Black Tie Etiquette: A Gentleman’s Guide to Formal Event Attire
The past still influences today’s fashion. All it takes is a look at black tie etiquette to see this truth. From decadent origins to today’s modern minimalism, black tie events still hold a polished and sophisticated air because of the strict dress code that developed over decades of formal standards, starting with the nobility of the 18th century.
Today, the exclusivity of the dress code has been stripped away, but any gentleman attending a black tie affair should come prepared. Here is everything you need to know about black tie etiquette, from head to toe, so you’ll never be caught unprepared.
What Is Black Tie Etiquette?
Black tie etiquette has remained much the same since the end of World War I, including the quintessential black tuxedo and pleated shirt.
Black tie etiquette is the dress code and expectations of an evening formal event where men are required to wear black bow ties and tuxedos and women are required to wear floor-length gowns. These events are second in formality only to white tie events, and the dress code is similar in many ways.
In both cases, the dress code and etiquette are prescribed with little room for alterations. But today’s black tie etiquette has expanded to include subtle touches of personality within the otherwise well-known rules, which have their roots in 18th-century gentry fashion and etiquette.
The History of Black Tie
Modern black tie etiquette stems from over two centuries of tradition, fashion, and class distinction, starting with the gentry standards of the 18th century. Yet, in every generation since, subtle (and not-so-subtle) modifications have brought us to the modern black tie code of attire.
18th-century gentry fashion was colorful, extravagant, and impractical. And it was designed that way with a purpose: the upper class wanted a clear distinction between themselves and the lower class. The flamboyant “peacock” fashion of the century required large fortunes to maintain, and laundering was a significant barrier to lower classes who would not be able to maintain pristine clothing for special occasions.
But one gentleman changed the course of men’s fashion by incorporating more comfortable and practical designs into gentry attire. That man was George “Beau” Brummell. By the early 1800s, Brummell’s simple black-and-white minimalist style had become the zenith of fashion in upper-class society. With the “country gentleman” influence of King George III a few decades prior, along with Brummell’s friendship and influence with George IV, the new dress code set the stage for the next century of regency fashion.
The Advent of Minimalist Fashion
The 19th century continued to modify Brummell’s foundational pieces for more comfort and more distinction. Military and equestrian touches, including the adoption of tailcoats and more athletic tailoring, added practicality and modernity to day dress and evening attire alike.
By 1860, the formal dinner attire closely resembled what we know today as black tie etiquette. But it wouldn’t be until after World War I that the tuxedo jacket would come into prominence.
The Modern Era of Black Tie Etiquette
Jazz-era black tie etiquette embraced the tuxedo-style dinner jacket, abandoning the tailcoat of past standards and much of the pomp that defined dinner attire for decades. In response, the regency code for formal evening dress transformed into the white tie etiquette still in place today.
Since the 1920s, some of the dress code has been modified, but the foundational rules of black tie etiquette share much of the same standards that were established a century ago.
How to Dress for Black Tie Events
Today, black tie etiquette has six key components: the suit, the shirt, the tie, the shoes, the jewelry, and the accessories.
The modern tuxedo is typically black or navy blue, as was the original Brummel style, but the jacket is now without tails. The lapels are most often the traditional peaked, although shawl collars are still acceptable. They are typically satin, but velvet is an alternative option.
The pants match the fabric and color of the jacket, and they’re almost universally trimmed with braid along the outseams.
Single-breasted tuxedo jackets are standard today, usually with a deep V opening. A U-shaped opening is also acceptable.
The waistcoat of past trends is now optional rather than required, and cummerbunds are a familiar standard, especially for single-breasted jackets.
The white pleated shirt is almost universally expected for black tie etiquette. The shirt is most commonly front-fastened, much like conventional button-down dress shirts. Turndown collars are standard. French cuffs are standard.
The black bow tie is the quintessential black tie, so it comes as no surprise that this is the standard choice. Adjustable ties are acceptable in less formal situations or in a pinch, but true gentlemen should have a traditional black self-tie bow tie. The material should match the tuxedo lapels. Long ties have become popular, although traditionalists disagree with this choice.
Black patent leather oxfords are the classic choice, although leather pumps give a stronger nod to traditional black tie etiquette from the 18th and 19th century practices.
Traditionally, the only jewelry for black tie events are cufflinks and shirt studs. Both are practical parts of the attire, but a quality stud set with matching pieces shows a level of sophistication for the occasion.
Stud sets for black tie events are most often silver with onyx inlays, with minimalist designs for the edge and face. Mother of pearl is also an appropriate choice for formal occasions, although less common.
Black tie etiquette originally allowed no accessories. Even handkerchiefs were concealed. As etiquette changed over decades, red flowers were added to the buttonhole on the lapel, and a pocket square was added after. Today, these remain the standard accessories in black tie etiquette.
Black Tie Etiquette With a Modern Touch
Just as the past 200 years slowly changed the code for black tie etiquette, the modern era has introduced some new standards to the traditional expectations. These changes have opened up a world of possibilities, all while still maintaining the simplicity and formality of the original dress code.
Today, gentlemen have a wider variety of options that fit within black tie dress codes, including more color, different accessories, and more opulent jewelry. Still, even in this new era, the purpose of black tie is to create a uniform appearance at formal events rather than an opportunity to stand out.
Cufflinks with more eye-catching designs, inlays, or metals are no longer taboo. The simple red carnation boutonniere can now be replaced with any color, but an especially popular choice is a lapel pin or boutonniere that coordinates with the event itself. And a wider array of tuxedo colors are acceptable now, including shades of blue, red, and even deep greens.
The key to modernizing the classic black tie etiquette standards is to add just a hint of personality. Balance the past and the present correctly, and your look will always be in style.