Black tie is a dress code for formal evening events that are not formal enough to require white tie. Its primary component is the dinner jacket (or "D.J.") as it is known in the United Kingdom (and also in the north-eastern United States, and Canada) or tuxedo as it is commonly referred to in the United States and Canada.
Black tie is today worn at a wide variety of functions, and the corresponding female attire can range from a short cocktail dress to a long gown, depending on fashion, local custom and the hour at which the function takes place.
Until the 1880s the only accepted form of evening dress was what is now known as white tie, worn with a tailcoat with peaked lapels and silk facings.
The black silk bow tie and the short mess jacket are of military origin - black silk bow ties were and still are worn by British naval and military officers in ball dress and mess dress when their civilian counterparts are in white tie.
Henry Poole & Co. of Savile Row claimed to have made a "short smoking jacket" for the Prince of Wales in 1865. This appears to have been worn by the Prince with a black bow tie, and the fashion was copied by various gentlemen in his circle.
In 1886 this outfit first appeared in the United States, worn by Pierre Lorillard at Tuxedo Park, a country club in New York. There are conflicting accounts of when and by whom the dinner jacket was first worn in the United States, but it quickly acquired the name "tuxedo". This name is now avoided by certain fashionable sets in the United States, in favour of the usual English terms "dinner jacket" and "black tie".
The waist sash called a cummerbund was borrowed after World War I, from military dress in British India.
Components of black tie dress
Black tie leaves a lot to the wearer's discretion compared to the far more codified white tie (e.g. single- versus double-breasted coat).
- Black short coat with silk (ribbed or satin) lapels
- Black trousers with a row of silk braid or ribbon down each leg
- White dress shirt with a marcella or pleated front
- Black silk bow tie
- Black cummerbund or low-cut waistcoat (in the U.S. and Canada, a "vest")
- Black socks
- Black leather shoes
The coat and trousers
The dinner jacket is usually made of black wool, without vents, with ribbed-silk or satin lapels. There are two styles of lapel: the peaked lapel derived from the evening tailcoat, and the shawl lapel reminiscent of a smoking jacket. With the peaked lapel the jacket can be either single- or double-breasted (in the UK, it is considered incorrect to have more than one button on a single-breasted dinner jacket). Notched lapels are a modern innovation, and are not considered correct.
Dinner jackets in midnight blue were introduced by the Duke of Windsor, when Prince of Wales, as an alternative to black. This is because in artificial light midnight blue looks black, whereas black often shows a greenish tinge.
White dinner jackets are common in warm climates, and in the summer in some temperate countries. The British Isles are not considered warm enough for white dinner jackets to be acceptable, even in the summer. In the United States and Canada white dinner jackets may be worn from mid-April through to Labor Day. The wearing of white dinner jackets in Europe and temperate climates is frowned uopn in the United Kingdom; and many maintain they are appropriate only in India, the Carribean, and in the former south east Asian colonies.
The waistcoat or cummerbund and trousers
It is common to wear either a black waistcoat (vest) or cummerbund (not both) with a single-breasted dinner jacket. Waistcoats should be low-cut, and are often made in the same material as the lapels of the jacket. Cummerbunds are worn with the pleats facing up.
White waistcoats, as worn with white tie, used to be said to be an alternative to the black waistcoat, but are almost never seen.
Trousers (pants) worn with a dinner jacket, being formal, should not have turn-ups (cuffs) or belt loops. It is usual to wear them with braces (suspenders)
The silk braid or ribbon down the edge of the trouser legs is usually confined to one stripe, two being reserved for white tie.
The shirt and tie
A white cotton or linen shirt is conventional, though shirts in off-white or in silk can sometimes be seen. The shirt fronts are usually cotton marcella (as in white tie) or pleated.
Prior to the Second World War, stiff shirts and separate wing collars were usual. Nowadays most people wear soft shirt fronts, with attached turn-down collars. In the United Kingdom semi-stiff and non-detachable wing collars are frowned upon, as opposed to detachable stiff wing collars, though despite this they have become popular in recent years.
