Why is a White-tie Different Than a Black-tie Affair?

This man is dressed in black-tie wear for a wedding.
This man is dressed in black-tie wear for a wedding. (Image: Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

The rules for formal dress for men arose in an earlier age, when men would dress in suits for almost every occasion. As a result, events specifying “white tie” or “black tie” attire can appear confusing to modern men, who rarely have to recognize the distinction. Traditionally, formal events are split into “white tie” and “black tie,” although in modern times dark suits are sometimes appropriate.

Black Tie

A black tie event signals the use of what most people now consider a tuxedo, also known as a dinner jacket. At one time, black tie was called "semi-formal," although few people use semi-formal to describe black tie attire anymore. For a black tie event, you should wear a black tuxedo jacket, matching black tuxedo trousers, a black bow tie, black socks and black patent leather shoes. You should also a formal white shirt with pleats in the front and black studs instead of buttons and black cuff links. Traditionally you should also include black suspenders and a black vest or black cummerbund. For a black tie event in the summer, you may wear a white tuxedo jacket instead, although all other attire remains the same. If you feel adventurous, you can wear a very dark, midnight blue jacket and trousers.

White Tie

White tie events are rare in modern times and signify a very formal event -- a state dinner at the White House, for example. For a white tie event, you switch out the tuxedo jacket for a black jacket with tails, known as an evening tailcoat or dress coat. Like black tie, you wear black trousers, black patent leather shoes and black socks. However, for white tie you wear a white vest, white bow tie and mother of pearl studs and cuff links. Traditionally you also wear white or gray gloves.

Black Tie Optional

Because so few men own tuxedos today, many black tie events are more accurately called black tie optional. For a black tie optional event, you have two options. The first is traditional black tie attire. In addition, you may wear a conservative black or dark charcoal suit with a dark conservative bow tie or necktie. You can switch out patent leather shoes for formal black leather shoes.


Semiformal attire generally calls for a dark suit, dress shirt, conservative necktie and black leather shoes. You may wear suspenders and a vest as well. However, many people use the term “semiformal” interchangeably with traditional business casual. This type of dress calls for a seasonal sport coat, dark in the winter and light in the summer. You may wear dark trousers or khakis. If the event is described as “business casual,” you may wear a polo shirt without a tie, although you should still wear a dress shirt and a tie for semiformal events.

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