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Oct, 6 2023

What’s the Difference Between Black Tie & Formal Attire?

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If you receive an invitation to a fancy event, the invitation may likely specify a formal or black tie dress code. This can cause a little confusion, as many people aren’t au fait with the specific difference between formal vs. black tie.

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In brief, formal attire is more of a general term, encompassing a wide range of outfit options. Black tie, meanwhile, is more specific, referring to black tuxedos with black bowties and classic white shirts. This guide will go into deeper detail, explaining exactly the difference between black tie and formal wear.

Understanding Dress Codes: The Basics

A man holding his jacket and leaning on a chair

From black tie to white tie dress code, there are many rules and standards around what people should or should not wear to certain events. Before we take a deeper look into the key differences separating black tie and formal wear, it’s important to understand the unique intricacies and purposes of dress codes.

The Essence of Dress Codes

The concept of dress codes goes back centuries. People have always appreciated the idea of dressing up in certain ways for specific events. The idea has been passed down through the ages and still holds a special role in modern society.

Whether it’s a wedding, funeral, grand gala, or some other special occasion, dress codes will often be enforced. They add to the occasion, making it look and feel more special and memorable, while also setting clear standards and rules for the guests to abide by.

Why Dress Codes Matter

Apart from giving events that uniquely special feeling, dress codes help establish a certain respect or reverence for the event in question. A wedding, for example, is a wonderful and magical occasion for those involved, and deserves to be treated as such.

By having guests dress up in beautiful or formal clothing, weddings and parties can instantly become more elegant, sophisticated, and remarkable. The whole venue or space takes on a new aura, and the very presence of so many suits, ties, dresses, and gowns can elevate the simplest events to more special and significant status.

Dress codes also help to set the tone of an event, with formal attire helping to establish a smart, respectful vibe. They also provide instructions and guidance for those who are unsure what to wear, as noted by Stanford Law School professor Richard Thompson Ford in The Cut:

“In the past, everyone might have known what to wear to a wedding... But now there are no norms, and you need to be told.”

Dissecting Formal Attire

A belt above a jacket with pins in it

Next, let’s take a deep dive into formal attire to see what exactly this term refers to and what makes up an authentic formal outfit.

Definition of Formal Attire

Formal wear or attire is a dress code commonly used for weddings, funerals, dinners, balls, and similar events.

For Men

For men, a typical formal outfit may include smart suits, dress shirts, ties, and dress shoes. A range of accessories may also be added to the ensemble, like a pocket square or set of cufflinks. Typically, dark colors are favored, like charcoal or navy suit jackets. However, other shades and tones may be used, provided the overall outfit meets the standard formal requirements.

For Women

For women, a standard formal outfit would consist of a dress. Both floor-length gowns and lighter cocktail dresses can fall into the formal category. Aside from dresses, blouses, dressy skirts, and dress pants are potential choices for females at formal events. In terms of footwear, heels or fancy flats may be worn, while accessories can include elegant jewelry and small clutch bags.

Variations in Formal Attire

There are various subcategories of formal dress, like business formal or wedding formal. Each variety can have distinctive characteristics. For example, a “business formal” event would typically require both men and women to wear suits of dark, simple colors. Meanwhile, “wedding formal” would focus more on dresses for women and a wider color palette.

Diving Into Black Tie

A man fixing his black tie

Let’s see what makes black tie a distinct and different concept to formal attire.

Definition of Black Tie

Black tie is a very specific dress code, often reserved for the most formal of occasions. It’s often employed at fancy and formal weddings, galas, dinners, proms, and balls. The history of black tie goes all the way back to the Regency period.

For Men

For men, the black tie dress code is quite clear and strict: outfits should consist of tuxedos with black bow ties, white shirts, and black dress shoes. Black is the most common color for a tuxedo jacket, although midnight blue is emerging as a modern alternative. In addition, as bridal stylist Jackie Avrumson explains in Martha Stewart:

“A tuxedo doesn’t necessarily have to be black… We are now seeing the groom in navy, maroon, green, and patterned tuxedo jackets, and they are being re-worn at their friends’ black-tie weddings.”

For Women

For women, black tie has a little more versatility. Ladies may choose to wear various evening gowns or fancy cocktail dresses at a black tie gathering, although longer and more formal gowns tend to be favored. High heels are the typical footwear of choice, with fine jewelry, shawls, and clutches as accessories.

The Black-Tie Optional Conundrum

Some event invites specify a black-tie optional dress code, which can be confusing. The term can have various interpretations, but is generally accepted to mean that tuxedos are preferred, but not mandatory. Formal suits are accepted, but darker colors are still the norm.

Side-by-Side Comparison: Formal vs. Black Tie

two tuxedos next to each other

Now, let’s see how formal vs black tie compare side-by-side.

Men’s Attire

For men, black tie means renting a tux or buying one. This dress code demands smart black jackets and bow ties, while a formal event gives you more freedom to wear a nice suit in a wider range of colors.

Women’s Attire

For women, black tie and formal aren’t too different, but longer and fancier gowns, along with high heels, are preferred for black tie. At formal events, it’s easier to get away with a cute cocktail dress and dress flats.

Level of Formality

Black tie is the more formal of the two. Formal wear still needs to be smart and elegant, but doesn’t have the same strict standards as black tie.

Common Scenarios and What to Wear

A man in a black tuxedo

Black tie and formal dress codes can apply to a range of events. Here are some examples, and guidance on what to wear for each one.


When dressing up for weddings, many people worry, asking questions like, “Do I need to wear a tie to a wedding?” In general, it’s important to pay close attention to the invite. If it says “black tie,” that means tuxedos and elegant dresses with appropriate ties only, so cocktail attire for men at a wedding won’t be suitable.

If it says formal, men can feel free to wear suits and women can opt for shorter cocktail dresses. If it has some other variation, which is quite common nowadays, like “festive formal” or “semi-formal,” you may have to consult with the bride, groom, or fellow guests for more details.

Formal Dinners vs. Black Tie Events

Formal dinners generally only require men to wear smart suits and women to wear dresses or other smart attire. Black-tie events, meanwhile, are stricter, with expectations of tuxedos and floor-length gowns.

Parties and Galas

For parties and galas, the nature of the occasion and style of the venue can impact the dress code. Grand balls and charity galas, for example, will usually have higher expectations of tuxedos and black-tie attire. Meanwhile, more casual parties should have softer, more relaxed dress code demands.

FAQs and Common Misconceptions

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Is formal the same as black tie?

Not quite. Both refer to formal, fancy attire, but the term “formal” is more general, giving guests a wider range of options to choose from. “Black tie” is more specific and generally the second most formal dress code (after white tie), and men must always wear tuxedos and bow ties to black tie events.

Can I wear a regular suit to a black tie event?

It’s not recommended to wear a standard suit to a black tie wedding or other event. The term “black tie” specifically refers to tuxedos, and hosts may be disappointed to see guests attend in any other kind of formal attire. You can, however, wear a suit if the dress code is listed as “black tie optional.”

Are there color restrictions for formal or black tie?

For black tie, it’s customary for men to wear black or midnight blue tuxedos, while women can wear any color except white or those close to white. Men can choose from a wider range of colors for formal events, but should still opt for darker tones, like navy, charcoal, or dark brown.


A box with a black tuxedo landed out

Even though they may seem similar at first glance, formal and black tie dress codes clearly have their own distinctive features and nuances. It’s vital to understand those differences, following the rules and traditions of each dress code as a sign of respect for the nature of the event in question.

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