Fit To Be (Black) Tied

Where has summer gone? Didn’t we *just* get accustomed to easy sundresses and skin-baring glam? ::SIGH::

White House Invitation

Labor Day is upon us, but as we wave good-bye with BBQ salutes, it’s time to look ahead to autumn with excitement! Not only is September a fashion world explosion, but it’s also the start of fall “social season” in New York City! Charity dinners and auction invites and opera debuts – oh my! But…what does one wear to such events? Black tie? White tie? Cocktail attire? What’s a Budget Socialite to do?!

Not to worry – I’ve got you covered for every calligraphy laden invitation you’re about to get and ask me to attend with you. It’s not so tough afterall!

What’s it all mean?

Let’s start with some basic definitions.

  • White Tie: The most dressy and involved of the formal dress levels. You might hear it referred to as “tophat and tails” or simply, “tails”, referring to the long coat gentlemen wear that creates a…well…”tail” silhouette. Reserved for ULTRA formal occasions – think UN dinners, debutante balls, and super formal weddings. Ladies have only one option here: floor length formal gowns. Got a diamond tiara handy? This is the only time you might get away with wearing one outside your home. ::whispers:: So whip that bad boy out, sister! ***Shopping tip: Bloomingdales does an early fall clearance that is unbeatable for gowns. My favourite floor lengths silks danced their way from the sale rack to the Waldorf! Don’t miss this sale!***
  • Black-Tie: The most common formal dress code, though less intricate than White Tie. Gentlemen are required to be in tuxedos and ladies should don floor length gowns or cocktail length dresses. If you dare to do the Little Black Dress, it HAS to be your fanciest LBD ever…and I know you have one! The old stand-by won’t do here, Socialite. But…leave the tiara at home. Also, resist all urges to relive prom night: black cummerbunds on your escort are the preferred standard. (Did he choose plaid? Take your sister with you instead.)
  • Black-Tie Optional: For the gents, tuxedos are encouraged but not required, with a dark, well-tailored suit considered a perfectly acceptable alternative. You’ll see a mix of both choices on attendees. Ladies needn’t feel rooted to the floor length gown – you’ll see every length dress from floor to knee in the room. Your LBD still works, but can be less dressy, with your jewelry perhaps helping to make bold statements for you.
  • Cocktail Attire: Ladies hit their stride in this IDEAL Little Black Dress territory! It’s more fun than formal, and more sexy than stuffy, with elegance being the key. Nothing too formal or close to floor length, please. Gents, a dark suit and power tie are a MUST! Bright cufflinks all around!


  • The invite says “Black Tie” – can’t I just wear a dressy knee length dress?
    Technically, yes. However, Black Tie is a formal occasion. You might be alone in a sea of elegant floor length gowns, so research your crowd/venue and make sure you’re choosing a formal dress, even at knee length. Still in doubt? Ask your host or someone close to the party planning. Better to ask than show up and be embarrassed.
  • A gown and a dress are the same thing basically, right?
    No! A dress may be any length, but once we hit the floor, sister you’re in a gown! A gown is always formal, whereas a dress isn’t necessarily so.  Ever hear of a “casual gown”? A “flirty sungown”? I thought not.
  • These are old rules and customs. Does anyone care if I get it wrong? I mean really – it’s 2013. Pfft.
    Yes. Yes, people DO care – namely, your host.  As an invited guest to anything, it’s important to show the simple respect of following an established dress code, if one has been requested.  Still think it’s all nonsense? There’s no shame in declining an invitation. But…why would you willingly miss all that champagne?

Obviously, fashion is subjective and people interpret the rules as they may – it’s fun to bend them sometimes! But you have to know the rules to break them. The rules of formal dress lean towards classic style over fashion. To get even MORE technical, Wiki has some great point-by-point specifics. These are a general standard, meant to help you plan as you wade through the piles and stacks of RSVP cards that I just know await us you, Socialite!

See you next month!

The season approaches – are you dressed and ready? Have some formal dress tips? Let us know in the comments! 


Contributor | Eva Said It
Eva is a mother, writer, entertaining doyenne, and snark expert based in New York City. Money can’t buy happiness, but it buys her lots of wine and stinky cheese…which is close enough. Catch more of her stiletto clad sarcasm at www.evasaidit.com.



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