The words ‘black tie’ strike equal amounts of excitement and fear within me. Excitement that I have the opportunity to dress up, fear that a. I have nothing to wear, and b. I’m going to get it completely wrong and stick out like a sore and inappropriately-dressed thumb.
The problem is that ‘black tie’ is quite broad. As Debretts puts it: ‘For ladies, a smart dress (such as a cocktail dress) is appropriate. It can be long or short, as long as it’s not too short. It need not be black.’Over the years the description has also become somewhat further muddied.
So, what does black tie really mean and what rules should we follow? Here are our expert tips for nailing the dress code…
Be aware that you have options
“It stems from the men’s outfit – a dinner jacket and a black tie, literally – and the idea is your meant to compliment that look,” explains Astrid Joss, fashion and beauty editor at Brides magazine. In terms of length, as Debretts explains, black tie can mean long, midi or short (though not too short) in length, so, unless your invite advises on a specific length within the black tie code, the choice is up to you.”I personally think you’ve got to go long,” says Joss, “but if you can’t wear long at least try and go below-the-knee or three-quarter (midi) length – keep the skirt full and think Dior 1950s, it’s a lot smarter and you can dress it up.”
For stylist Martha Ward, the specifications are less strict: “The thing I’m always called upon by my girlfriends is the anxiety over ‘black tie’ – the eternal question: What to wear? And it’s simple really: a nice dress. It could be slim line, it could be structured, it could be empire line, it could even be voluminous. It doesn’t matter as long as it looks ‘smart’.”Our top tips would be to avoid anything too tight and anything that falls more than an inch or so above the knee.
Don’t be afraid of colour
“The key is that it doesn’t have to be black,” says Ward. “I attended a black tie dinner recently in a hot pink Roksanda dress and was the only girl in colour, and that’s quite typical. And a huge oversight. Colour and print works too!”
Dress for your shape and size
“When choosing an evening dress for a black tie event always ensure you dress for your size and shape,” says Donna Stamp, womenswear buyer at John Lewis. “A long, flowing gown will generally look great on taller women, whilst petite women tend to suit a 50s prom dress or something more fitted that cuts off at the knee.”
What about a black tie wedding?
A wedding invite specifying a black tie dress code can easily leave you in a spin. Do the same guidelines apply? “Black tie is black tie, there’s absolutely no difference at a wedding,” says Joss.
However, there are some rules you should bear in mind: Should you wear a hat? “When it comes to a wedding, you do not wear a hat with a long dress. You have to balance out the look – so, if you’re covered up in a long dress you wouldn’t put something massive on your head as well. Fascinators can work, if you can get one that goes with your outfit, but try and keep it small. If you’re really in doubt, just do a nod to something on your head, like a glittery clip or hair slide.”
Can you wear black? “Yes, absolutely. I think that’s really stylish. But keep black seasonal – keep it in winter so don’t wear it in the summer and I’d say probably if it is more of an evening event. The only rule is don’t wear white, cream or ivory. You should never go there, long or short, especially long. I’ve seen people do it and it’s so unbelievably, jaw-droppingly wrong.”
Think about your accessories
“Don’t leave it to the night to think about your accessories and make-up as a pair of killer heels, sparkling necklace or bright red lip can transform any outfit,” says Stamp.