Formal vs Black Tie | Dress Code Differences Explained

man wearing navy suit and tie for formal dress code

After receiving an invitation to attend a wedding, a dinner event, or any other event, the next thing that comes to mind is what you'll wear. Should you put on a tuxedo and a bow tie? Or, should you put on a suit or casual attire?

There are several types of attire for different occasions, including formal, semi-formal, cocktail attirewhite tie attire, business casual, smart casual, etc. However, the most confusing outfits to choose from include formal and black tie outfits. Can you put on a suit for a black-tie optional event or black tie wedding? Is a typical tie ideal for a black-tie event?

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We understand the frustrations of not having a slim-fit shirt, so we carefully thought about our brand and ensured that we came up with clothes that would fit everybody based on weight and height. 


Difference between Formal and Black Tie

In this comparison table, we will explore the distinctions between formal attire and black tie dress codes. Both dress codes are reserved for special occasions that demand a higher level of elegance and refinement.

example of black tie optional with satin grosgrain lapels and bow tie

Formal attire encompasses a wider range of sophisticated outfits, while black tie, a subset of formal wear, requires specific attire such as tuxedos for men and floor length gown for women.

We will delve into the key differences, the level of formality, and the dress code specifics for each, providing a clear understanding of how they differ when specified on event invitations.

Whether you're preparing for a wedding, gala, wake or other formal gatherings, this comparison will help you navigate the appropriate dress code with confidence.

Formal Dress Code Black Tie Dress Code
  • Dark-colored, well-tailored suit
  • Dress shirt
  • Solid color or subtle colored ties
  • Oxfords or loafers
  • Accessories like a pocket square, cufflinks, and a conservative watch
  • More specific than formal attire
  • Requires black tuxedo with satin or grosgrain lapels
  • White tuxedo shirt
  • Black bowtie
  • Tuxedo pants
  • Patent leather shoes
  • Accessories like a black cummerbund or a waistcoat with their tuxedo
  • Floor length dress or cocktail dress
  • Or dressy separates like skirts or dress pants paired with a blouse.
  • Modest and sophisticated outfits with heels or dressy flats
  • Accessories like pearls, elegant earrings, and a clutch bag
  • Long, formal evening gowns
  • Elegant and sophisticated with high heels
  • Accessories like fine jewelry, evening clutches, and elegant wraps or shawls.

What Is a Black Tie Dress Code? 

Did you panic the first time you had a black-tie invitation?

It is not unusual to feel nervous when attending a black-tie event dress code. Several questions spring to your mind, including the type of socks you should wear, the ideal size for a black-tie outfit, and the right type of shoes.

However, it doesn't have to be that stressful. A black-tie dress code involves following strict rules, though not as strict as white tie dress code, that make it difficult for even the most fashion illiterate people to get it wrong. Combining a slim-cut, fitting shirt and a bow tie is not so hard to follow. Here's also a guide on how to tie bowties.

The key to getting the black-tie outfit right is in the details. The details include the shine of your shoes, the style of the bowtie, and the collar type for the shirt. Black tie outfits and dress codes are ideal for memorable events such as an exquisite wedding dress code, awards ceremonies, a prestigious ball, etc. Thus, you don't have the liberty to cut corners with your outfit. 

Black Tie Event

Pleated Shirts 

A black-tie shirt is also referred to as a dress shirt in formal dress code. It is traditionally pleated and features a winged collar and holes on the sleeve for cufflinks. It usually features a Marcella material construction, a stiff cotton fabric. The dress shirt also features black or white buttons. 

Besides the traditional wing collar, a standard collar is ideal. However, if you want to wear a cummerbund, avoid the pleats. Otherwise, the outfit will look too busy and distracting. 

You should also go for black buttons if you choose a cummerbund. Black buttons will help break the white space. However, you can stick to white buttons if you're wearing a waistcoat. 

 pleated white shirt with black bow tie and cummerbund

Dinner Jacket 

What do you need to know before you can choose a dinner jacket for your black-tie outfit?

