Black tie

Black tie is a dress code for semi-formal evening events, and is worn to many types of social functions. For a man, the major component is a black coat, known as dinner jacket (British) or tuxedo (Canada and the U.S.). A woman's corresponding evening dress ranges from a conservative cocktail dress to the long evening gown, determined by current fashion, local custom, and the occasion's time.

The term tuxedo is itself variously used in different parts of the world. It always refers to some form of black tie, and sees most use in North America. There, it is commonly taken to mean a modern variation on the traditional black tie, while in Britain, it is sometimes used to refer to the white jacket alternative.


Black tie dates from 1860, when Henry Poole & Co. (Savile Row's founders), created a short smoking jacket for the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII of the United Kingdom) to wear to informal dinner parties. According to sartorial legend, in the spring of 1886, because the Prince liked Cora Potter, he invited her husband, James Potter, a rich New Yorker, to Sandringham house, his Norfolk hunting estate. When Potter asked the Prince's dinner dress recommendation, he sent Potter to Henry Poole & Co., in London. On returning to New York in 1886, Potter's dinner suit proved popular at the Tuxedo Park Club; the club men copied him, soon making it their informal dining uniform.

While the Americans initially called the new garment a tuxedo, the term has since been inaccurately used to denote any form of formal or semi-formal dress including white tie, morning dress, and strollers. Two years later, it gained the name dinner jacket in Britain, a name it has kept in the North-Eastern U.S.

The elements of black tie

Unlike white tie, which is very strictly regulated, black-tie ensembles can display more variation. In brief, the traditional components are:

  • A short coat with silk facings (usually grosgrain or satin), called the jacket
  • Trousers with silk braids matching the lapels
  • A black cummerbund or low-cut waistcoat
  • A white dress shirt with either a marcella, stiff, or pleated front
  • A black silk bow tie
  • Black dress socks, usually silk
  • Black shoes in patent or highly polished leather, or patent leather pumps


The typical black-tie jacket is single-breasted, ventless, and black or midnight-blue; usually of wool or a wool–mohair blend. Double breasted models are less common, but are perfectly acceptable (and not worn with waistcoat or cummerbund). The lapels may be faced with silk in either a grosgrain or a satin weave. Traditionally there are two lapel options, the shawl collar, derived from the smoking jacket, and the peak lapel, from the tailcoat. The former is older, while the latter is considered more formal. Both styles can be single- or double-breasted. A third lapel style, the notched lapel, has only recently gained popularity, and has been accepted by some as "a legitimate ... less formal alternative" , although, despite some precedent, it is disdained by purists for its lounge suit derivation. In France, and elsewhere, the jacket is called le smoking, the shawl-collared version is le smoking Deauville, while the peaked-lapel version is le smoking Capri.

The traditional single-breasted jacket has a one-button closure. Two-button variants are sometimes seen, but jackets incorporating more buttons are fashion fads.

Black was known to take on a green hue in early artificial lights, hence midnight blue was introduced by the Prince of Wales, and remains the only acceptable alternative colour.

The white dinner jacket is often worn in warm climates. It is usually ivory in colour rather than pure white, and does not have silk-faced lapels. It is worn with exactly the same clothes as a normal jacket, except for the most formal variations (such as a winged collar). In the U.S. and Canada a white dinner jacket is traditionally worn only from Memorial Day in the spring to Labor Day. (This rule applies also to white summer clothes, including shoes and suits.) In the UK, the traditional rule is that white dinner jackets are never worn, even on the hottest day of summer, but are reserved for wear abroad. Some exceptions to these rules are, in America, its use in high-school proms., in Britain some concerts, famously for instance the Last Night.

A second alternative to the standard jacket is the smoking jacket, a less formal velvet jacket with a shawl lapel and silk frogging.

It is poor manners for a man to remove his jacket during a formal social event, but when hot weather and humidity dictate, the ranking man (of the royal family, the guest of honour) may give men permission by noticeably taking off his jacket. In anticipated hot weather Red Sea rig is specified in the invitation, although this dress is esoteric in civilian circles, and is particular to certain expatriate communities.


