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What Do I Wear to a Black Tie Affair?

By Tiffany Manley
Updated May 21, 2024
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A black tie affair is one of the most formal events the average person might attend; although white tie is more formal, it's usually reserved for state dinners and other very special events. Appropriate black tie attire generally consists of tuxedos for men and long evening gowns for women. There are some variations, however, including those designated as black tie optional, creative black tie, or themed black tie events.

Men's Clothing

For men, a classic tuxedo complete with black cummerbund or vest, white shirt, and black bow tie should be worn at a black tie affair. Midnight blue is an acceptable alternative to black for the tux, but no other colors are really appropriate. Some men choose to add a touch of color with a jewel-toned cummerbund or pocket square, but anything other than very subtle colors or patterns should be saved for a creative black tie affair. If you are a man and you attend quite a few black tie events, you might consider purchasing a tuxedo instead of renting each time, because this might be more cost-effective overall.

Some individuals consider a black suit, white shirt, and black necktie — sometimes called a "funeral suit" — to be sufficient attire for a black tie event, but it is best to consider the nature of the event before deciding on this less-formal attire. If you cannot afford to buy or rent a tuxedo, however, this may be an acceptable alternative, especially if the invitation says "black tie requested" or "black tie preferred." There may be benefits to wearing a sharp and well-tailored suit over a poorly fitted tuxedo, but it also risks offending your hosts if they expect all male guests in tuxedos.

Women's Clothing

Women have a bit more leeway in deciding what to wear to a black tie affair, but it still should be kept formal. Long gowns are the preferred attire for these types of events, because they are both formal and elegant. The gowns do not need to be plain or boring; dresses adorned with rhinestone or beads, ones that have shaped cutouts, or gowns that have other accentuating details also can be appropriate for black tie events. You might want to avoid dresses that are too revealing, however; if you choose a strapless dress, for example, you'll want to make sure that you're comfortable moving and dancing in it without being constantly concerned that it might slip.

For most black tie affairs, women should wear their best jewelry, which typically means precious metals and stones. Jewelry should not clash with the dress; diamonds are always a good choice, as they go with anything. In addition, a good rule of thumb to follow is to balance all elements of your attire. If a gown contains beadwork or other standout features, its wearer should consider minimal accessories.

Black Tie Optional

Black tie optional events still mandate formal attire, but the requirements are somewhat more relaxed. Men might opt for a tuxedo, but it is not required; a dark suit, shirt, and conservative tie can be substituted without causing offense. Women still should wear elegant dresses, although they might choose a cocktail dress or formal separates instead of a floor-length gown. No matter the attire you choose for these events, remember that they still are formal occasions, so light suits, sport coats, and semi-formal dresses or separates are not appropriate.

Creative Black Tie

Creative black tie and themed black tie events are similar and involve a bit of a twist on the traditional black tie. This might involve a specific type of accessory, a piece of clothing based on a specific geographic location, or a holiday-themed wardrobe addition. You may want to take the opportunity for a man to break out the colorful cummerbund or vest, but fashion experts typically recommend not going overboard with the whimsical accessories. Stick to making just one accessory different; a pattered vest, for example, can add personality to the outfit without being distracting. Men can make other changes to the traditional tuxedo as well, such as choosing a long black or silver tie instead of a bow tie.

For women, creative black tie is similar to black tie optional; while a long gown would be appropriate, a dressy cocktail dress would be a good alternative. It is an opportunity to have a little fun with the look, so a colorful wrap or a distinctive piece of jewelry could be added.

Be careful about what you choose when personalizing an outfit for a black tie affair. A brightly colored matching cummerbund and tie or a tuxedo that is any color other than the traditional black or midnight blue can make a man look like he's going to his high school prom rather than a formal event. It's important to remember that wearing black tie reflects the guest's respect for the host and event, so it's usually better to err on the side of more conservative rather than less.

Video Tips

How to Tie a Bow Tie from TM Lewin




How to Measure for a Tuxedo from Tuxship




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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Nov 08, 2011

One thing that I always despair of at these events is that everyone takes black tie to mean they can only wear black. Sometimes they'll have a black and white theme, and I almost think, why bother? All the women seem to show up in black and white anyway!

On the plus side, that means wearing something bright can help you to stand out, if that's what you want. I wouldn't wear anything too garish, just something tasteful in a solid color, or a subdued pattern, depending, of course, on what kind of event you're attending. But definitely give some color a try.

After all, this is dress ups for adults. It's the sort of thing I dreamed about being able to do as a child. I feel like I owe it to my younger self to have as much fun with it as possible!

By Mor — On Nov 07, 2011

My biggest difficulty at these events is the shoes. I don't tend to wear heels very often, as I'm quite tall and I just prefer to wear flats.

But, it's difficult to get away with flats at an event like this. In fact, I find it's almost impossible. So I always end up awkwardly tall, and my feet very quickly get sore.

Not only because I'm not used to wearing the heels, but also because, since I'm taller than most, I'm putting more weight onto the points of my feet.

I don't mind it so much at a black tie wedding, because usually I feel comfortable slipping out of the shoes eventually. But, you can't really do that at, say, a fundraiser.

By pleonasm — On Nov 07, 2011

If you aren't sure about the dress code, I would definitely call up or email the host and ask. It can be a bit nerve wracking, if you aren't sure if you're supposed to be wearing black tie attire or not.

Usually they will include this information on the invitation, but not always.

There's nothing worse than showing up somewhere dressed in the wrong thing. Even if you dressed too well for the occasion, it can be embarrassing, but that's not nearly as bad as not dressing well enough.

And often, if you turn up not dressed properly, they won't even let you in the door.

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