Everything You Need To Know About Tuxedos & Black Tie

Men’s eveningwear can be a minefield. If you’re looking for a tuxedo, dinner jacket or evening suit for your next event or wedding, let us be your guide. 

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While the days of donning a black tie suit for dinner every night are long gone, there are still those special occasions when a man will find himself in need of a tuxedo. But the rarity of black tie nowadays means that it can often be a perplexing dress code to decipher. And shopping for a designer tuxedo or dinner suit isn’t quite the same as shopping for men’s designer suits or everyday tailored suits. Here, we untangle the traditional black tie dress code for men.

When To Wear Black Tie?

The short answer to this question is, unsurprisingly, when the invite tells you to. There was once a time when those in high society would instinctively know what men’s evening wear rules to follow but decoding black tie dress codes nowadays can be a little complex, particularly now it’s become less common.

You might, for example, find yourself on the receiving end of an invite that specifies “black tie optional”, which essentially translates to “wear a tuxedo if you can, but a dark suit is acceptable if you’re unable to.” Weddings, New Year’s Eve events and awards ceremonies are the most typical scenarios that would call for a tux, evening suits or dinner suits these days – but if you’re ever in doubt, there’s no harm in politely asking when you RSVP.

Black Tie vs White Tie Dress Code

White tie is one of those things that belongs, almost, to the past. It may once have been commonplace and the standard evening suit dress for the upper echelons of society, but these days, outside of galas, balls and state and royal dinners, it’s very rare you’ll find it on your event invitation. According to Debrett’s, for men, white tie consists of a single-breasted tailed jacket (usually abbreviated to ‘tails’) worn open over a white waistcoat, white dress shirt and slim white bow tie. For women, floor length dresses and gloves are prescribed. Black tie, then, could be likened to its less formal cousin.

Tuxedos vs Suits

Black tie, for the most part, will require a tuxedo (the top half of which is otherwise known as a dinner jacket) rather than your run-of-the-mill suit. A men’s designer tuxedo (otherwise known as a dinner suit) differs from a classic tailored suit in a few key respects, although, as with all style dictums, there are exceptions. 

Firstly, a tuxedo usually has shawl or peak lapels, whereas a typical business suit jacket tends to have notch lapels. Similarly, while office-ready tailored suits usually have a vent or two in the back, tuxedos tend to have a single vent to create a clean-lined silhouette. You’ll also notice that pockets on a tuxedo jacket tend to be welt or jetted pockets, rather than the traditional flap pockets you find on everyday tailoring. Tuxedo trousers differ too from regular formal trousers, and often feature single satin or grosgrain side-stripes running along the outside seam – a remnant of military dress from a bygone era.

Black Tie Essentials

While a “black-tie optional” evening dress code would permit a standard dark suit, stricter black tie dress codes necessitate tuxedos or dinner suits (or, in some cases, a smoking jacket – more on this later). Other essentials include dress or designer tuxedo trousers, which are usually black and adorned with satin or grosgrain side stripes, a black bow tie, formal dress shoes and a white dress shirt.

Types of Tuxedo Jackets & Lapels

There’s a misconception that, given the myriad rules that surround black tie suits, that all tuxedo jackets are one-size-fits-all. But even classic dinner jackets for men feature variations. The most obvious being the different lapel options available for designer tuxedos: namely, a peak lapel or a shawl lapel. 

The former, defined by its high lapel that points towards the shoulder, has a broadening effect on the frame and is commonplace on double-breasted tailoring. On the other hand, a shawl lapel, which gently curves, can help create a more streamlined look. More often than not, you’ll find single-breasted tuxedos have a low one button closure which shows considerably more of the shirt than double-breasted varieties.

What Colour Tuxedo?

The clue is, naturally, in the name here, with the strictest of black-tie dress codes dictating that your tuxedo be black. But there has been a recent trend towards a particularly deep shade of navy, dubbed midnight blue. Midnight-bluedesigner tuxedos are popular because they appear almost black, but the tone brings out the richness of the fabric – plus, they photograph especially well, which makes them an excellent choice for weddings. 

