The New Rules of Black Tie
In the grand scheme of humans wearing clothes, the black-tie dress code is a relatively new invention – and yet, it has very quickly become the gold standard for partywear across the globe.
Its origin story is the stuff of menswear legend. Black tie as we know it today came into being in 1865, when the Prince Of Wales (aka the future King Edward VII) asked the team at Savile Row tailoring house Henry Poole & Co to craft him a short jacket in “celestial blue”. While today we think of black tie as formal attire, the Prince Of Wales had this jacket designed for him to wear at his country pad, Sandringham House, as a more casual alternative to the long tailcoats the British aristocracy wore in the evening for dinner.
In fact, it was seen as downright rebellious – etiquette guides of the time declared it inappropriate to wear when in the company of women. However, with the star power of one of the most powerful men in the world behind it, this new style of eveningwear rapidly gained popularity. The next year, when one of the members of the exclusive Tuxedo Park club (a hangout for Manhattan’s wealthiest and most influential residents in Upstate New York) turned up to their autumn ball wearing one, the garment quickly became the uniform for male guests. So much so that by the turn of the 20th century, Americans started to call this new form of shirt evening jacket and its accompanying trousers a “tuxedo”.
As both countries headed towards World War One, this more casual dress code became known as black tie, and the more formal version with the tailcoat became known as white tie and gradually faded out of regular usage.
Today, you might not be invited to many formal events, but if you do it tends to be black tie demanded on the invitation. Once the more casual option for our Victorian forebears, the tux has now become the most formal item a man will have hanging in his wardrobe – so it’s an investment that’s worth getting right. Here, we bring you the ultimate guide to black tie with solid advice from some of Britain's best tailors, covering everything you might want to know about this particular dress code, from how to choose the right dinner suit to the accessories you need, plus suggestions on how to wear your tux causally. Hey, it’s what King Edward would have wanted.
What is a black-tie dress code?
“Black tie is one of the few sartorial codes understood globally and still respected in a world where we see less and less formal dressing,” says Kathryn Sargent, Savile Row tailor.
At its most traditional, the foundation of the black-tie dress code is the dinner suit, or tuxedo. This will have a single- or double-breasted jacket with covered buttons and satin-covered lapels, trousers with a satin or grosgrain stripe down the sides and tabs or braces instead of belt loops. The most popular colours for this suit are black or midnight blue (both with black satin detailing), although today there are lots of colours available. In fact, in the early 20th century Oxford grey was favoured as the alternative to midnight blue, and black only gained popularity in the Thirties.
This evening suit will be worn with a cuffed white dress shirt (with either a covered placket or evening studs and a turndown collar; a wing collar is for white tie), a bow tie and patent leather lace-up shoes or opera pumps.
While many think of black tie as a prescriptive dress code for men, as you can see there is plenty of choice in cut and colour. So much is left to personal preference.
“My perfect black tie comprises of a midnight-blue barathea cloth in a one-buttoned, contrasting satin peak lapel cut to fit the body well but to emphasise the waist and elongate the legs,” says Sargent. “Ultimately, black tie should make the wearer feel more elegant and handsome.”
What cut of black-tie jacket should I go for?
The key to getting black tie right is to not think of your tuxedo as a tuxedo, but just as another one of your suits. This should not be a panic buy the afternoon before your event. If you’re not headed to a Savile Row tailor to get your suit custom-made, there are plenty of options out there to choose from off the rack for every price point, so take your time and pick something that works for your body type.
“The sort of fit and style that suits a man goes for really depends on his personal style,” says Patrick Grant, owner of Norton & Sons and host of BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee. “If the man chooses to wear a double-breasted jacket, but it is ill-fitting and not cut proportionately to his physique, it doesn’t matter if he is the skinniest of waifs or the most rotund of portly fellows; it will be ill-fitting and unattractive. If, however, the man has a properly tailored jacket, it will not only suit the fellow whatever his build, it will also flatter and impress.”
