What is White Tie?
White tie is the most formal type of dress for grand occasions. Some invitations may specify this style of dress, and given that these occasions are quite formal, knowing exactly what to wear is important. It’s considered insulting or lacking in manners not to conform to this dress code when required, but is also considered overdressing when white tie is worn when the only requirement is black tie, the next rank down in dress code.
For men, white tie means wearing a tailcoat. This coat or jacket is short or waist-length in the front but has two tails in the back that should reach to the knees. It may also be called a swallowtail coat because of the “wings” on the back of the jacket.
The pants included in this outfit are black and may have a satin stripe down the outside of the leg. Pants should be of the highest quality materials, like wool or wool/silk blends. A white shirt is worn with a dickie, also called a tuxedo front. This is a false shirt that is rigid, may be attached to the collar of the tux or shirt, and can be tucked into a cummerbund. A white wing collar is also attached to the white shirt.
White tie truly does require a white-colored tie for men. This normally must be a bow tie, usually made of fine quality cotton. For socks and shoes, men should don a good quality silk sock, though they can usually get away with something a less fancy. Shoes are most often made of patent leather. If an overcoat is worn, this must be an opera coat, and the only appropriate hat choice is the top hat.
There are exceptions to the white tie dress code for men. People wearing full military dress may be exempt from the rule. Also, those wearing state costumes, for example kilts, can wear these in place of the standard accoutrements. Ministers can attend white tie events in simple clerical dress.
For women, this style requires the most formal gowns. This means full-length gowns accompanied by elbow length silk or cotton gloves. Shorter gowns or tea length gowns, unless worn by younger girls, are not considered acceptable.
Occasions calling for white tie can include state dinners, debutante balls, some weddings, and premieres of operas. This style of dress used to be required at awards shows like the Academy Awards, but now dress requirements are less formal and frequently flouted. For formal weddings, occasionally the bridal party will dress in white tie, but only require their guests to dress in formal or black tie wear. It all depends upon the importance of the people marrying and their ability to command their guests to dress in a certain fashion.
How appropriate is the Cravat or Ascot to a white tie affair?
I would like to add a very important comment about the length of the ladies' gloves: The rule in that matter is very clear: the shorter the sleeve, the longer the glove. So basically if the dress is sleeveless, the gloves should be at least opera-length but of course the ideal length would be shoulder-length.
Regarding trousers: they must have two braids (in silk matching the lapels, typically grosgrain), and wool/silk is totally out of the question. Worsted yarn in a barathea (which is matte) weave must be used. Any glossy sheen is tacky and crass.
Shoes must be patent, and must be court shoes (opera pumps). Low patent Oxfords may be more common in America.
An opera coat is for the opera only. The typical coat nowadays is a navy Chesterfield or guard's coat (less common). An Inverness is the classic historical coat.
No-one is exempt from the white tie rule; everyone must wear white tie, which may differ depending on the situation (officers wear the appropriate white tie mess dress, not ordinary black tie mess dress). Similarly, there is a huge variation in clerical dress, and there is a whole special white tie Highland dress, with a special kilt, coatee, etc.
I would add for women that gloves long enough to cover the elbows must be worn: there must never, ever be any skin contact between men and women, and men escort women on their arms, so these must be suitably covered (even I have never seen silk dancing gloves worn by men these days though).
No one has worn a dickie in many decades, and it was considered low-class then. The correct white-tie shirt is stiff-fronted with a detachable wing collar. It does not tuck into a cummerbund because the cummerbund is only worn with black tie (the tuxedo.) The white-tie waist covering is a low-cut white vest in cotton pique. "Normally" a bow tie? Always a bow tie.
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