That being said, more directional and bolder colour choices are also becoming increasingly common, especially on the red carpet and in celebrity circles. Think of the sorts of things you’ve seen donned at the BAFTAs, Grammys or Golden Globes in recent years: everything from tartan to neon has been spotted. Whether you opt for a more statement option will depend on both the event in question and your personal sense of style.

What Is A Smoking Jacket?

The history of the smoking jacket is directly related to that of the tuxedo: in fact, the dinner jacket as we know it today evolved from the smoking jacket, which was invented as a cover-up to protect clothing when men retired to smoke after dinner.

Today, smoking jackets come in all sorts of decorative fabrics – including jacquard or even cashmere – but velvet is the most traditional. You’ll often see it in jewel-toned or vivid colours and, like tuxedos, can be tailored with either a shawl or a peak lapel, usually in a contrasting fabric and colour.

What Shirt For Black Tie?

Otherwise known as a dress shirt, a black-tie shirt differs from your standard button-down or everyday plain white shirt in a few respects. Firstly, it will always be white. Secondly, it will usually have a Marcella (a textured fabric akin to piqué) or pleated bib front. Thirdly, it has a winged collar to accommodate a bow tie. And lastly, it’ll feature double cuffs, the sort that are affixed with cufflinks rather than buttons. On that subject, you may also want to fasten your shirt with shirt studs (as opposed to buttons) for a more formal look.

What Tie For Black Tie?

While there has been a marked rise in classic suit neckties being worn with tuxedos – see, for example, red carpet black tie looks – purists will insist a bow tie is the only choice for black tie. In terms of colour, a black bow tie is the preferred option, with a few exceptions:(but never white, unless you want to look like you’ve misread the dress code. Whether you opt for a pre-tied bow tie or one you tie yourself, is entirely up to you (and how dextrous you are).

Black Tie Shoes      

To keep them in tip top shape for years to come, black tie shoes (sometimes called dress shoes) should be reserved for best. No, your regular black work shoes won’t cut it here. If you’re keeping things classic, there’s really only two options when it comes to the correct black-tie shoes: Oxfords (with or without a cap toe) or slippers, the latter of which was popularised in the early 1800s by Prince Albert and sometimes are referred to by his name. The former is the most formal iteration of smart shoes, differentiated from Derby shoes by its closed lacing system. 

In terms of material, the most traditional (and perhaps most suave, too) choice is patent black leather, but nowadays, well-polished black leather is more than acceptable. If you’re opting for slippers, you could consider velvet if you’re feeling especially dapper – they’ll look excellent with a smoking jacket in particular.

Black Tie Cufflinks & Cummerbunds

There’s really only one rule when it comes to black tie cufflinks: match your metals. This means that your watch, shirt studs, cufflinks jewellery and any other shiny accompaniments are made of all gold- or all silver-toned metal to avoid clashing. You should also check that the shirt you’re wearing has ‘double cuffs’ to accommodate cufflinks: regular buttoned cuffs will look, for want of a better word, ridiculous, if you attempt to introduce a pair of cufflinks to proceedings. One last word of advice: it’d be wise to steer clear of novelty options, too, if the black-tie event you’re attending is especially formal. 

For the sake of maintaining a slick silhouette and clean lines, a belt is a big no no when it comes to traditional men’s black tie suits, which is where the cummerbund comes in. It’s not, however, a mandatory part of the dress code and they’ve fallen out of favour in recent times, in part for comfort reasons. Essentially it comes down to personal preference: if you like the look of one, ensure the cummerbund fits securely but not tightly.

Black Tie Accessories

When it comes to selecting accessories for black tie suits, less is definitely more: after all, if you’ve gone to the trouble of picking out the perfect one, your tuxedo is really the thing that should do the talking here. That being said, a few carefully chosen smart pieces can really elevate an evening look. If your suit is plain, consider adding a patterned silk scarf or pocket square. As for socks, if you’re a traditionalist, the wisest option is to choose a pair that matches the colour of your tuxedo trousers – this will ensure you keep a clean silhouette and create a leg-lengthening, height-boosting effect.

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Published: 03.23

Words: Molly Isabella Smith

Photography: Ollie Thompson