The shirt is usually fastened with shirt studs in silver, platinum or gold, and the cuffs with matching cufflinks. Soft dress shirts have French cuffs, while stiff shirts (as are still worn with white tie) have single cuffs.
Bow ties are usually made of silk barathea or satin. It is considered poor form to wear a pre-tied bow tie, particularly when the hook and buckle are in plain view.
Shoes and socks
Shoes should be formal black leather lace-up shoes, preferably in patent leather. An alternative, rarely seen, are patent-leather pumps with a ribbed silk bow, as is worn with white tie.
Socks should preferably be silk.
A white handkerchief (cotton, linen or silk) may be worn in the top pocket of the dinner jacket, and a white flower in the buttonhole, if there is one. In Britain, however, the wearing of a handkerchief in the top pocket is generally considered bad form, but is unlikely to cause comment these days. In cold weather a dark blue or black overcoat, gloves and a white scarf may be worn for travelling, but must be removed at the function.
There is no standard headgear for black tie, but if an overcoat is worn a hat such as a black homburg or trilby may be worn, and in summer a straw boater is considered acceptable.
In the past few decades it has become acceptable to wear state decorations with black tie at formal state events. In such cases only one neck ribbon and one breast star are worn, with miniature medals.
Coloured and patterned bow ties, shirt-sleeves and backs, waistcoats and cummerbunds are widespread at parties, but are not appropriate for more formal occasions. Coloured or patterned smoking jackets may be appropriate at private functions but are not appropriate at formal occasions.
Wearing a white bow tie with a dinner jacket is considered to be a grave solecism.
In the United States, the wearing of a collarless shirt without a bow tie, closed with a stud or banded, is a fashion of recent years.
Corresponding forms of dress
In the armed forces, officers and non-commissioned officers normally wear mess uniforms which correspond to evening dress or black tie. These vary according to the regiment or corps, but usually involve a short Eton-style jacket that comes to the waist. Some forms include white shirts, black bow ties and low-cut waistcoats, while others have high collars that fasten around the neck and correspondingly high waistcoats. They are usually brightly coloured (in the British Army scarlet is the most common colour) and ornamented with gold lace and buttons, corresponding to the regiment or corps.
In the Royal Navy there is a distinction between "mess dress", which is worn at white tie events, and "mess undress", which is worn at black tie events. Both are worn with a black bow tie, however mess dress is worn with a white waistcoat instead of the usual blue, and may be worn with a stiff shirt and wing collar. The stiff shirt and wing collar were abolished for mess undress in the 1960s, and were made optional for mess dress in the 1990s.
Scottish dress is often worn at black and white tie events, especially at Scottish reels and ceilidhs. The black tie version is much more common, even at white tie events.
The traditional black tie version of Highland dress consists of:
- Black jacket - Prince Charlie, Montrose, Sheriffmuir and Argyll jackets are suitable
- Black waistcoat
- White shirt
- Black bow tie
- Black Ghillie brogues
- White kilt hose
(The white tie equivalent has the wearer with either a white bow tie or a lace jabot over a collarless shirt. Prince Charlie, Sheriffmuir and Montrose jackets are suitable, but Argyll jackets are not seen as formal enough.)
Other colours for both the Prince Charlie jacket, and the hose are often seen.
The Lowland version of black tie is a variation on normal black tie, with trews worn with a normal dinner jacket or Prince Charlie jacket. Trews are also often worn during the summer and in a warm clime.
When it is worn
In the United Kingdom black tie is only properly worn in the evening, i.e. after 6 p.m.. However, in some other places such as the United States, it has become common to wear black tie at four o'clock weddings and evening weddings. At Harvard in the 1960s, young men in dinner jackets seen during the late afternoon hastening towards an event would be hailed by ironic cries of "Check, please!"
Black tie is worn at many private and public dinners, dances, and parties, and it would be impossible to draw up a comprehensive list. At the most formal end it has taken over from white tie at many occasions where the latter would formerly have been worn, e.g. by orchestra conductors. In the United States, it commonly appears at proms and is worn by men at weddings even during the day.