Black tie trousers have no turn-ups (cuffs) or belt loops. The outer seams are usually decorated with a single silk braid matching the lapel facing. Customarily, braces (suspenders) hold up the trousers; they are hidden by the waistcoat (if worn) or by the coat. The trousers traditionally feature a pleated front, flat-front trousers being a modern innovation in this context.

Waistcoat or cummerbund

The waist is dressed in either a waistcoat (vest) or a cummerbund when wearing a single-breasted coat. The waistcoat should be low-cut; traditional models (three-button if the waistcoat is single-breasted) can be backless, and have shawl lapels; double breasted waistcoats are also still worn. The cummerbund (derived from military dress uniform in British India) is worn with its pleats facing up, and is of the same cloth as the bow tie and lapels. White waistcoats in the style of white tie were traditionally worn with stiff shirts for the most formal black-tie ensemble possible. When black tie was still gaining acceptance before the War, men would wear a white waistcoat only when ladies were present.

A cummerbund is never worn with a double breasted jacket, and a waistcoat now very rarely. Since this style of jacket is never unbuttoned, the waist of the trousers is never exposed, and therefore does not need to be covered , though before the war an edge of waistcoat was often shown between the jacket and shirt.

Recently, and particularly in America, it has become more common for men to remove their jackets. Because of this, full-back waistcoats have become more common; unlike the traditional waistcoat, these are often high, single breasted, and with the full five or six buttons of a daytime waistcoat.


The shirt is conventionally white or off-white (cotton or linen). Its front is either marcella (piqué cotton), pleated, plain, or more rarely a stiff front (as with white tie).

Before World War II, stiff shirts with separate wing collars abounded, similar to White Tie. However, such shirts are no longer commonly available and an imitation of this type, a semi-stiff shirt with an attached wing collar, has become very common (particularly in the US). Traditionalists, however, reject the use of these new attached wing collars and argue that a shirt with a classic fold-down collar (as is found on a "normal" shirt) has become de rigeur. Many traditional shirt makers such as Turnbull & Asser refuse to sell shirts with an attached wing collar.

The original and most formal version of the dress shirt fastens with matching shirt studs and cuff links. One can also wear a buttoned shirt with either a fly-front placket; if the buttons are visible (very informal) they should be mother-of-pearl. Soft shirts have French cuffs; stiff shirts (as in white tie) have single cuffs. The studs and links should be in silver or gold settings, featuring onyx or mother-of-pearl; various geometrical shapes may be worn, from circles (most common for studs), octagons, or rectangles (most common for links). Formal links (double links) have two faces connected by a rod or chain. Between silver or gold, there is no consistent traditional preference, but mother-of-pearl used to be reserved for white tie.

Bow tie

The silk bow tie can be woven in barathea, faille, grosgrain, or satin and is knotted by hand. Its shape can be butterfly (tall), batwing (thin), or semi-butterfly (intermediate; this style is most common). It is considered poor form and déclassé by some to wear a commercially pre-knotted clip-on or hook fastened bow tie, especially when the clips or fastener shows.


Traditionally, the most formal shoes are patent-leather opera pumps (court shoes) decorated with a grosgrain bow, as worn with white tie. A popular, formal alternative is the black leather lace-up Oxford shoe, in patent leather or calfskin, with a rounded plain toe. Too informal for black tie are shoes with open lacing, such as derbies ("bluchers" in the U.S.). Rare alternatives include the black button boot (primarily of only historical interest) and the monogrammed slipper to be worn only at home.

Hosiery should be black, knee-high silk socks, traditionally held in place with suspenders (or garters in American English).


In general, the aim when choosing accessories is to keep colour to a minimum, as the whole aim of traditional monochrome formalwear was to be subtle, allowing the ladies to stand out in brighter colours. If colour is used, it always kept to a single colour, usually quite dark; muted reds, such as maroon, are a traditional choice.

Handkerchief and Boutonnière: A white handkerchief in linen (silk and cotton are modern alternatives) and a boutonnière (buttonhole) such as a blue cornflower, red or white carnation, or rosebud may be worn on the coat.

Outerwear: A black, Oxford grey, or dark navy Chesterfield, white kid gloves, and a white silk scarf are worn. A guard's coat was also once popular, and a lighter topcoat can be worn in summer. Historically, an Inverness coat was also popular.

Hat: The standard hat is a black (or midnight blue) homburg; in summer, a straw boater is optional. Top hats may only be worn with white tie and morning dress.