Traditionally, tuxedos would come in a silk material construction. Today, you can find tuxedos in other materials, including the ultra-fine herringbone or wool barathea. Dark blue or black are the best colors to choose when it comes to colors. Here's a guide on the 7 best suit colors we recommend having in your closet. 

The black tie wasn't originally black but midnight blue. Black can seem dusty when you wear it under artificial light, but dark blue will make you stand out as a fashion-literate person.

If you are looking for a chic vintage style, a velvet smoking jacket in bottle green, burgundy, or dark blue is also an excellent option. 

You can choose one in off-white and black lapels if you want a dinner jacket for a black-tie event during warm climates. However, you should ensure you pair it with black trousers. 

dark navy, gray, and black suit jackets on a clothing rack

A double-breasted jacket is also an excellent choice to experiment with, but it's not traditional. It is a versatile piece that you can also pair with other outfits. 

There are various lapels for dinner jackets, including the peak lapel, the notch lapel, and the shawl lapel. The V deepens through the three lapels ending with the shawl one, which you find in tuxedos and is the smartest and most traditional. 


Matching Trousers  

There aren't so many rules when it comes to black suit trousers. You should go for a dark, fitted pair of trousers or slacks that match your dinner jacket. Your choice of dress pants should also have a natural taper. Here's how to match black suit with brown shoes

It will be best if the trousers feature braces which enable you to indulge yourself. You are free to choose whether you want a break at the hem or not.  

When choosing the right trousers for your black-tie dress code, avoid trousers that are too short or too long. You should go for dress pants that fit your body and aren't too baggy.

The traditional black-tie trousers would come with a single row of braids that run down the leg. However, braiding isn't necessary for modern-day formal dress pants.



A black-tie dress code is supposed to be a step up from your daily ordinary smart wear. Therefore, you should do away with your ordinary black office shoes. Black and patent shoes offer a classic look. It is also better to go for the narrow and rounded-toed. 

black dress shoes with rounded toe

Velvet slippers are also a good choice of shoes for a black-tie outfit. However, it would be best to avoid suede shoes as the suede looks dusty under artificial light. 



A cummerbund refers to a broad pleated sash that you wear around your waist. It helps you create a sleek and streamlined profile. When choosing a cummerbund for your black-tie outfit, you have a variety of colors to choose from, including burgundy, dark green, and plum. 


A Vest or Waistcoat

A vest or waistcoat also helps to accentuate the deep V of the dinner jacket, thereby creating a sophisticated and elegant look. You can create a traditional mood with a black waistcoat or choose a textured fabric to add to the aesthetic look. 



It is considered uncouth to wear a black-tie outfit without socks. Besides being mandatory to wear socks, you also don't have a lot of freedom to experiment with dress sock colors. Ensure you stick to black. You shouldn't wear a black-tie outfit with Christmas socks or other fun colors. The black-tie event is highly formal and requires you to stick to clean and black socks. 

The evening socks also feature a thin material that looks almost like flesh. You are free to go for a heavier fabric of the socks as long as your shoes still fit well. 


Bow Tie 

All the rules you make for the dinner jacket also apply to your bow tie. However, you are free to experiment with other colors to give your look some personality without breaking the rules of a black-tie outfit. 

bow tie

However, it would be best if you didn't go for a white bow tie as it is exclusively reserved for white-tie events. 

Ensure you go for a bow tie that is proportional to your head. It is also recommended that you go for a hand-tied one. A hand-tied bow tie means you need to add some minutes to your preparation time to ensure you get it right. If you struggle with a hand-tied one, you can opt for a pre-tied one. It will look like you tied it yourself if it is a little imperfect. 

Today, some people opt to wear a normal black tie instead of the bow tie. However, the regular black tie is more appropriate for a regular suit than a dinner jacket. 

Is it possible to wear a black-tie outfit without a tie?

Yes, it is referred to as "air tie." Well, if you are going to opt for an air tie, you have to ensure the rest of your outfit is impeccably perfect and balanced. 

Match with Black-Tie Appropriate Accessories


Traditionally, guests attending a black-tie event such as a wedding dress code or award ceremony were not required to wear a watch. It was considered rude for a guest to keep checking their time. 