So the top tip, if you’re unsure, is to see a tailor to really work out what works for you, or simply try on a wide variety of different colours, cuts and lapel types to narrow down your choices. There are a couple of rules to bear in mind, though.
Single-breasted jackets tend to be more streamlined and thus more flattering on men who are a little larger.
Double-breasted jackets will help accentuate shoulders and are especially good for skinny guys who want to look broader. Always go for a slimmer cut that nips in at the waist: a baggy DB will make it look like you’ve borrowed your dad’s tux for the night.
Single-button jackets are good for shorter guys as this creates an optical illusion that elongates your torso.
A peak lapel is the most traditional option and is flattering on most body types. They are especially beneficial for shorter guys as they have the optical effect of drawing the eye upwards.
A shawl lapel is a more contemporary option and is most popular right now in midnight blue – as worn by Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond (who opted for one by Tom Ford). As you can probably deduce from the aforementioned actor, a shawl collar is an excellent choice for men with a larger chest as the elegant curve helps to balance that with your waist, as opposed to a peak, which will accentuate upper-body broadness.
What are the rules for wearing a colourful jacket or smoking jacket with black tie?
“The smoking jacket was once reserved for only wearing in your own home or if you were hosting a party,” says tailor Charlie Casely-Hayford, who recently designed a beautiful navy-blue velvet smoking jacket to celebrate the relaunch of the exclusive Annabel’s nightclub in London’s Mayfair.
“It can certainly set you apart from the crowd in a sea of penguin suits as it's a good way to introduce deep, rich colours into your black tie, such as burgundies, deep greens and purple velvets.”
Velvet smoking jackets have now become a popular choice for A-listers wanting to stand out on the red carpet for black-tie events (such as the Oscars, the Fashion Awards and the Baftas), as well as on screen (remember Eggsy’s orange velvet jacket in Kingsman: The Golden Circle?). Now they’re filtering onto the wider fashion scene, meaning that, no matter your budget, there’s no excuse not to try something a little bolder.
However, it’s not just about velvet – contrast dinner jackets come in a wide variety of materials and patterns. And if you can’t find something you like, you can always get one made for a special event, rather than wearing your regular run-of-the-mill black or navy tux. Casely-Hayford is the posterboy for this...
“I decided to wear a double-breasted shawl lapel jacquard black-tie suit for my own wedding. I wear a navy suit everyday, so I wanted to push the boundaries as I'm usually quite understated with my personal colour palette. We designed the fabric in-house and had it woven by a traditional mill called Vanners in Suffolk. We designed the cloth specifically because it really comes to life in the sun and our whole wedding took place outside.”
Whether you’re getting your contrast jacket made bespoke or buying one off the rack, there’s only one real hard and fast rule: keep the rest of your outfit as classic as you can (black trousers, white dress shirt, black silk bowtie), because arriving in a riot of colour, ballsy accessories and clashing materials means you run the risk of standing out for all the wrong reasons. Other than that, go crazy.
What shoes should I wear for black tie?
Yes, you can get away with wearing a pair of trainers with a tux, but only if it’s a relatively relaxed black-tie event where you’re among a younger crowd. In other words, we wouldn’t recommend you do this at your company’s annual fundraiser where you’re looking to impress those who could potentially give you a promotion.
There are really only three main choices for shoes to wear with a tuxedo. The first is the more modern option but also now the most widely worn: high-shine black lace-ups. “Obviously, a black patent Oxford is the standard,” says Neil Kirby, head of sales at Northampton-based shoemaker Joseph Cheaney & Sons, “but a fine-quality black calf will look great and offer more adaptability.
“The key element is to keep it to a lightweight sole. And keep it plain: no double-sole brogues on this parade!”
