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Feb, 26 2024

What to Wear Instead of a Tuxedo to Black-Tie Events

A bride and groom holding hands

You’ve received your wedding invitation, and you see the two words that you’ve been dreading – black tie. You knew this was coming. The couple always had a taste for the more formal side of things. But you’ve never felt comfortable in a tux, so you’re wondering what to wear instead of a tuxedo to black tie events.

Is it possible to ditch the tux and go for another option?

The good news is that it is. With this guide, you’ll discover what to do for a black-tie event if you’re skipping the tux while still exuding the classy aura for which black tie is famous.

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Understanding the Black-Tie Dress Code

A black-tie event incorporates a formality that typically goes beyond the suit-and-tie look you’d sport for other formal events. That description could leave you feeling worried – it suggests that you can’t go down the suit route if you’re invited to a black-tie wedding. But that description of black tie focuses solely on the traditional.

As George Zimmer explains. “While traditional black tie usually means you’ll seek out a tuxedo, the rules aren’t as rigid in 2024 as they would have been a few decades ago,” the company’s founder explains. “As long as you stick to formal attire rules – such as appropriate colors – you can pull off a suit at a black-tie event.”

That’s good news for anybody looking for alternatives to tuxedos for black-tie occasions because suits have several differences that may make them preferable. They’re more comfortable to wear, for one, as tuxedos have a certain “starchiness” to them that can make people who don’t usually dress formally feel uncomfortable. The trade-off is that suits are more versatile. That’s great in one respect – you get more options with suits than you do with tuxedos – it also means there’s a higher probability of choosing a suit that doesn’t fit the event.

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Incidentally, variety is more present in the black tie dress code for women. As Vogue points out, black tie for women generally translates to “long” and “elegant,” meaning an appropriate cocktail dress or a stunning floor sweeper should generally do the trick. For men who want to know what else can you wear beyond a tuxedo, things get a little trickier. But two options tend to work:

The Classic Black Suit

A man in a black suit and cowboy hat

Even if you’re moving away from the traditional black tuxedo, you can still approximate the look with a classic black suit. When combined with a white dress shirt, a black suit looks like a tuxedo at a glance, with only a closer inspection revealing that it’s different.

Still, you might want to dress it up a bit to make it more fitting for the occasion.

For instance, there’s nothing stopping you from wearing a bow tie with a classic black suit. As long as you know your way around a bow ties knots, you go a step closer to emulating the tuxedo look without actually wearing a tux. Sticking with black for other accessories, such as black patent leather shoes, further enhances the emulation, as does matching a pocket square to your tie or bow tie.

The key here is the fit – the suit needs to fit your body perfectly for you to pull off this look. An ill-fitting suit looks shoddy, which is the last thing you want at a black-tie event.

The Navy Suit Option

A navy suit may be considered one of the more unique attire choices for black tie functions. The clue is in the name – “black” tie. Navy, which is a dark shade of blue, seems to fly in the face of that requirement.

But it can work, the darker the blue the better. In fact, the Cannes Film Festival has a specific recommendation on this, stating that people who attend their black-tie showings can wear midnight blue – another dark blue shade – signifying that this look can work. That’s as long as you accessorize appropriately. Black shoes and a white shirt are musts if you go down the navy suit route. You’re already skirting the line of what’s acceptable for a black tie by choosing blue, so staying with traditional accessories helps to keep you just behind that line.

Black Tie Optional and Black Tie Preferred

Now that you know that there are substitutes for a tuxedo at formal events, the next question is when should you wear those substitutes? Some event holders may frown on you forgoing the tux if they have a specific idea of what black tie is in their minds. But you’ll generally be safe going with a classic black or navy blue suit if you see one of two terms on the invitation – black tie optional and black tie preferred.

While the two terms are near-synonymous, there is a slight difference between them.

Black tie optional” means you have some flexibility in your choice. A tuxedo is just an option, not a requirement, and you’ll likely find that many men choose not to wear one. With “black tie preferred,” you still have some flexibility. But the term suggests that the host would prefer you to wear a tuxedo if you have easy access to one. If not, you can wear a black suit, though it may not be the best wedding attire for male guests if black tie is preferred because you’ll likely find that most guests still wear a tux.

Either way, the terms suggest choices, meaning you’re able to choose a suit if that is preferable to you or if you can’t get your hands on a tuxedo.

Dinner Jackets and Creative Alternatives

Things get a little more complicated when you throw dinner jackets into the mix. Though similar to suit jackets, dinner jackets incorporate a material that’s typically present in tuxedo jackets – satin. A tuxedo jacket is a type of dinner jacket.

As such, dinner jackets are generally part of black-tie events. But even if you don’t want to wear the traditional tuxedo jacket, you still have options. For instance, a blue silk smoking jacket could be a good choice for the reception portion of a wedding, after the formalities of the ceremony itself, with the thicker materials of these jackets also offering warmth and a more distinguished look. Better yet, you get a creative alternative to a traditional tux while still having a jacket you can wear with the dress pants and shirts you would wear with a tuxedo.

