struggle to nail the look. Anna Wintour revealed that many of her 2014 Met Gala male guests barely scraped by, as they were required to wear white tie that year. Speaking on Late Night with Seth Meyers, she said she “had no idea how much panic [the dress code] would make the men of New York, and all over the world, think about their outfits.”
Benedict Cumberbatch that year “nailed it” according to Wintour, and it helped that Cumberbatch was accompanied by designer Tom Ford. Ford, who dressed many male stars that evening, reportedly told Wintour in an email that he had “hundreds of men coming in and asking him to explain what white tie meant” that year.
Unlike black tie, there’s very little room for style manoeuvring, as a white tie dress code comes with strict guidelines. Men have to ensure their outfit includes a black, single-breasted tailcoat in black wool (barathea) or ultra-fine herringbone with silk peaked lapels, which is worn unbuttoned.
The coat is shorter at the front than a morning coat, and is paired with black trousers with a natural taper and two lines of braids down the outside leg.
The white tie shirt is in marcella with a starched detachable wing collar and double cufflinks. The shirt will usually be closed with studs, rather than buttons, though.
The shirt is then worn underneath a low-cut, white marcella evening waistcoat (double or single breasted). To complete your white tie look, wear a thin, white hand-tied bow tie.
Put your best (Fred Astaire) foot forward in patent black lace-up shoes, worn with black laces (though if you want something really traditional it’s black ribbon) and black socks. And if you really want to stray into Downton Abbey territory, you can also add a black top hat, a black overcoat and white silk scarf.
What is a white tie dress code for women?
White-tie rules for women are less strict but the main requirement is a full-length ball gown or dress. According to Debrett’s a ‘good’ ball gown design will feature a fitted bodice with a full-skirt which reaches the ground.
Traditionally, long gloves have also been worn by women at white tie balls, but over time have become less of a requirement. Gloves should be worn on arrival at an event or in a receiving line (shaking hands with the host) and dancing, but are to be removed when eating and at the dinner table – no-one likes a red wine spillage.
Shop the look
Black tie for men
Mr P, Shawl-Collar Tuxedo Jacket, £375, mrporter.com
Mr P, Slim-Fit Tuxedo Trousers, £195, mrporter.com
Ralph Lauren, Poplin Tuxedo Shirt, £380, ralphlauren.co.uk
Hugo Boss, Bow Tie and Cummerbund Set in Silk Jacquard, £139, hugoboss.com
Gucci, Fluid Wool Evening Jacket, £2200, gucci.com
Jaeger, Tailored Fit Tuxedo Jacket, £250, jaeger.co.uk
Jaeger, Tailored Fit Tuxedo Trousers, £129, jaeger.co.uk
Black tie for women
The Vampires Wife
The Vampire’s Wife, The Falconetti Dress, £1595, thevampireswife.com
Zara, Satin Camisole Dress, £32.99, zara.com
Jenny Yoo, Issa Off-Shoulder Velvet Maxi Dress, £330, selfridges.com
Kurt Geiger, Alexa Heels, £99, kurtgeiger.com
White tie for men
Scalpers, White Tie Jacket, £749, scalperscompany.com
Russell & Bromley
Russell & Bromley, Sinatra Patent Derby Lace-Up shoes, £225, russellandbromley.com
Lanvin, Knotted Gold-Plated Cufflinks, £250, mrporter.com
Moss Bros, White Marcella Self-Tie Bow Tie, £20, moss.co.uk
Kingsman, Wing-Collar Piqué-Panelled Cotton Shirt, £325, mrporter.com
White tie for women
Emilia Wickstead, Layne Metallic-Jacquard Sleeveless Gown, £2395, matchesfashion.com
Benedetta Bruzziches, Venus La Grande Clutch, £730, selfridges.com
Coast, Sequin Bodice Tulle Skirt Maxi Dress, £239.20, coastfashion.com
Jimmy Choo, Sacora 100 Faux-Pearl Tulle Sandals, £650, matchesfashion.com