Kelly Oxford dress shoe by Cheaney, $245.16. www.cheaney.co.uk
The second option is the most traditional: the court shoe or opera pump. This type of footwear dates back to the 18th century and was originally worn with silk stockings and breeches for dancing. Over 300 years, it has changed little in design: a patent leather slip-on with a slim leather sole and quilted interior finished with a grosgrain (often flat) bow that was originally added with the intention of tricking the eye into thinking the wearer’s foot was smaller. Today, it has rather fallen out of favour, but we’re big still fans – as is Chris Boadle, founder of shoemaker Arthur Sleep, who crafts a particularly pleasant selection of opera pumps. "There is no other shoe that dispenses more elegance and sophistication," Boadle says.
Black patent opera pump by Arthur Sleep, $330. www.arthursleepers.co.uk
The third is a sort of halfway house between the two: the velvet slipper. This shoe brings that louche, aristocratic feel, but can also make your tux feel instantly more modern. That’s because the best way to do a velvet slipper is to go for something that stands out, either a bold colour or pattern or some eye-catching embroidery on the front.
Vitruvius men's slipper by Stubbs & Wootton x Luke Edward Hall, $300. www.stubbsandwootton.com
Whichever you go for, invest in a pair of black silk socks. While menswear rules have loosened up across the board, one thing that’s stayed remarkably steadfast is that a black-tie event is not one where your ankles should be feeling the breeze. Keeping them covered will make your whole outfit far more slick. Plus, silk socks just feel incredible.
What sort of shirt should I wear?
"Black tie is a lot more flexible than other forms of formal dress," says James MacAuslan, shirt cutter at Budd Shirtmakers. "The most classic are either a pleated- or Marcella-front dress shirt.
"The Marcella is a slightly more contemporary style, which is by far the more popular option. The pleated option will usually have 1/2-inch pleats, because the more traditional 1/4-inch pleats require a lot more labour when done by hand. Larger pleats can make the outfit look very Seventies, but that's a good option for someone trying to look a little bit different – and a great option considering the trend of that era in menswear right now."
However, a key factor to pay attention to is the collar.
"A wing collar is technically incorrect," says MacAuslan. "Post-First World War, some young men in high society wore a stiff-wing collar with their black tie as a way of rebelling, but today it’s something you are more likely to see at a school dance. It's technically 'allowed', but a purist would not let you into their party with such a faux pas."
Instead, you should go for a turndown collar, which will also hide all the fixings of your bow tie far better and help your bow tie stand up straighter. Bonus.
While there are generally two options when it comes to the style and construction of your evening shirt, there are far more options when it comes to materials and colours. Black has become an increasingly favoured shade for evening shirts and makes for a seriously sleek look when worn with a black tuxedo and all-black accessories (no white-ties please, unless you fancy looking like Lou Bega). Another less dressy alternative is to go for a chambray, denim-style evening shirt (generally this will be pleated) or a blue cotton (this will look especially good with a navy tux).
To finish, find the right studs. "The general rule is black onyx studs for black tie and mother of pearl for white tie," says MacAuslan, "but decorative studs on your black tie is a great way to show personality."
Covered placket Marcella dress shirt by Favourbrook, $120. www.mrporter.com
Chambray dress shirt by Chester Barrie, $160. www.chesterbarrie.co.uk
What tie should I wear with a tuxedo?
Always a bow tie. And you should definitely try to go for one you tie yourself – they just look better than their ready-tied cousins.
We know this can be tricky, which is why we've written a guide to how to tie a bow tie here, with a handy video. However, for a few extra pointers when it comes to technique, we decided to contact Holger Auffenberg, head of design at tailoring house Chester Barrie, who sports a bow tie to work every single day.
"The process is easy until it comes to the step where you need to push the second layer through to form a full bow," he says. "The trick here is to use you fore- or middle finger (however you are inclined) to create a channel for the wing of the bow.
"As long as you get the initial construction right you can then tweak to your heart's content until it's the way you want it. Just keep in mind that some asymmetry adds character!
"One more hint: it's easier if you start with a bow tie that's bigger than you need. Most bows will let you open them with a hook. That way you can tie it with plenty of extra material and then adjust the finished tie to your neck size. Bit of a cheat, but nobody will know."
