As we sail into the so-called ‘Roaring 20s’, there has never been a better time to consolidate your wardrobe staples for all of the seasonal events to come — and what better place to start than in the realm of the perpetually perplexing black tie dress code?
Fortunately, this historic and time-honoured formal dress code is one of the most prescriptive in men’s fashion (unlike cocktail) meaning you can master it relatively quickly and settle into the much more enjoyable task of wearing it at your next black tie event.
Every year, the invitation which reads “dress code: black tie” is bound to find its way into your letterbox. This should be cause for relief, rather than consternation; as black tie events invariably call for strict dos and don’t that leave very little room for individual misinterpretation.
Below, we delve into the intricacies of this historically antecedent style of formalwear: touching on a range of pertinent subjects including its history; where you’re most likely to wear it; key pieces that together compose black tie attire; and whether, in 2024, it is encumbered by trends.
- The History Of The Black Tie Dress Code
- Where You’ll Attend A Black Tie Event This Year
- Why Rent, When You Can Buy?
- The Key Pieces To Consider
- Black Tie Dress Trends For 2024
The History Of The Black Tie Dress Code
It’s suggested that the first iteration of the black tie dress code, as we know it today, dates back to Britain during the early 19th century. To simplify the onerous formality of classic white tie attire (characterised by jackets with a short front and ‘tails’ at the rear) King Edward VII famously swapped his tails for a blue silk smoking jacket with matching trousers — created for him in 1865 by still extant Savile Row tailors Henry Poole & Co.
Thereafter, the upper echelons of British and American society would go on to replicate this dress code at formal occasions; with the style being referred to as ‘black tie’ in Britain and the Anglo-Celtic diaspora; and the ‘tuxedo’ in North America. (Historians have stated that the latter moniker was inspired by the 19th-century Tuxedo Club in New York.)
Where You’ll Attend A Black Tie Event This Year
Whether in July or as we inch ever closer to Christmas in the summer, there’s no doubt that invitations to attend splashy formal dos will present themselves throughout the year: be it your best friend’s wedding on the shores of Lake Como; a year-end dinner at the ritziest restaurant in town; or an awards ceremony in some spectacular harbourfront location.
According to Aidan Chappell, Brisbane-based co-owner of The Cloakroom:
“Black tie events are invariably celebratory occasions — they’re upbeat and fun — so it’s hard not to enjoy oneself. From a sartorial standpoint, they represent a great opportunity to dress in a way that you wouldn’t normally throughout the week.”
Bearing this in mind, the sort of situations that we’d classify as formal black tie events almost always have a festive connotation: including weddings; New Year’s Eve; company Christmas parties; charity/awards season galas; film premieres et cetera.
Why Rent, When You Can Buy?
Owing to their infrequent usage, it’s common for men to rent out a dinner suit for their chosen black tie occasion. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that: but assuming you’re able to average 3-5 appearances in a dinner jacket per year (e.g. black tie wedding attire) there’s a lot more joy to be had in owning your own ensemble.
The best part? Advances in global manufacturing standards and economies of scale mean you don’t necessarily even have to fork out four figures for a solid-to-good black tie rig. Brands with a local Aussie presence like Suitsupply and M.J. Bale offer a range of tuxedos (sans accessories) for around $1,100.
Assuming that you’d like to spruik for something more substantial — and in so doing, decide to go the made-to-measure route — it’s important to leave yourself 6-8 weeks to account for your first fitting and any logistical delays. Similarly, if you manage to nab a deal online: consider shipping times to Australia and how long you’ll need to turn around your alterations (most places will quote 1-2 weeks).
The Key Pieces To Consider
In terms of executing this dress code to the best of your ability, it’s imperative to understand the statement pieces that make up the black tie ‘look’:
The Dinner Suit (Jacket & Trousers)
The most important pieces to consider are a dinner jacket and matching trousers, which should do just that: match.
Traditionally, the jacket should feature one of two different lapel types — a shawl or a peak — and while notch lapels (i.e. the squared-off style you’ll find on most everyday suits) are in certain cases available, they are generally frowned upon in the context of evening dress.
In addition, the facings of your shawl or peak lapel should be made in grosgrain or satin silk (a good rule of thumb is to match the material of your bowtie to what’s on your lapels).
