The problem is that ‘black tie’ is quite broad. As Debretts puts it: ‘For ladies, a smart dress (such as a cocktail dress) is appropriate. It can be long or short, as long as it’s not too short. It need not be black.’
Over the years the description has also become somewhat further muddied. So much is now available to us as shoppers that in order to find a truly elegant dress we need to have the ability to sift through layer upon layer of split-to-thigh, clingy polyester horrors that look more at home on the ladies of TOWIE, despite being categorised under ‘black tie’ by the retailer.
So, what does black tie really mean and what rules should we follow? Here are our expert tips for nailing the dress code…
Be aware that you have options
“It stems from the men’s outfit – a dinner jacket and a black tie, literally – and the idea is your meant to compliment that look,” explains Astrid Joss, fashion and beauty editor at Brides magazine. In terms of length, as Debretts explains, black tie can mean long, midi or short (though not too short) in length, so, unless your invite advises on a specific length within the black tie code, the choice is up to you.
“I personally think you’ve got to go long,” says Joss, “but if you can’t wear long at least try and go below-the-knee or three-quarter (midi) length – keep the skirt full and think Dior 1950s, it’s a lot smarter and you can dress it up.”
Short, midi and full-length can all work for a black tie do: from left, Julia Roberts, Eva Herzigova and Kate Hudson. Photos: Rex
For stylist Martha Ward, the specifications are less strict: “The thing I’m always called upon by my girlfriends is the anxiety over ‘black tie’ – the eternal question: What to wear? And it’s simple really: a nice dress. It could be slim line, it could be structured, it could be empire line, it could even be voluminous. It doesn’t matter as long as it looks ‘smart’.”
Our top tips would be to avoid anything too tight and anything that falls more than an inch or so above the knee.
Don’t be afraid of colour
“The key is that it doesn’t have to be black,” says Ward. “I attended a black tie dinner recently in a hot pink Roksanda dress and was the only girl in colour, and that’s quite typical. And a huge oversight. Colour and print works too!”
Go for bold colours and florals: from left, Michelle Williams, Martha Ward and Alicia Vikander. Photos: Rex
John Lewis’s current bestsellers in occasion wear are floral pieces – so don’t be afraid to go bold.
Dress for your shape and size
“When choosing an evening dress for a black tie event always ensure you dress for your size and shape,” says Donna Stamp, womenswear buyer at John Lewis. “A long, flowing gown will generally look great on taller women, whilst petite women tend to suit a 50s prom dress or something more fitted that cuts off at the knee.”
5ft 10′ Blake Lively can pull off long flowing gowns, while 5ft 1′ Kristen Bell suits shorter, more structured styles. Photos: Rex
What about a black tie wedding?
A wedding invite specifying a black tie dress code can easily leave you in a spin. Do the same guidelines apply? “Black tie is black tie, there’s absolutely no difference at a wedding,” says Joss.
However, there are some rules you should bear in mind: Should you wear a hat? “When it comes to a wedding, you do not wear a hat with a long dress. You have to balance out the look – so, if you’re covered up in a long dress you wouldn’t put something massive on your head as well. Fascinators can work, if you can get one that goes with your outfit, but try and keep it small. If you’re really in doubt, just do a nod to something on your head, like a glittery clip or hair slide.”
Hair accessories should replace hats at a black tie wedding: from left, Kirsten Dunst, Laura Bailey and Allison Williams. Photo: Rex
Can you wear black? “Yes, absolutely. I think that’s really stylish. But keep black seasonal – keep it in winter so don’t wear it in the summer and I’d say probably if it is more of an evening event. The only rule is don’t wear white, cream or ivory. You should never go there, long or short, especially long. I’ve seen people do it and it’s so unbelievably, jaw-droppingly wrong.”
Think about your accessories
“Don’t leave it to the night to think about your accessories and make-up as a pair of killer heels, sparkling necklace or bright red lip can transform any outfit,” says Stamp.
Sienna Miller lets her red lips and statment necklace do the talking, while Diane Kruger’s simple clutch, shoes and natural make-up let her busy dress shine. Louise Roe showcases elegant, statement jewellery. Photos: Rex
When you’re shopping for a dress, try and think of your look as a whole, from shoes, to bag to jewellery to make sure everything is in tune. If you have plain, one-colour dress then your accessories can make a statement, if your dress has a bold print or pattern then the accessories are simply there to support and elevate it, so think along simpler lines. And avoid platform shoes – they’re the quickest way to make an outfit look cheap. Go for single soles instead.