If you need a dress watch, it should be slim and gold on a black alligator strap. 



You can also have cufflinks for your outfit. Like the rest of the outfit, the cufflinks should be simple and elegant. Don't go for fancy cufflinks. The simpler they are, the better. 


Pocket Square

A pocket square is also an optional accessory for a black-tie outfit. No personality pocket squares are allowed, and you should also keep it simple. 


What is Formal Attire for Men?

Black tie events are not many, and they are far apart, not to mention the strict rules associated with the dress code. A suit jacket and matching trousers characterize a formal outfit. You can also use accessories to personalize the outfit, but you should keep it simple. 

What constitutes formal vs semi formal attire?


Suit Jacket

When choosing a suit jacket for a formal look, it'll be best to keep things simple. The suit jacket should be a slim fit. The darker the suit, the more formal. You should pair the jacket with a pair of matching trousers to complete the look. 

For the lapels, you can choose between peak and shawl lapels. Peak lapels are ideal for enhancing the shape of your shoulders and the overall shape. A shawl lapel is famous for being minimalist, sleek, and clean. 

visual infographic on different peak, notch, shawl lapel for formal suit jackets 


Trousers for a formal outfit should match your suit jacket unless you opt for a velvet jacket that you should pair with a black pair of trousers. Ensure that the trousers are hemmed and shouldn't be too long or too short. 

It will be best to tailor your trousers to ensure they are a perfect fit and have proportions perfect for a formal outfit. 


Dress Shirt  

As with all the other components of a formal dress code, you should keep it simple when choosing a shirt for the outfit. You should opt for a white turn-down collared shirt with high-quality fabric. 

Ensure your dress shirt isn't convoluted and doesn't distract other elements of your formal attire. You could also opt for a button-down shirt that suits your style. 

Summer Occasions 

Formal wear is also determined by the season. What should you wear if you get an invitation to an outdoor summer wedding dress code?

  • For daytime events, a silk or linen suit is an excellent option. Ensure you wear the suit with a tie. A formal summertime wedding doesn't allow you to wear an open collar dress shirt or even the most expensive t-shirt.
  • The recommended formal wear for an evening summer wedding event is a dark suit. If it is an outdoor summer event, you can add some variations depending on the event. You should still wear a suit and a tie and elegant shoes. However, you can put on a dress shirt in a contrasting color and a patterned tie.

Ensure that you don't neglect your grooming when choosing a formal outfit. Take a shower and get an elegant haircut. Avoid the temptation to try out a bold hairstyle at this time. It would be best to do away with all the flashy jewelry and rings. 

Should you wear a traditional necktie or a bow tie with your formal attire?

You can opt for a black bow tie to complete the look or go for a plain black necktie. 

Plus, how the formalwear fits you is an essential consideration. Ensure the trouser is not too long or too short and the jacket isn't too loose. 


What is the difference between a black-tie outfit and a formal dress code?

A black-tie outfit requires strict adherence to the rules of the code. Guests in a black-tie event are required to put on a tuxedo, a white dress shirt, a black bow tie, and a pair of elegant shoes. The only flexibility is that the guest can put on a dinner jacket instead of a tuxedo. The outfit should be a perfect fit. 

On the other hand, a formal dress code has all the aspects of a black-tie outfit but with a bit of flexibility. For instance, the guests can put on an elegant suit instead of wearing a tuxedo. The suit should be a perfect fit, including the dress shirt. The guests can also put on a tie instead of the traditional bow tie. 


Frequently asked questions about black tie vs formal

What is the difference between formal and black tie?

Black tie is a specific subset of formal attire, requiring a tuxedo for men and an evening gown for women, while formal attire is a broader category that can include various dressy outfits.

Is formal or black tie more fancy?

Black tie is more fancy than formal attire due to its specific and formal dress code.

What is formal or black tie dress code?

Formal attire can encompass a range of elegant outfits, while black tie has a more specific dress code requiring tuxedos and evening gowns.

When a wedding invitation says formal attire what does that mean?

Guests are expected to dress in sophisticated and dressy outfits like suits and dresses, but not necessarily in black tie (unless specified).

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