Guide to Black Tie

Black Tie has an interesting history; before the 1930’s, black tie was solely worn as an informal alternative to white tie, something that a gentleman would wear to a casual dinner event (hence the name dinner suit). As time moved on the dinner suit became more and more acceptable for formal events, and eventually overtook white tie as formal attire; restricting white tie to only the most formal events.

Keep in mind that a majority of what you see on the red carpet is an insult to the name ‘Black Tie’; some do it well, even with their creative alterations, but a majority do it very poorly. So I am going to cover traditional, correct, Black Tie, as well as Creative Black Tie done well.

Traditional Black Tie

Black Tie Outfit

The Black Tie outfit consists of the following:

  • The Jacket
  • The Trousers
  • A Waistcoat or Cummerbund
  • A dress shirt
  • A Bow Tie
  • Black Leather Shoes
  • The Accessories

In the basic form, it is similar to the typical lounge suit, but, as usual, it’s all about the details.

The Jacket

The Style

The traditional, and most formal style of dinner jacket is the single breasted model, with one button. Because this button is often left undone, a waist covering, such as a waistcoat or cummerbund is required. While traditionally a more informal alternative, the double-breasted jacket is now considered just as correct as the single breasted model; this jacket will typically have four buttons, of which either 2 or 1 will button. As the double-breasted jacket remains buttoned at all times, a waist covering is not needed. The buttons will either be plain black, or covered in the same fabric as the lapels. The suit should be either black, or midnight blue. Traditionally, the jacket will have no vents, but double vents are also acceptable.

The Lapels

A dinner jacket will have only either peak lapels, or shawl lapels. Notched lapels are are not to be worn; if you do wear them, you will probably be mistaken for the wait staff. The lapels should be covered with a satin or grosgrain fabric, which should match (or be close to) the fabric of your bow tie and cummerbund.

The Pockets

The buttons will also be covered with a similar fabric, as will the pockets, which should be jetted. The jacket can be either single or double-breasted; if a single breast, the jacket should only have on button, although two is acceptable.

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Peak Lapel (My Favourite)

Peak Lapel Double Breasted

Peak Lapel Double Breasted

Shawl Lapel

Shawl Lapel

Shawl lapel Double Breasted

Shawl Lapel Double Breasted

Grosgrain Texture

Grosgrain Texture

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If you happen to be in a warmer climate, a off-white (not plain white) dinner jacket is also acceptable; this will typically be a shawl collar, but peak lapels, while rare, can also be found. The lapels on these jackets will typically be made from the same fabric as the rest of the jacket. These jackets are to be worn with regular black or blue dinner suit trousers.

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Shawl Lapel

Peak Lapel

Peak Lapel

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The Trousers

Unless you are wearing an off-white dinner jacket, the trousers should be made from the same fabric as the jacket. They will not have belt loops; instead they will have either side tabs, buttons for braces, or both. They will also differ from regular suit trousers in that the side seams will be covered be a strip of material made from the same fabric as the lapels. Pleats are optional, but the trousers should not have cuffs.

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Trousers with Side Adjusters and a satin stripe

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Dress Shirt

The Collar

Wing Collar

Originally, the dinner suit borrowed its shirt collar from the more formal white tie outfit; since the 1930’s however, the turn-down collar has become the more technically correct collar. If you do chose to wear a wing collar, it should have the following characteristics:

  • It should be starched
  • It should be detectable
  • The collar should be about 2″ tall, depending on the length of your neck
  • The points of the collar should always be behind the bow
Grafton_starched-stiff_detachable_wing_collar

Detachable Wing Collar

Image from The Black Tie Guide. Go check it out

Image from The Black Tie Guide. Go check it out

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These collars are designed to be attached to a band collar shirt with the use of studs at the front and back of the collar. Since the popularization of the turn-down collar in the 1930’s, many experts believe that the wing collar should be reserved for more formal white tie events; I don’t mind the wing collar for black tie, but only if it is properly sized, like the one above.

Attached Wing Collars

Attached Wing Collars are, for the most part, a stain on the fabric of the universe. Most of them are too short, and the wings are entirely too small and floppy; there are some, however, that aren’t entirely awful. These collars resemble an attached version of the collar above, and if you can find one of these variants, the are preferable to the small floppy ones.

