This article will discuss the black-tie dress code in depth. We’ll go over all the different permutations included in the dress code and also talk about the pros and cons of tuxedo rentals. If you need information on a different dress code, see our guide to dress codes.
Semi-formal evening attire -also known as black tie- is arguably the dress code in which a gentleman looks his most handsome. Every James Bond, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, has appeared at some point in a dinner jacket.
Perhaps you’ve been invited to an awards ceremony or a very fancy wedding, or perhaps you’re a member of a social club that has regular black tie events.
No matter why you need to dress in black tie, it’s important to do it correctly. Read on for a concise guide to nailing the black tie dress code.
What Does Black Tie Mean?
Black tie – also known as semi-formal dress, cravate noire, dinner jacket, or various translations of the word “smoking”- is one of the most common and misunderstood dress codes in the Western world.
For Americans, black tie means “tuxedo,” a term derived from Tuxedo Park, NY, the place where the garment was first spotted in the United States. British folks generally refer to it as a dinner jacket, and Spanish speakers use the term esmoquin (a cognate of the word “smoking,” as in “smoking jacket.”).
Black-tie is an evening dress code. The typical time that “evening” starts is 6pm.
Technically it’s semi-formal attire, one step down in dressiness from white tie. It’s also the getup in which a man is at his most handsome. No matter which actor has played James Bond over the years, the tuxedo has always been one of the nattiest outfits he’s donned.
How Did Black Tie Come About?
The tuxedo dates back to the mid-19th century. King Edward VII (pictured below, in statue form) commissioned his friend Henry Poole to make a short jacket to wear for dinners that were more comfortable than traditional, formal tailcoats.
The garment became de riguer for hosting dinners in one’s home (that is, if you were a member of the landed gentry). The smoking jacket, a velvet variant that was worn after dinner while the men retired to smoke pipes or cigars, also had its beginnings in the home.
Nowadays, black-tie is the go-to dress code for “formal” events. Many white tie events, in an admission that full formal garments are difficult to acquire, will indicate that black tie is acceptable. Weddings and evening events at private clubs will be chock full of men in dinner jackets.
Black was the only acceptable color for many years until the Duke of Windsor realized that very dark blue looked blacker than black in artificial light. He had a midnight blue dinner jacket made up and started what became a permanently stylish trend.
Breakdown Of Black Tie: What Are The Components?
The components of a black tie ensemble are beholden to rules. The concept to keep in mind is that details that are considered “sporty” are incongruent on a tuxedo. Notch lapels, pocket flaps, center vents, and trouser cuffs are all incorrect.
Though the sleeves are too long and the jacket lacks shape, Steve Martin gets the details right here:
Here’s a garment-by-garment breakdown:
- Black or midnight blue wool. White may be worn in summer or year-round in warm climates. Velvet smoking jacket in bottle green, burgundy, black, or midnight blue may be substituted.
- One-button single-breasted or 6×2 double-breasted
- Peak lapels or shawl collars. No notched lapels!
- Side vents or ventless. No center vents!
- Lapels, buttons, and pocket welts faced with black satin or grosgrain
- Plain or pleated front
- Plain bottoms
- Outseams faced in black silk or grosgrain
- Side fastening tabs (no belt loops)
- White French cuff
- Turndown collar or wing collar
- Pleated bib front if wearing a turndown collar
- Black self-tie bow tie in silk or grosgrain (whatever matches the lapels)
- Black silk hose
- Single-breasted with no lapels. Do not wear if wearing a cummerbund
- Black is standard, colors like bottle green, burgundy, gold or plum are acceptable as the only flourish of color in the ensemble.
- Black patent leather whole cut or cap-toe oxfords, Venetian loafers, opera pumps, or velvet slippers
- Shirt studs (often onyx, may be mother-of-pearl)
- White pocket square
- It’s traditional to not wear a watch, as it was considered rude to the host and to your companion to check the time during a black tie event
Common Black Tie Pitfalls
Far too many brands sell things they call tuxedos that are not, in fact, tuxedos. This is just as much a function of blurring of formality lines as it is companies being more interested in making money than in dressing men properly.
