Understanding Black Tie
With festive cheer comes dress codes to wrangle, and the toughest ones to nail can be the classics. What exactly is the difference between black tie and white tie? How long or short should you go with your dress? What style of jacket should you wear? Well, here’s your crash course guide (with a little help from Debrett’s trusty etiquette guide) to save you turning heads for all the wrong reasons.
According to 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.
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 (flared from the waist), rather than anything too form-fitting. Costume jewellery or simple bracelets and necklaces are most appropriate, instead of anything too bling (the diamonds are better left reserved for white tie). Tiaras are also apparently a no-no for black tie (just in case you had one lying around). Although the dress code is ‘black tie’, dresses do not need to be black, unless explicitly stated on the invitation.
The Elegance of White Tie
White tie is known as ‘full 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 traditional events such as 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 when challenged by her request that year. Speaking on Late Night with Seth Meyers, she said she “had no idea how much the panic [the dress code caused] 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, no doubt helped by the fact he 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 here. 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 should come in marcella with a starched detachable wing collar and double cufflinks, and will usually be fastened with studs, rather than buttons. 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 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 wanted to stray into Downton Abbey territory, black top hats, overcoats and white silk scarves are all permitted.
White-tie rules for women are less strict and similar to those for black tie, however the chief 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. It means the power suits will usually have to sit these occasions out. Traditionally, long gloves have also been worn by women at white tie balls, however 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. And this is your time to go all-out on the jewellery frontier — take a page out of the Princess of Wales’ book, and cover yourself in the family diamonds.