"Black Tie", "Black Tie Required"
The appearance of Black Tie on an invitation indicates unequivocally that the host expects tuxedos to be worn. Black Tie Required or Black Tie Only means the same thing but can come across as heavy-handed. Hosts should avoid the latter unless they are certain that there will be guests too naïve or inconsiderate to infer the mandatory nature of the former.
There will likely be those few guests who will wrongly interpret Black Tie to simply mean "formal" and arrive in whatever they feel appropriately dressy. A gracious host will excuse the appearance of the uninformed among them, viewing the transgression as a valuable learning experience for these guests. As for the willfully inconsiderate, the host’s congeniality need last only as long as the evening.
Wear proper black tie or send your regrets. It’s that simple.
Hosts and organizers do not specify this dress code because they want you showing up in a black suit. Rather, they have put a tremendous amount of effort into making the evening exceptional and are relying on you to respect the unique elegance and traditional uniformity that black tie so brilliantly imparts. Yet there always seem to be those men who feel the party is all about them and they can dress as they please. “Some guys,” observed The National Post, “especially younger fellows who feel they’re really successful, take pride in flouting dress codes and showing up in business suits, often not dark, and without a tie . . . Perhaps kids think it’s too much trouble to rent or buy a black tie. Grow up or don’t show up.”
And if you’re tempted to make an ironic statement, carefully consider the advice of Details Men's Style Manual: “Don’t try to bring back lost styles. You might think you’re sending up the self-serious but you’re really just being rude.”
"Black Tie Preferred", "Black Tie Requested"
This terminology is used by those who want to host a very formal party but do not want to exclude guests that cannot afford a tuxedo.
Invited guests genuinely unable to meet the expense of buying or even renting a dinner jacket may wear a dark suit and tie instead. Guests that own or can easily afford a dinner jacket but cannot be bothered to wear one should politely decline the invitation. To do otherwise is boorish as it tells the organizers in no uncertain terms that their preferences are irrelevant.
"Black Tie Optional"
Black Tie Optional (or Black Tie Invited) allows hosts to suggest that men wear tuxedos but not to insist on it. This code is often employed in the context of large gatherings of civic or business groups, such as a dinner sponsored by a chamber of commerce.
The reality, though, is that this dress code is basically the formal equivalent of “business casual”: an attempt to please everyone that ultimately benefits no-one. As Canadian fashion columnist Russell Smith explains in Men’s Style, it is frequently a cop-out employed by insecure hosts:
It means that the planners of the party began by envisioning a glittering formal affair, with neatly groomed men in stark black and white as sober backdrops for the dramatic colour and flashes of flesh of the women. And so they wrote “Black Tie” on the invitations – and then immediately had doubts . . . What if we are excluding those without resources to own a dinner jacket? What if we are insulting the men with beards and Jethro Tull albums who don’t believe in such elitist dress and who may refuse on principle to come to such a stuffy affair?
Consequently, these hesitant hosts deprive men of the reassurance and clarity they seek from a precise dress code, forcing them instead to partake in a no-win guessing game. If the large majority of men decide to wear dinner jackets then the minority who dress in suits may appear inconsiderate and classless. Conversely, if the majority shows up in suits then the minority will likely feel put out.
Smith advises party planners that such anxieties are illogical. Firstly, no guest in this day and age will honestly expect to be barred from a Black Tie party if he can only afford a dark suit. Secondly, the “optional” aspect will be gleefully seized upon by the Jethro Tull brigade (described by Smith “rock music critics or Canadian novelists”) as permission to show up in their comfy sweaters thus guaranteeing a motley party instead of the swank affair envisioned by the host. As for the sensitive men who feel that owning a dinner jacket would be vaguely decadent? “Well, if they are opposed to decadent glamour," says Smith, "then they shouldn’t want to attend the party at all.”
Guests faced with the frustrating dilemma posed by tepid hosts that can't decide between the standard "Black Tie" and "Business Attire" codes should contact the organizers to find out how they expect their guests will actually dress. If this information is not available then experts offer a number of choices that are perfectly kosher:
if a man enjoys any opportunity to wear his tuxedo he should do so (this was Frank Sinatra’s preferred solution to the "optional" conundrum)
if a man fears being mistaken for the wait staff he should opt for a dark suit, white dress shirt, conservative tie, dress socks to match the suit and well-shined calfskin dress shoes
if a man refuses to play this no-win guessing game he should steer clear of the event altogether
"Creative Black Tie"
This designation is defined by Emily Post’s Etiquette as a “tuxedo combined with trendy or whimsical items” (usually related to the party’s theme) which most experts suggest be limited to the shirt, tie or accessories. GQ’s Style Guy describes it as “Dressing like the fashion victims you see on the Oscars. Tuxedos with black shirts. Tuxedos with no ties. Tuxedos with bolo ties.”
However, the details are largely irrelevant because the code should be avoided by hosts out of consideration for their guests. As Russell Smith points out, “If the words ‘black-tie optional’ on an invitation hit a panic button for most men, the words ‘creative black tie’ are even worse. Who would want to go to a party, unless it’s a fancy dress ball, to be judged by his costume?”
It appears that party planners are getting the message judging by a 2008 Wall Street Journal article titled “Uncreative Black Tie Please” which reported on a backlash brewing against “goofy” dress codes. It quotes a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute as saying that “The range of options can often be more frustrating rather than helpful for the invited” and that good manners require a host to make guests feel comfortable, not insecure. A Fort Lauderdale event planner who learned her lesson the hard way tells the newspaper “I would rather throw a party and receive 25 calls after, saying ‘What a great party that was,’ than [get] 25 calls beforehand asking, ‘What does this mean?’”
The moral of the story: leave the Black Tie code to its intended purpose of providing clarity, uniformity and sophistication.
Guests should be equally leery of this unfortunate by-product of 1980s glitterati. The expert consensus is that only those men who are well versed in sartorial style and the fundamentals of proper black tie can ascertain what type of ensemble successfully qualifies for this category. In the hands of the uneducated it can all too easily be used to degrade the venerable dinner jacket into a sophomoric gimmick. As Smith so succinctly puts it, “There is nothing more pathetic than a failed flamboyant.” Black-tie aficionados should instead heed the advice of A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up which reminds us that when confronted with such “clever” dress codes as Creative Black Tie, “a gentleman has every right to dress as traditionally as he chooses.”
Whether you wear a tuxedo out of necessity or out of choice, there are a substantial number of options available to you regarding the details of your dinner suit. Experienced guests will recognize that not all black-tie events are created equal and will therefore look to each occasion’s level of formality for clues as to which sartorial variations are appropriate.
The most formal types of black-tie affairs include prestigious soirees such as state dinners, business awards and formal evening weddings. In such circumstances refined guests will display their respect for their hosts by choosing attire that meets the requirements of proper black tie. Better yet, they will opt for classic black tie, the highest possible standard for the dinner jacket.
Black-tie parties and celebrations, on the other hand, offer more latitude. Swank invitation-only gala dinners and upscale cultural fetes, for example, still suggest a preference for proper black tie but are also appropriate opportunities for personalizing your look with classic alternatives. Black Tie Optional affairs, semi-private black-tie parties (such as a New Year’s Eve celebration at a night club), and public events with an unwritten black-tie tradition (such as opening nights at the theater or opera) offer the greatest amount of leeway. Here guests may opt for contemporary variations by taking a few liberties with the institution's traditions while still respecting its overall form and function. Similarly, formal nights on elegant transatlantic crossings suggest more conservative choices than do those on budget-priced Caribbean cruises.