Fashion / Style

Decoding the complex dress code that is black tie

It has been quite some time since we were treated to what is now the luxury of attending a black tie event. Full length gowns trawling across dance floors; the sneaky glimpse of a sparkling stiletto from underneath a table cloth. Jewels on jewels on jewels. We want it all.

Regardless of the excitement that accompanies such an event, formal dressing of this nature has always been a sticky spot. While certainly not as formal as white tie and not as casual as cocktail, the black tie dress code has always allowed for an air of uncertainty.

In preparation for the moment when it (fingers crossed) comes, we're revisiting the unspoken rules and mood of black tie dressing below.


What does black tie actually mean?

The concept of black tie finds its roots in the Edwardian era; denoting an event where guests would dress smartly for dinner and drinks functions with a start time later than 6pm. It presented an opportunity for royals and members of the upper class to still dress respectfully, without the formalities of a tailcoat or a heavy gown. It should be noted, that although at its core, black tie essentially means, 'formal', it is not actually the most formal of all the dress codes.

Given that we no longer live in the early 20th century, black tie has taken on a new breadth of interpretations. It's always best to check-in with your host to gauge what level of formality they expect their guests to adhere to first.


Should I wear a floor length dress?

Historically, black tie for women has always translated to 'floor-length' gowns. This rule of thumb has stuck due to most black tie events taking place during the evening, which has cemented a pavement-grazing gown as the appropriate option. However, under new 21st century standards, appropriate black tie-hemlines are heavily contested. Within reason of course, shorter dress lengths are also acceptable. If you know that the event errs on the side of casual, a cocktail dress; particularly of the Alexander McQueen or Khaite variety, will do just nicely.

If you do opt for a shorter length, look to couture gowns of the 1950s; where nipped waists and full skirts reigned supreme. Alternatively if you're an avid follower of dress codes, add some intrigue to a full-length gown by opting for a slight train or a subtle cut-out.

With the slight shift in the dress code, black tie no longer restricts you to dress-wearing either. A Saint Laurent-esque tuxedo with a satin lapel is completely above board; as is a two-piece number of a formal nature. Whatever you choose, just make sure it makes you feel like a queen or king. It's your world, we're just living it in.


What fabrics are appropriate for black tie?

Even if you do want to get a little bit more adventurous with your dress length, its best to still stick to black tie-appropriate fabrics. Keeping in mind that black tie events are almost exclusively held in the evening, it's advised to keep to luxurious and opulent fabrics such as silks, velvets, satin, taffeta, tulle, lace and chiffon. Every day or 'daytime' fabrics such as jersey, knit, cotton, corduroy, flannel, linen and denim are not the norm – but as with most things, execution is everything.


What shoes should I wear?

As for your footwear selection, the foolproof approach is one that is location-driven. Regardless of what the name might infer, black tie doesn't always mean 'carpeted ballroom' or 'grand hall'. You certainly don't want to get caught standing in the city's finest gardens for a night in grass-piercing stilettos. Similarly, just because your gown may be floor-length, don't neglect the sartorial impact of a glistening Manolo peeking out from underneath as you waltz onto the dance floor. Carrie Bradshaw knew its power and so should you.


Do women have to wear black?

Although it may seem like the obvious choice, there's no official obligation to wear black to formal events of this nature. Several of the most show-stopping gowns in fashion history marry colour and formality; case in point, Lauren Hutton in that rainbow Halston v-neck. Many designers at the forefront of evening wear regularly experiment with various shades and even prints. When we finally get the chance to return to our normal events calendar, you best believe we'll be opting for a maximalist, Christopher John Rogers vibrant gown complete with outsized train and all.

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