Is black tie ever really optional?


Black tie optional ... or mandatory?“Black tie optional … or mandatory?BrandXPictures/Thinkstock

It showed up in your mailbox early one spring evening, printed on heavy cream paper, fancily embossed with details and enclosed in an envelope painstakingly addressed by a professional calligrapher.

From the envelope alone, it’s obvious this piece of mail isn’t your average dental bill. In fact, it’s the invitation to your cousin’s upcoming country club wedding and reception. You scan the details so you can make an informed RSVP decision. Both the date and time fit nicely into your schedule, you know where the venue is, and you’ve even been granted the option of bringing a guest to meet your extended family.

Suddenly, you spy those three little words that wreak havoc on the hearts of men and women everywhere: "black tie optional." Your heart sinks. Is the standard suit/tie combo OK for this affair, or is a tux really necessary? Interpreting black tie isn’t a whole lot easier for women, either.

What’s a wedding guest to do with such ambivalent fashion directives? Keep reading for tips on how to interpret the phrase if such an event looms on your social horizon.

Interpretation No. 1: Yes, It Really Is Optional

Worried that you’ll be the only guy (or woman on the arm of said guy) at the event to show up in a run-of-the-mill suit and tie?

Don’t sweat it! Obviously, the bride wouldn’t have tacked "optional" on the end of the phrase if she didn’t mean it. If you’re worried about looking shabby next to other guests, do a bit of friendly reconnaissance to determine your wardrobe options. A quick phone call to your mother, aunt or even the couple in question is usually all you need to ease your mind about such questions. Especially if you’re friends with the groom, he’ll come clean about the bride’s expectations for attire.

If no one is offering specifics about wardrobe or they’re laughing off your concerns, it’s safe to say that you can show up in something other than a tux. According to wedding etiquette experts, men can sport a conservative, dark suit and tie and still meet expectations. Women can opt for a nice dress (read: nothing too short) or even a skirt and top combo.

A note to couples: Be certain to get your ducks in a row ahead of time. A woman who dresses up in an evening gown for the event will be pretty put out if her date wears much more casual attire.

Dress Code Crash Course

White tie: This mega-formal event requires a tailcoat tuxedo jacket, white accessories and even gloves. Women should wear a floor-length gown.

Semiformal: Suits for guys, and dresses or skirts for women.

Casual: Khakis, button-down shirt and tie for men; casual dresses for ladies.

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Interpretation No. 2: We Meant "Mandatory"

The goal: to fit in seamlessly with the crowd, no matter how you interpret "black tie optional."“The goal: to fit in seamlessly with the crowd, no matter how you interpret "black tie optional."Allan Danahar/Thinkstock

Sure, it’s says "optional" on your invite, but you have it on good authority that the event is a mega-bucks affair that the governor is planning to attend. In such cases, it’s best to err on the side of caution and look your fancy-pants best by renting a tux or splurging on an appropriately formal gown for the occasion.

Women have it a little bit easier than men in terms of fashion flexibility. A floor-length gown is appropriate, as is a cocktail dress. Up the formality factor by choosing a dark color or metallic and something with embellishments, like embroidery, beading or intricate fabric work.

For summertime nuptials, men can feel free to wear a tux with a white dinner jacket. However, for the other seasons, a black jacket/tie/vest or cummerbund combo is the expectation.

If you’re repeatedly invited to black tie events, you might consider purchasing your own tuxedo or picking up a few event dresses when you happen upon them (bonus points if they’re on the sale rack). Chances are you’ll save a lot of money in the long run by avoiding over-priced rentals or purchasing appropriate gowns at full price. Other guests might start taking a cue from your on-point attire, and you’ll never fret about your wedding wardrobe again. At the very least, you’ll look fabulous in pictures!

Lots More Information

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  • "Guide for Guests: What to Wear." Wedding Channel. (April 24, 2011).
  • "Wedding Guest Attire." Martha Stewart Weddings. (April 24, 2011).
  • "What to Wear? Black Tie." The Knot. (April 24, 2011).


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