In the case of single-breasted jackets, we recommend you look for a single-button — or, at most, two-button — closure; whereas all of the ancillary details should be kept as simple as possible:
- Boatshed (barchetta) breast pocket
- 2 or 3-button cuffs
- Ventless or double-vented back
- Jetted pockets
- Covered buttons
“Black tie is now, more than ever, an opportunity to embrace the classical roots of tailoring and abide by tradition. There’s still room for expression in the form of a velvet or paisley jacket or one that is rich in colour, like midnight blue — so long as it’s cut within the above stylistic parameters.”Aidan Chappell (The Cloakroom)
The Dress Shirt
At a pinch, you can get away with wearing any collared white dress shirt that features a covered placket. However, for those who demand historical accuracy in their black tie outfit, we strongly suggest you keep the following details in mind:
- Wing or turndown collar with a medium spread
- A pleated ‘Marcella’ or plain front. If not studded, the buttons on the placket shouldn’t be visible
- ‘French’ cuffs that are secured using metal/fabric cufflinks
Accessories To Elevate Your Outfit
Finish with a hand-tied black bow tie in silk that matches your lapels. Although easier said than done, there is a deluge of excellent step-by-step ‘how to’ videos online: enabling you to wear a style of neckwear that is a little more rakish and lively than your average clip-on.
On top of the bow tie, one of the traditional signifiers of the black tie dress code is the cummerbund. A silken sash that was co-opted from sepoy infantrymen serving under British military officers in colonial India, it both covers the waist and has a ‘smoothing’ visual effect. A number of team members in our office wear them during events season, with some of the best we’ve trialled are made by British haberdasher Drake’s.
Finally, unless your trousers have been made with side adjusters — an extremely common practice in the RTW space — there’s a good chance you’ll be able to wear them with suspenders.
Although a good pair of dinner trousers shouldn’t rely on braces to drape properly, they’re a natty addition that (along with your cummerbund) really hammer home the sense of occasion that always accompanies black tie dressing. Albert Thurston makes some very good ones.
Beyond the abovementioned, you might also want to consider the following accessories:
- A white linen pocket square
- A simple, time-only dress watch (ideally in a metal that matches your cufflinks)
- A signet ring
The Shoes – Patent or Pumps?
For an extremely Astaire-esque flourish to your black tie outfit, consider opting for a pair of lace-up oxfords or ‘opera’ pumps in black patent leather.
Alternatively, for something slightly more louche (which will be an effective foil to seasonal staples like a white dinner jacket) swap the patent oxfords out for a suede, plain-apron loafer.
Black Tie Dress Trends For 2024
Although the timeless style of black tie has made it notably more impervious to modern fashion trends than, say for instance, suiting in general; the more forgiving and socially varied dynamic of the times we’re living in means that this strict dress code may be deviated from in some interesting — dare we even say successful — ways.
Black Tie Optional
A nebulous term that now accompanies the invitations to many black tie events, the ‘optional’ suffix allows guests to clamber into their best version of formal cocktail dress.
In these sorts of ‘black tie optional’ situations, our recommendation is to tend towards formal dress codes that would be appropriate for a range of serious daytime occasions. A dark suit, worn with calf leather loafers and a silk grenadine tie is always a safe bet (though you’d be forgiven for wondering how different, if at all, this is to cocktail dressing).
‘Creative’ Black Tie
A kind of happy medium between tradition and modernity, ‘creative’ black tie (which we’re forecasting we’ll see much more of in 2024) takes the classic tuxedo silhouette and deconstructs it with the aid of interesting new colour and materials.
Popular with international labels ranging from Saman Amal to The Anthology, the goal here is to shear away some of black tie’s stuffy connotations — by making the smallest of substitutions.
It sounds insane: but a double-breasted jacket with uncovered, mother-of-pearl buttons? Technically, that’s creative black tie. The same goes for wearing a cashmere sweater instead of a wing collar shirt. Or, in the unmistakable style of Ralph Lauren, a tuxedo in jewel tones — complete with embroidered slippers.
Steve Calder, of local men’s sportswear specialist Informale, describes the thrust of ‘creative’ black tie best:
“50-odd years ago, if you weren’t wearing a tuxedo and opera pumps, you’d likely be denied entry to whatever event you were attending. These days, you can get away with adding colour and pattern — making things your own.”
The State Of Black Tie Dressing In 2024
Although any deviation from the traditional black tie dress code is considered blasphemy by traditionalists; these men are (to put things very bluntly) in a small and ever-shrinking minority.
The casual evolution that is afoot in sartorial clothing more generally right now appears to have started creeping into the realm of black tie and to be honest: we’re a bit surprised that the style has remained siloed off from the rest of fashion’s ecosystem for quite so long.
While you may get some stern looks from those who have the (dis)pleasure of attending black tie occasions on the regular; in the 21st century, it would be disingenuous to act as if you’ve committed an egregious sin by wearing a dinner suit with a knitted polo or one-piece-collar shirt.
Ultimately, after learning the rules (and learn them you should, because what they provide is a framework) it’s up to you how closely you follow them. As always: context is king.