The birth of the dinner jacket during Victorian England marked the starting point of Western formalwear as we know it today, and from that emerged two distinct and defined schools of thought: white tie and black tie. Here is the down low on the DJ, sir…

Any opportunity to don all the bells and whistles of formal attire is one that should be relished by all. Eveningwear seems to harbour a characteristic that makes any man look good, regardless of their body shape or size. But with this territory comes complications. Dress codes such as ‘black tie’ and ‘white tie’ are steeped in history so it is understandable that they come with a fairly substantial list of rules and regulations.

Let the education begin

During the late 19th century the white tie reigned supreme for formal events, while the lowly black tie was used only as informal evening dress – a somewhat alien concept given today’s standards. Fast forward 150 years and the black tie has established itself as the favoured attire for formal events; bumping the white tie into an odd state of limbo where its use is becoming ever more rare.

But that is no reason to forget it altogether – especially considering that it still remains the highest form of eveningwear. So what are the differences between the two and how can you avoid a dreaded formal faux pas?

Black Tie

Despite ‘black tie’ spending decades as the most popular choice of evening wear it is frightening how many men are still unaware of how to wear it properly.

The Jacket

A black tie traditionalist will stress the importance of simplicity and conservatism in a dinner jacket, championing the old classic black wool dinner jacket with satin-lined peaked lapels. That being said, tailoring trailblazers have made bolder dinner jackets a lot more common and acceptable, with vintage velvet smoking jackets bursting back onto the scene. The warm weather option of an ivory dinner jacket has also enjoyed a revival but really shouldn’t be used outside of the summer months.

The Trousers

Regardless of white tie or black tie, trousers should always be kept simple. Black wool trousers with a satin braid covering the outer seams and no cuffs will go with virtually everything. Unless you’re Scottish and can pull off a pair of tartan ‘trews’ you get no style points for wearing flamboyant trousers.

The Waist

The fact that one’s waist should always be covered is a perpetually overlooked element of formalwear. A black, low-cut, evening waistcoat works best with the traditional black jacket; whereas a black cummerbund fits perfectly with the more contemporary shawl lapelled velvet jacket.

The Shirt

The shirt is another item of clothing that is steeped in misconception. Many men make the assumption that because they are wearing a tuxedo and bow tie they must also wear a wing-tip shirt. In actual fact the wing-tipped shirt is earmarked for white tie dress codes. White cotton with a turndown collar and double cuffs is perfect for black tie events. The traditional studded buttons and the contemporary fly-front are both accepted as well.

The Bowtie

A simple black self-tie bowtie is the best option in neckwear. A pre-tied bow tie can be used if you wish but a well tied self-tie is always better; even if it’s just for the bragging rights. Silk long ties are a possibility in the right scenario but they tend to look considerably less formal which is never a positive.

The Shoes

A plain pair of hi-shine patent black oxford or derby shoes will never look out of place. If you’re feeling a bit bolder, suede or felt formal slippers offer an aristocratic alternative.

White Tie

White Tie, or full dress, is the pinnacle of eveningwear; the zenith of elegance. Unlike black tie, which has changed over time, adapting with the ever-altering landscape of fashion, white tie has remained unvaried for centuries. When it comes to white tie, rules are made to be wholeheartedly followed and must never be broken.

The Jacket

Differing from the dinner jacket of black tie, the white tie version is an evening tailcoat. With the front of the jacket finishing around the waist and the back extending to the back of the knees, its traditional form consists of black barathea wool complimented with silk peaked lapels. As with all white tie apparel, they are so niche and traditionalist that there is little room for contemporary or modern adaptation.

The Trousers

This is one of the few similarities between black tie and white tie. High-waist black trousers with a double braid down the side seam and no cuffs are par for the course.

The Waist

As with black tie, the waist must always be covered at a white tie event. Generally speaking, the deeply cut, backless white Marcella waistcoat is the only accepted form of waist covering.   The length of the waistcoat is imperative as one that extends below the front of the jacket is one of the biggest white tie sins possible

The Shirt

Despite being mostly covered, the shirt is actually an incredibly integral part of white tie attire. In keeping with the entire custom, the uber-formal shirt requirements seem more complicated than necessary – so much so that the shirt is actually in two separate pieces. The proper shirt is a tunic collared cotton shirt, with a stiff bib front and single cuffs, topped with a detached wing collar. The majority of shirts with attached wing collars are double cuffed which are, traditionally speaking, unacceptable for white tie.

The Bowtie

A white, self-tie Marcella bow tie is the only option here. No exceptions.

The Shoes

Black patent shoes are again the benchmark. Oxford, derby and round-toed pumps are all acceptable styles but formal slippers aren’t – even if they’re patent leather.

The Headwear

White tie events are one of the few times where it socially acceptable to wear a top hat. Arguably the forgotten talisman of Edwardian England, a black felt top hat is, of course, an optional extra.

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