Below, we see the one way to switch things up a bit: wearing a non-black cummerbund in a color such as red/burgundy, plum, gold, or bottle green:
Some of the most common pitfalls are:
- Wearing a non-black bow tie
- Wearing more than one non-standard colored piece
- Notch lapels
- Pocket flaps
- Center vents
- Trouser cuffs
- Two- or three-button single-breasted jackets
Take the gentleman below as an example. It’s great that he decided on a shawl collar, but he fell into some tuxedo traps. His pockets have flaps, he’s wearing neither a cummerbund nor a vest, and he’s wearing a watch. The wing collar of his shirt appears limp, and while it’s not tuxedo-specific, his sleeves are too long, and his hair and beard are relatively unkempt.
The gentleman below committed a couple of cardinal sins as well: a pre-tied bow tie and notched lapels. This is, sadly, a textbook example of an “incorrect” tuxedo.
If you own or rent a garment marketed as a tuxedo that has any of these (or other incorrect) details, you have spent money on something that is a sartorial oxymoron. We’re not sure what it is exactly, but it’s definitely not a tuxedo.
Should You Rent Or Buy A Tuxedo?
Speaking of renting or owning, we should address the question of whether one should rent or purchase a tuxedo.
Generally, we advise purchasing as opposed to renting. Rented clothing tends to fit rather poorly, and the pricing is such that it’s not so much cheaper than buying to make sense in most cases. A purchased tuxedo will fit better and will be of superior materials and construction, especially if it’s made-to-measure or bespoke.
The other factor to consider is frequency of wear. If you never have occasion to wear a tuxedo but need to for an event (most often a wedding), renting makes sense. This is commonplace for men who are groomsmen in weddings in which some rental deal has been struck between groom and clothier.
If you wear a tuxedo at least once a year, buy. It’ll pay off in dividends.
Black Tie Variants
While most black tie occasions call for a tuxedo, there are some interesting variations on the dress code that are worth mentioning.
Traditionally worn to dinners at the homes of elite members of society, the smoking jacket is where the black tie ensemble values comfort just as much as nattiness.
Smoking jackets were originally just that: coats donned by men before they retired to smoking lounges after dinner so that they could enjoy a cigar without stinking up their regular jackets and offending their female companions. Think of it as a formal robe that you wear to partake in various vices.
Smoking jackets take the same button stances and facings as standard tuxedo jackets, but are made with velvet as opposed to barathea wool. They’re paired with standard formal trousers and are often worn with velvet slippers, which are sometimes monogrammed with the wearer’s initials or family crest.
Red Sea Rig
In the nineteenth century, the British Royal Navy insisted that, like its British Army counterparts, officers wear full dress for formal events, regardless of temperature. The one exception to this rule? The Red Sea region, whose heat and humidity were so oppressive that wearing full formal dress was physically impossible.
The solution (which came to be known as “Red Sea Rig” or “Gulf Rig”) was simple: remove the jacket and waistcoat, but add a red cummerbund and matching red bow tie to offset the informality of going jacket-less. See below:
This variation on black tie was adopted by British diplomats in the Middle East for its practicality and comfort, and there are some local variations on it as well, with red facings on trouser outseams being an example. It continues to be the dress code of choice for dinner parties in British expatriate communities in the region, even as air conditioning has become common and rendered the dress code obsolete from that standpoint.
Scottish Highland Dress
A dress code specific to the Highlands and the Isles of Scotland, Scottish Highland Dress looks very different than the traditional black tie get-up but sits on the same rung of the formality ladder. Scottish Highland Dress has semi-formal, Black Tie, and White Tie equivalents, and what we describe below is only one of the many variations of the aforementioned variations.
It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever wear full Highland Dress unless you’re Scottish yourself, but it’s common enough to warrant a mention here.
There are many variations on the dress code, but a common version is:
- Black jacket with silver buttons. Typically a Regulation Doublet, which is a short jacket with gauntlet cuffs
- Matching waistcoat
- White shirt with studded buttons. Can be barrel or French cuff, must have a turndown collar (wing collars are for white tie variants only)
- Black bow tie
- Ghillie brogues and dress hosiery
- Dress sporran with a silver chain
- Sgian-dubh, which is a small, single-edged knife placed in the hosiery on the wearer’s dominant side
Black tie is actually one of the easiest dress codes to adhere to once you know the rules, and it’s arguably the most handsome dress code for gentlemen. Using the guide above, you’ll be sure to be beautifully -and correctly- dressed.
For more information on other dress codes, check out our dress code home page.