Do I really need a cummerbund?
Traditionally, a man should wear a cummerbund with his tuxedo and there are quite a few sartorial advantages in doing so. Not only is it an excellent tool for compressing your midriff, covering up and for potential shirt untucking that might occur during vigorous dancing, but it also has a small pocket hidden inside that's big enough for a couple of cards and some cash, meaning you can leave your wallet at home. Just make sure you wear it with the pleats facing upwards (they're only worn downwards by the US Army for formal dress).
However, these days they're a negotiable part of the black-tie uniform. In fact, many men choose to leave it off if they're going for a more modern vibe. If you do go cummerbund-less, the thing to bear in mind is what else is going on at waist level. Belts should not be worn with black tie, so make sure you're wearing trousers that have a flat front and side tabs to keep things streamlined.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you're wearing a tux where your waistband won't be seen all evening (so that's either a double-breasted jacket or three-piece evening suit), then you don't need to sport a cummerbund.
How do I do more modern black tie?
While there are tweaks that you can apply to the various garments that go into your black-tie look, those items might still feel a little traditional for you (see: cummerbunds). If you want to go more modern, there is plenty to play with, however, we'd suggest you double-check the kind of crowd you'll be in before you go full Troye Sivan at your next black-tie event – much as we dug his sheer vest/red tux combo at this year's Met Gala.
If playing with colour and pattern isn't your thing, the answer is to go more minimal. That might start with the kind of tux you choose.
"For me, it’s about taking old-school fabrics and subverting the details and cuts," says Nick Hart, creative director of London label Spencer Hart, who makes custom tuxedos for his clients. "The jacket could be a little oversized and loose, as I feel that in today’s world people want to feel comfortable, and slouchy is a cool aesthetic at the moment. I would put that jacket with a pair of loose-fitting, pleated black poplin trousers.
"A white shirt could have the traditional aspects of being having white Marcella details against a white twill body, but it could have a cut so that the bib sits on the waist or the collar worn over the lapel of the jacket. It’s about taking the best ingredients from a classic, traditional dress code and shaking it all up."
And it doesn't have to be all the time. Perhaps you like traditional but just want to mix it up a bit.
"I like the 'rules', so I’m an advocate for keeping it traditional most of the time," says Christoffer Lundman, head of creative and design at Tiger Of Sweden. "However, depending on the event I sometimes wear a white crew-neck T-shirt, without the cummerbund, of course."
However, that twist on the classic dress code could be even more simple: removing your tie altogether. This could either be with a fine-gauge black rollneck during the winter or simply by wearing a shirt buttoned all the way up. Of course, you have to make sure that your shirt is right (covered placket, elegant slim collar, pleats potentially), but it's a strong move, perhaps most famously sported by Kanye West at the Met Gala in 2013.
"I personally haven’t worn a tie or bow tie to a black-tie event in ten years," says Hart. "The key is don’t wear the brand's house style, wear your own house style."
How do I do summer black tie?
We have an entire guide on how to do black tie during the summer months on site, with expert tips from Patrick Johnson, founder of Australian tailoring house P Johnson.
How do I wear a tuxedo casually?
It seems rather a shame to leave your dinner suit languishing at the back of your wardrobe, waiting for a few black-tie events every year. Think of it as just another suit you have at your disposal. You might not be able to wear it to the office, but there's no reason you can't wear it out after dark.
An easy way to do this is by splicing it with denim, (a chambray button-down shirt or a jean jacket with your tux trousers) or a dark T-shirt in black or navy (depending on the colour of your suit), and a pair of crisp white trainers.
"Dressing down a tuxedo is not without precedent – it's something Ralph Lauren has been doing for years, and with aplomb, might I add," says Michael Hill, creative director of London tailoring house and accessories maker Drake's. "At the recent CFDA Awards ceremony he wore a tuxedo jacket, dress shirt and satin bow tie paired with stone-washed jeans and Salomon trail-running shoes. Then again, we can't all be Ralph Lauren."