“Black-tie dress code” is up there with “black ice” in the terror stakes. It rivals “black hole” with its power to confuse and befuddle. As for “black sheep”? It’s easy to feel like one, if you manage to confound a collective decision to dress in a highly unambiguous manner for a terrifyingly specific occasion.
In a world where attire is becoming increasingly casual across the board, dress code dilemmas are ten-a-penny. Fresh hell: the unhelpful cipher that simply serves to confuse—“evening”, “business casual”, “hipster formal”, “a touch of glamour” stated in tiny italics—and gives no hint as to what is de rigueur.
Even Diana Vreeland, that legendary arbiter of taste, is no help here. While her aphorism that “unshined shoes are the end of civilization” still holds, her advice on black-tie dress code events is less constructive: “The best time to leave a party is when the party’s just beginning. There’s no drink that kills except the drink that you didn’t want to take, as the saying goes, and there’s no hour that kills except the hour you stayed after you wanted to go home.”
So, we know when to leave. But how to arrive – and in what look? Here’s Vogue’s guide to decoding the black-tie dress code on your party invites this season:
What does black-tie dress code actually mean?
“A black bow tie worn with a dinner jacket,” the dictionary helpfully posits. “Less formal than white tie… worn for dinners, parties and balls, as well as some Season events such as Glyndebourne,” adds Debrett’s. It all hinges, however, on the host. One man’s “dress to impress” is another man’s “barely-there Balmain minidress”. Which may well be impressive – but entirely wrong for a charity gala. In the first instance, don’t be afraid to text your host for clarification on what level of formality they are expecting their guests to respect, as well as intel on what they themselves are planning to wear.
What’s the best way to navigate black-tie dress code?
Simply put, “black tie” for women best translates as “long”, and in an evening-appropriate fabric, such as velvet, chiffon, silk or lace. A cocktail dress—shorter, possibly ritzier—might cut it if your host is of a relaxed nature (or if the dress is, say, a dramatic Alexander McQueen style), but it’s best to assume that a floor-sweeping number (or a tuxedo situation – yes women can wear a trousers suit to a black tie event) is expected.
How can I predict how smart an event will be?
There will be clues. Firstly, consider the invitation medium. The thicker the woven stock of your pigeon post (and the more fanciful the calligraphy and the first-class stamp), the smarter the event. If the summons came in digitally, via Facebook or WhatsApp, you can relax a little. The exception is Paperless Post—just because the invite dropped in via email doesn’t mean it’s not a floor-length affair. The medium of text message should also be respected: it’s a method that suggests, “I’m so laid-back with my invitations”, but means “rhinestones are encouraged”.
How can I avoid making a wardrobe faux pas?
Get hold of the guest list. This will provide you with both legions of people to quiz about their personal interpretation of the dress code, as well as handy intel if you’re considering repeat-wearing an old favorite. (This is no longer a faux pas; it simply shows you know your style). Above all, you don’t want to turn up wearing the same dress as someone else. If the worst happens, create an Instagram Story immediately, then keep well away from your doppelgänger.
What shoes should I wear?
Scope out the location. Gravel, paving, lawn, parquet floor? Assess the routes you might need to take over the course of the evening and prepare to park the stilettos. Or, if you simply must wear your new crystal-strewn Saint Laurent metallic sandals, find a willing squire to ferry you across danger areas. (On that note, never, ever take your shoes off on the dance floor. You may step on a rogue shard of glass—or another guest may step on your pedicure. Either way, it’s never chic.)
Can I wear black?
Absolutely. There’s a reason why everyone else is wearing it. Just make sure your accessories are ice-breaker status—your host will appreciate the effort you’ve made provided you’re wearing a Phoebe Philo-era Céline crystal collar. And if all else fails, buy a cluster of diamanté brooches and pile them on to lapels and necklines—or in messy, bed-head hair. Tell everyone they’re heirlooms and prepare to sparkle.
What we’ve learned over the years?
Take the advice given above but don’t forget act at your own discretion. Not every black-tie event is the same, so, different rules apply. Show your respect to the host and follow what they set out for the dress code to be for the night. If ever in doubt, ask the host – they will know the answer.
Black-tie events can pose an unnerving sartorial challenge, but once you’ve done one, you know what it is that ticks the boxes whilst also making you feel comfortable in your official attire. From simples frocks to standout gowns, don’t be afraid to repeat outfits. It’s chic to look the part but it’s even chicer to do so in a responsible way. Yes, even royals and celebrities can be spotted wearing outfits they were papped in before. Whether you achieve that by collating a collection by season or by degree of formality, build your own black-tie capsule wardrobe and you’re set.