The Importance of Accessories

A close up of a man fixing his cuff of his tux

Let’s say you’ve decided to wear a suit. You still feel a little insecure – you know many at the black tie event will be in tuxedos – so you want to know how to navigate black tie events without a tux.

Accessories are the key.

The accessories you choose can elevate a seemingly standard suit to the black-tie level by giving it an air of class that the suit wouldn’t carry without the additions. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pocket squares – Simple and subtle are the bywords for pocket squares during black tie events. Avoid patterns and overly bright colors, match your square to your tie or bow tie.
  • A wristwatch – Again, subtlety is key here, meaning a sleek watch with a thin leather strap will usually work better than one with metal links. Bonus points if you match the color of the strap to your shoes.
  • Cuff links – You can combine a nice dress shirt with a black or navy suit without raising any eyebrows. Attractive cufflinks – think simple geometric shapes with minimal patterning – add to the look.

It’s also worth considering throwing in some black silk pieces, especially if your suit doesn’t include any, as this material is typical of black-tie events. Your tie and pocket square could both be black silk, for example, which adds the tuxedo “sheen” even if the suit itself is closer to matte.

What Not to Wear

You have some idea of what to wear instead of a tuxedo to black tie events, so let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum – what you must avoid at all costs:

  • Lounge suits – A lounge suit is the type of suit you’d wear to the office. It’s fine for a business or business casual setting but doesn’t have the “dressy” effect you need to achieve at a black-tie event.
  • Anything casual – If in doubt, always err on the side of formality for a black-tie event. Obviously, t-shirts and jeans are out of the question. But even outfit choices that might work for semi-casual events, such as loafers, will feel out of place in a black-tie setting.
  • Anything revealing – This is less of a concern for men than it is for women, but it’s still something to factor into your choice. For instance, open-topped shoes absolutely won’t work for black tie because they show a little bit of skin.

The point is that you’re already bending the black-tie rules by wearing a suit, meaning you have to bring that suit closer to the black-tie look with your accessories. By wearing any of the things you’re not supposed to wear, you upset a delicate balance and push your suit firmly into semi-formal territory.

Outfit Ideas for Black Tie Events

By following the guidelines in this article, you’ll already have a solid idea of what you can wear to a black-tie event forming in your mind. Let’s get more specific with ideas for different types of events.

Black Tie Weddings

If in doubt, follow the groom’s lead for a wedding. But otherwise, a navy suit works well here, as long as you combine it with a white dress shirt – ideally featuring cufflinks – and some black satin accent pieces.

A Gala

Uniformity is a little less expected at a gala because there may be hundreds of people at the event and you’ll rarely, if ever, be the center of attention for the party. You could experiment with color a little more here, opting for lighter shades. Just don’t go full on “Dumb and Dumber” – Harry and Lloyd’s ostentatious outfits are even commented upon in that comedy film because of their bright pastel colors.

When to Rent or Buy

A man opening a garment bag

Once you’ve made your suit choice, you’re left with another decision – should you buy or rent your suit?

Buying comes with the advantage of reuse. If you have a versatile black suit, for instance, owning that suit means you can use it for future black-tie events, as well as other, more somber, events. How many such events you expect to attend will play into this decision because of the biggest con of buying a suit:

It costs more than renting.

When renting a suit, you pay a fraction of its cost to access it for a limited time. Add to that the ability to rent suits that would otherwise be out of your price range, and renting becomes a strong option if you’re not worried about keeping your suit around.

You Don’t Have to Go Tux to Go Black Tie

There you have it – your guide to non-tuxedo black tie attire. You’ve discovered that tuxedos – though often expected – aren’t essential at black-tie events. And with the suit options in this article, you can introduce some versatility into your black-tie look, which is an attractive prospect if you attend many events that call for this dress code.

All that’s left is to get your hands on a suit (or tux) for the occasion. Generation Tux can help with suit and tux rental you can complete from the comfort of your own couch. And with at-home fitting, along with free color swatches sent directly to your door, you’re sure to find the perfect suit for your next wedding or gala.


Can I wear a charcoal suit to a black-tie event?

Though you’re slightly nearing the line between acceptable and unacceptable with a charcoal suit due to the lighter nature of the shade, you should be able to pull one off at a black-tie event. Remember – accessories are key. Add a few silk accent pieces and you’ll create the shimmer people associate with a tux while being able to wear a charcoal suit.

Is a white tuxedo shirt acceptable with a black suit?

While there’s nothing stopping you from combining a tuxedo shirt with a suit, the combination does look out of place and a little sloppy. It’s clear the two pieces don’t match. Thus, it’s usually better to wear a nice white dress shirt.

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