What is black-tie optional: Decoding dress codes

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When you get an invitation with a dress code of black-tie optional, what exactly does that mean? Do you wear that optional black tie or not? Here we help you decode dress codes so you can figure out what to wear to a wedding or special event.

Bride and groom taking wedding selfie with friends.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Understanding Dress Codes

People include dress codes on invitations to help guests figure out appropriate attire for the event. You don’t want someone showing up for a wedding or gala dressed in leggings like they were having a girl dinner at home.

Black tie typically means very formal attire, but adding optional can be confusing. Because is optional really an option?

That’s how Michelle Price of Honest and Truly feels. “It’s so much harder to dress for black-tie optional events than just straight up black tie,” she said. “Depending on the crowd attending, they may ignore the optional and be all black tie or may ignore the black tie and all be on the optional side. Guessing which way to go makes it so much more stressful than if you simply knew to dress for black tie or cocktail, for example.”

According to the department store Nordstrom, black-tie optional is less formal than black tie, which requires tuxedos and floor-length gowns. However, it’s slightly more formal than cocktail attire. Also, it’s important to know that the dress code formal attire is often used interchangeably with black-tie optional.

Still, this could leave you standing in front of your closet, filled with your work wardrobe or old prom dresses, and wondering if you have anything appropriate to wear.

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Why an event is black-tie optional

Primarily, evening events that are not black-tie will be black-tie optional. In other words, it’s often the time of day that dictates this dress code.

In a guide about wedding attire, Brides Magazine reported that when a wedding is planned for an evening or after 6 p.m., it is likely to be black-tie optional.

However, that doesn’t mean that couples always abide by this timeframe plus dress code. The last time The Knot surveyed engaged couples about wedding attire, they found that semi-formal attire — also known as dressy casual — was the top dress code choice for 65 percent of couples. This was regardless of the time of day of their wedding.

What does black-tie optional mean

As you know, black-tie optional is a dress code commonly used for weddings. However, other formal events, such as fundraisers and business parties, may specify this dress code, too. You know, events where you’re drinking champagne and classic cocktails and nibbling on expensive hors d’oeuvres.

Overall, black-tie optional asks that guests dress up, but it is slightly less formal than black tie. In fact, it allows you to swing towards something more formal or not.

Man in dark suit adjusting cufflinks.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Black-tie optional for men

When it comes to black-tie optional for men, you can wear a tuxedo if you want and not feel out of place. However, you shouldn’t feel pressured into renting one for the occasion if you don’t already own one.

Instead, men who decide to forego the tux might go with a dark suit instead. It could be a dark-colored work suit or the one that you keep on hand for funerals.

As far as accessories go, men should keep these tips in mind:

  • Black dress shoes are the best option
  • Choose dress socks that match the color of the suit
  • A black bow tie is always an option. However, a navy or dark-colored tie can also work
  • If you like accessorizing with pocket squares, go with class white
  • Cufflinks always add a touch of sophistication

Options for women

At a black-tie optional event, a woman could wear a floor-length gown. On the other hand, she could wear a cocktail dress.

With this latter option, choose one made of high-quality fabric that is well tailored and not shorter than knee length.

In fact, Nordstrom suggests going with clothing that isn’t too revealing. So, you can show some sun-kissed skin — just not too much of it.

African american woman in cocktail dress.
Photo credit: YayImages.

If a dress isn’t your thing, you can wear a dark-colored jumpsuit or dressy separates, such as a pantsuit. For footwear, choose sleek heels or flats. This is not the time to wear chunky platform shoes or casual Birkenstock sandals.

Finally, with regards to accessories, Brides Magazine says less is more. Simple silver or gold jewelry plus a clutch purse will complement your look rather than overwhelm it. Remember: you don’t want to outshine the bride.

Decoding other dress codes

While on the topic of black-tie optional clothing, here is a quick primer on other dress codes that might appear on an event invitation.

Blue wedding invitations with separate card about the dress code.
Photo credit: YayImages.

White tie: most formal dress code. Think state dinners, royal events and high-level ceremonies. Men should don a black tailcoat, black trousers, a white wing-collared shirt, a white bow tie and black patent leather shoes. Women should go with a floor-length formal gown and gloves — tiara optional.

Black tie: the next most formal dress code is typically reserved for evening weddings, galas and fundraisers. Appropriate menswear includes a black tuxedo jacket and matching trousers, a white dress shirt, a black bow tie, black dress shoes and black dress socks. Women should wear a floor-length formal gown or a dressy cocktail dress with a longer hemline.

Cocktail attire: dressier than semi-formal attire, but a step down from black-tie optional. For men, dark suits, with or without a tie, are great. Women can go with dressier cocktail dresses or jumpsuits. However, sun dresses or linen suits are still too casual.

No dress code: If an invitation doesn’t specify any dress code, assume it is dressy casual. So, men can wear a suit and tie or dress pants and a blue blazer. On the other hand, women will never go wrong with a tasteful dress or a dressy pantsuit.

Final thoughts

If you’re still unsure about what to wear, now might be a good time to book a session with a department store personal stylist to find the right outfit — they’re usually free to use. They’ll work with you and within your budget to find the perfect outfit.

Remember: it’s always better to be slightly overdressed at a formal event than to be underdressed.

Leah Ingram is the author of 15 books, including “Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less” and “The Complete Guide to Paying for College.” She shares shopping advice for getting the most value for your time and money at www.leahingram.com.

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