Wing Collar be A Tailored Suit. Go and check them out as well

Wing Collar by A Tailored Suit. Go and check them out as well

Turn-down Collar

Since the 1930’s, the prefered shirt collar for the dinner suit has been the turn-down collar; this collar can have varying degrees of spread, with semi-spread being my preference. Button-Down collars must never be worn with formal wear.

Turndown Spread Collar

Turn-down Spread Collar

The Cuffs

Dress shirts for dinner suits should always have french cuffs. Formal dress shirts usually need studs to hold them closed (instead of buttons), and these often come with matching cufflinks; it’s not necessary for the cufflinks to match your shirt studs, but they should be similar metals.

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French Cuff

The Bosom

Dinner Shirts have what is called a bosom, or a bib; a rectangular panel that runs up the front of the shirt, starting around the waist and going up. While the rest of the shirt will be made from plain white cotton, the bosom will typically either be pleated, or made from a Marcella fabric. When the bosom is made from a Marcella fabric, the collar and cuffs will typically be made from the same fabric. Traditionally, the pleats are wider, but thinner pleats have become more common and acceptable. Instead of (or in addition to), most dinner shirts will have an extra hole through which you will place a stud that holds the shirt closed.

Pleated Bosom

Pleated

Marcella Fabric

Marcella

Waistcoat or Cummerbund

The Waistcoat

Unlike the waistcoat worn with a three piece suit, the waistcoat for a dinner suit is very low cut, and simply designed to cover the waist. It often comes with lapels, which will typically be made from the same fabric as the jacket lapels; the entire vest itself can also be made from the lapel facing fabric. The waistcoat is usually backless; closing with just a strap around the back; the waistcoat can be either single or double-breasted, with the single breasted model typically having three buttons, and the double-breasted model having four (two rows of two). Unlike with a three piece suit, a dress waistcoat is designed to have all the buttons done up.While black is common, a white waistcoat is also acceptable, and even preferred by purists. 

Waistcoats

Cummerbund

The cummerbund is technically considered less formal than the waistcoat, and is best worn with a shawl lapel jacket. The cummerbund evolved from a sash that was worn by british officers stationed in india during the Victorian era. It was originally a long, brightly coloured sash that was wrapped around a tunic; it evolved into its current incarnation in the 1920’s with pleats replacing the folds in the fabric. The cummerbund should be made from the same fabric as the bow tie, and be worn with the pleats facing up.

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Bow Tie

The bow tie is the main attraction. It should always be a self tied model, and should always be black for formal events. Pre-tied bow ties are for children and waiters.

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Bow ties come in three basic shapes; the Classic Butterfly, the Modern Butterfly (Thistle), and the Batwing. Each of these variations can either be flat ended, or pointed. It’s important to chose the tie that compliments your face shape best (small face = small tie, large face = large tie); a big tie on a small face will make you face look smaller, and vice versa.

Classic Butterfly

Butterfly

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Modern Butterfly (Thistle)

Pointed Thistle

Pointed Thistle

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Regular Thistle

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Batwing

Batwing

Batwing

batwing pic

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Shoes

There are three types of shoes that can be worn with a dinner suit; in order of formality, they are: Opera Pumps, Black Oxfords, and Black Wholecuts. The material should either be patent leather, or highly polished calf skin leather.

Opera Pumps/Court Shoes

brooks_brothers_pump

Oxfords

Herring-Herring Charles II-Black Calf-7064-3741-1

Wholecuts

Herring-Herring Chaucer II-Black Calf-5196-2712-1

For some more detail on dress shoes, check out my article on them here.

Accessories

Studs and Cufflinks

Instead of buttons, most dinner shirts will have holes for studs to keep the shirt closed. The cufflinks will often match these studs, but they don’t have to; the should however, be made from a similar metal. Formal cufflinks are traditionally double-sided, and linked by a chain.

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Black and Gold Studs

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Silver and Mother of Pearl Studs

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Silver Chain Cufflinks

Silver Chain Cufflinks

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Watch

Traditionally, a watch isn’t worn to a black tie event; the idea being that checking the time is rude to the host. If you do chose to wear a watch, it should be slim and discreet, with a black leather band. Alternatively, you can wear a pocket watch, which will stay out of the way.

