The Black-Tie Optional Dress-Code Explained

black tie optional dress code

‘Black-tie optional’ is one of those formal dress codes that creates more doubt than clarity. What was once invented to make party-goers feel more liberated with flexible choices in their formal dressing, has become the cause of a slew of panicked questions at the sight of the phrase on an invite;”What color suit to choose?””Do I need to wear a tux?””What does optional mean?” “Do I need a cummerbund?” What IS a cummerbund?”

Ironically in the Art Deco period of 1920’s famously known as the ‘The Roaring Twenties’ or ‘The Jazz Age’, King Edward VII had passed on, and the far more conservative George V was making his mark in an attempt to reintroduce the formality his father had let slide in the courts. Edward VII had swapped his tailcoat for a blue silk smoking jacket with matching trousers, made by Henry Poole & Co. of Savile Row. It provided the monarch with a more comfortable alternative to the formality of evening tails.

It was Edward VII’s inspired loosening that eventually morphed into the birth of black-tie in 1885 among the well-to-do. This black-tie suit style was then adopted by members of the Tuxedo Club in New York.

Back then it was easy to decipher what black or white tie meant. Today, with when we enjoy a more relaxed  dress codes, it’s a tangled mess left upto the majority of men trying to decode what exactly the invite means. Therefore, we have compiled an informative guide from experts from around the world regarding everything you need to know about black-tie optional.

What does black-tie optional mean?

A simple definition of black-tie optional is that the host of an event is planning on wearing standard black-tie and hopes that their guests try to adhere to that as well, though it isn’t necessarily required.

The “Optional” is for men who don’t own traditional black-tie ensembles. It’s a judgment-free acceptance that not all men certainly own or can afford one. If you wish to wear a standard black-tie outfit for a black-tie optional event, you’re perfectly welcome to do so. The fact is that these black-tie optional events are a good opportunity to wear your occasion wear in accordance with all the traditional rules of proper black-tie. Although it’s safe to note that the “optional” part in the dress code shouldn’t be an excuse to dress down parts of a conventional tuxedo or incorporate other less formal elements.

What to wear to a black-tie optional event?

In a broad sense the dress code calls for a dark suit, a white shirt, a dark conservative tie, dark over the calf socks, black leather shoes, and maybe a few conservative accessories.

Suit: The dark suit should be very dark to stay on par with the black tuxedos and to maintain the decorum of the black tie event. Charcoal and midnight blue are also great alternatives. Solid coloured suits are your best choice, though faint patterns such as a light and broad windowpane could be acceptable. Two piece or three piece, single or double-breasted would work.

Shirts: For a significant contrast with a dark suit a white shirt is ideal for black-tie optional events. It’s best to avoid any other colours as it would be too informal for such an event.

Neckwear: The neckwear worn should be dark and solid instead of patterned. A black necktie could be worn but black bow ties should be avoided with dark suits. Keep that for tuxedos. To choose wisely instead of a black necktie you could go with burgundy, navy, a very dark forest green, or dark plum.

Footwear: Simple and classic black Oxfords are your best bet. Black derby shoes, if conservatively styled, could also work. The part that gives you most range in choice and flexibility would be in your accessories. Cufflinks can be silver, gold or any other solid coloured metal and they could feature designs and subtle embellishments.

What to avoid at a black-tie optional event

  • Light-coloured suits: Black-tie optional events take place in the evening and a suit in light grey or khaki would definitely not cut it.
  • Going without a tie: It’s simple, a black-tie event requires you to wear a tie. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bow tie or a neck tie, but you need to wear one.
  • Odd jackets and trousers: If you choose to be creative by wearing khakis or lighter hues with a mix and match blazer, they are simply too casual for an affair involving tuxedos.
  • Crazy socks: Socks in bright bold colours, funky patterns can be saved for a more casual event. For black tie-optional events, keep your socks the same colour as your trousers.

Understanding different invitation requirements

  • White tie or full dress: Wear a white wing-collar pique shirt, crisp white pique vest, white tie, classic black trousers with formal satin stripe, black tailcoat and black patent shoes.
  • Black tie: Wear a classic tuxedo with white shirt, dark vest or cummerbund and black tie. Accessorise with black patent shoes.
  • Black tie preferred: This generally means formal evening attire. Black tuxedo, white dinner jacket or dark tuxedo (no tailcoats). Non-formal dress suits are acceptable but not preferred.
  • Black tie optional: Not as rigid about formal attire as “black tie” or “black tie preferred.” Still, formal dress is appropriate and acceptable, including black tuxedo and dark contemporary-style tuxedos.
  • Black tie invited: This means that you are welcome to dress in formal attire if you like, but it is not required.
  • Semi-formal: Allows tuxedo or dinner jacket.

Finally it comes down to this. For someone who doesn’t own a tuxedo and chooses not to rent one, a black tie-optional event is your best friend. You can utilise your existing wardrobe, minimise your expense and still look like a million bucks when you’re at an event amongst the tuxedo-wearing masses. Just make sure that your suit’s well-fitted(ideally made to measure), brushed and dry-cleaned and that your whole look comes together to create a memorable impression. 

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