Timepiece: If worn, a wristwatch should be slender, plain, and elegant; alternatively, a pocket watch may be worn on the waistcoat. Traditionally, however, visible timepieces are not worn with formal evening dress, because timekeeping is not considered a priority.

Decorations and orders: Military, civil, and organisational decorations usually worn only to full dress events, usually of State or other sovereign organisations. Miniature orders and awards are typically worn on the left breast or left lapel of the jacket, and neck badges, breast stars, and sashes are worn according to country-specific or organisational regulations. Unlike white tie, where they are always permitted, the dress code will usually give some indication when decorations are to be worn with black tie.

Black-tie social occasions

Black tie is worn to private and public dinners, dances, and parties. At the formal end of the social spectrum, it replaced white tie where it once was de rigueur dress (e.g. for orchestra conductors).

Black tie is evening dress, worn only after six o'clock in the evening, or after sundown during winter months. Black tie's daytime equivalent is the stroller.

Black tie in public perception

Given the nature of black tie social dress, the dinner jacket is considered exclusive; ownership is a statement of caste. Some even deride the dinner jacket as a "penguin suit", denoting conformism.

Corresponding forms of dress

Mess dress

In dining out formally, the armed forces officer and non-commissioned officer normally wears a mess uniform equivalent to the civilian black tie and evening dress. Stylistically, the mess uniform varies according to the wearer's regiment or corps, but usually comprises a short Eton-style coat reaching to the waist. Some include white shirts, black bow ties, and low-cut waistcoats, while others feature high collars that fasten around the neck and corresponding high-gorge waistcoats. Usually, mess uniforms are brightly-coloured (in the British Army scarlet is most common) and ornamented with gold and lace and gilt buttons, all corresponding to the colours of the regiment or corps of the wearer.

In the Royal Navy there is a distinction between "mess dress", which is worn at white tie events, and "mess undress", which is worn at black tie events. Both are worn with a black bow tie, however mess dress is worn with a white waistcoat instead of the usual colour, and may be worn with a stiff shirt and wing collar. The stiff shirt and wing collar were abolished for mess undress in the 1960s, and were made optional for mess dress in the 1990s.

Red Sea rig

In tropical areas, primarily in Western diplomatic and expatriate communities, the jacket and waistcoat are sometimes omitted and a cummerbund substituted. This form of black tie is known as Red Sea rig.

West Coast Black Tie

West Coast Black Tie is an American formal social occasion where a wide variety of formal evening dress colours and suit styles is acceptable. Likely originating in the Hollywood movie business, it currently is used broadly throughout California to accommodate the personal whims of the wearer. Variations include mandarin collars, Nehru jackets, silver or gold neckties, open collars, and other items which may be considered un-traditional, declassé, and faddish. In this style of evening dress, besides the bow tie, the four-in-hand-knotted long necktie is common evening wear.

Scottish Highland dress

Scottish Highland dress is often worn to black- and white tie occasions, especially at Scottish reels and céilidhs; the black tie version is more common, even at white tie occasions. Traditionally, black tie Scots Highland dress comprises:

  • Black jacket — Prince Charlie, Duke of Montrose, Sheriffmuir, Argyll, Regulation Doublet, and Brian Boru are suitable (a black or red mess jacket is also an option)
  • Black waistcoat
  • Kilt
  • White shirt
  • Black bow tie
  • Black Ghillie brogues or black dress shoes
  • Kilt hose (monochrome, diced, tartan. Off-white hose are often seen but are deplored by some, such as the late David Lumsden of Cushnie)
  • Flashes
  • Dress sporran
  • Skean dubh (optional)
  • Dirk (optional)

Traditional black tie Lowland dress comprises: black tie variant of the normal black tie, with tartan trews worn with a normal dinner jacket or a Prince Charlie jacket; trews are often worn in summer and warm climes.

The white tie equivalent is a white bow tie or a lace jabot over a collarless shirt. Regulation Doublets, Prince Charlie, Duke of Montrose, Sheriffmuir, and Argyll jackets are suitable.

See also


External links

  • The Black Tie Guide provides extensive background and references for most topics in this article
  • The Emily Post Institute provides a breakdown of traditional categories of progressing formality in dress for men & women.

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