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Pocket Square

No suit is complete without a pocket square. In this case, a simple square made of white linen is traditional. Silk pocket squares are a modern alternative that are acceptable, but not preferred. For a touch of colour, a rich red square can be used.

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White Linen Pocket Square from Goodsforlife (Etsy Store)

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Braces (Suspenders) and Sock Garters

Unless the trousers have side adjusters, or are perfectly tailored to your body, they will require the use of braces. The braces are typically made from either black, or white silk; the colour doesn’t matter though, because the braces are not supposed to be seen.

Formal braces are never clip ons (not that any braces should be), and typically have soft, knitted ends, as opposed to the stiff leather variants.

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Braces by Albert Thurston

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Braces by Albert Thurston

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Because formal socks are made from silk, which have the tendency to fall easily, sock garters are usually worn with formal attire. Sock garters consist of a band that goes around your leg with a clip that attached to the sock; the tension on the band holds the sock up.

Sock Garters by Fine and Dandy

Sock Garters by Fine and Dandy

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The Boutonniere

Boutonniere technically means ‘buttonhole’, but refers to the flower that is placed through the buttonhole in the jacket lapel. This flower, for black tie, is typically a red or white carnation that has been specially prepared to fit properly. Despite what florists would have you believe, a flower should never be pinned to the lapel; in addition to looking tacky, it damages the delicate fabric. Shawl lapels don’t typically have buttonholes on the lapel, so a boutonniere will typically only be worn with a peak lapel; on a decent quality jacket there will be a loop of thread to hold the flower stem. For an excellent article on the boutonniere, check out this article by Antonio Centeno on The Art of Manliness.

Jacket-pocket-square-boutonniere

The front of the lapel with a white carnation. Both images from The Art of Manliness and Antonio Centeno

Back-Boutonniere-Latch

The back of the lapel with a white carnation

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Creative Black Tie

Creative Black Tie isn’t something that I agree with in general; I prefer traditional attire, and modifying what is considered by most experts to be the peak of mens style usually turns out poorly. Despite this, there are some who do it well, and if you follow this guide, you will be one of them. Also, keep in mind that Creative Black Tie should be reserved for more casual or entertainment based events (award shows, etc), and not for formal events like charity events and black tie dinners. Don’t go over the top

The Suit

The key to getting creative while still expressing your individuality is to keep the basic style the same; stick with a shawl or peak lapel with either no vents or double vents. The only thing that you should change is the colour; stick with colours that compliment your skin tone. Try to stick with blues, greys, and darker reds; pastels and bright shiny colours should be avoided.

The Shirt

Although the standard dress shirt above is still preferred, if you are planning on wearing a long necktie and/or no waist covering, a regular, plain front dress shirt should be worn instead; you should, however, still have french cuffs.

The Tie

I’m not of long neckties, but if you wear it well and with confidence, then this is the time to wear it. Whether you choose a necktie or a bow tie, stick with darker colours and subtle patterns.

Waist Covering

If you are wearing a necktie, skip the waist covering; a necktie looks ridiculous tucked behind a low waistcoat or a cummerbund. If you are sticking with a bow tie (which I recommend), either match the colour of the covering to the suit, or to your tie. Keep in mind that even for creative attire, a necktie is very casual and isn’t preferred; the waist covering is an important part of the outfit.

Creative Black Tie Done Right

Missing the waist covering, but still done well; but then, Ryan Gosling does most things well

Missing the waist covering and the french cuffs, but still done pretty well; but then, Ryan Gosling does most things well

Stretching the limits of Creative Black Tie, NPH still looks legendary

Stretching the limits of Creative Black Tie, NPH still looks legendary

Recommended Reading

The Black Tie Guide – The single greatest guide to black tie that has ever been created.

How to Wear a Tuxedo – A more condensed article, but still very informative.

How to Wear a Boutonniere – Another article on The Art of Manliness by Antonio Centeno, this covers the basics of wearing a boutonniere.

Red Carpet Black Tie – Part of The Black Tie Guide, this deserves its own special mention; celebrities who get it right, and ones who get it horribly wrong.

The Formalwear Hall of Shame – Another part of The Black Tie Guide that deserves a special mention; if you have ever worn any of this, or even considered it, smack yourself in the head.

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