Black Tie Optional Wedding Etiquette

by Marie Sporich

Upon receiving a wedding invitation, guests learn the location of the event, time of day and, typically, the dress code. While outdoor weddings may have become as popular as traditional hotel and church ceremonies, there are still couples who want that fairy-tale ballroom wedding filled with guests dressed as if they are going to see royalty. These formal evening affairs include a dress code on the invitation in the form of "Black Tie" or "Black Tie Optional." Today, many are less than familiar with these terms, leaving guests questioning just how formal to go.

Black Tie Defined

The traditional definition of "black tie" attire is a black dinner jacket or tuxedo jacket with a white tuxedo shirt, and black bow tie, cummerbund and pants. Today, this would simply be called a black tuxedo, but the term is commonly used for an event's dress code to let guests know it will be very formal. Traditional black tie garb for women equates to what many think of today as "red carpet" formal. A floor-sweeping evening gown is expected with evening sandals or pumps and sparkling fine jewelry. Ladies should accessorize with a small clutch handbag, and guys should wear their nicest watch.

Dressing for Black Tie Optional

Even at a black tie optional wedding, chances are the bride, groom and wedding party will wear tuxedos and floor-length hemlines. While guests should not steal the show from the bride or groom, dressing appropriately is a must. This dress code essentially allows male guests to decide if they are more comfortable in a tuxedo or a nice suit, and offers female guests the option of a long gown or cocktail dress. It's just as acceptable to attend the wedding in a black tux or long, flowing evening gown as it is a crisp black suit and tie or little red cocktail dress. The bottom line here is that it's impossible to overdress.

Options for Female Guests

As guest attire at a black tie optional wedding, ladies are given the choice of long or knee-length hemlines. For those who want to forgo the long evening gown, alternatives include a fancy cocktail dress with a knee- or tea-length hemline. Just make sure to stick with darker, richer colors for short cocktail dresses, to add a formal feel. Especially for shorter dresses, it's imperative to add to the look with fancy accessories. High heels, dramatic makeup and statement jewelry easily take a cocktail look into evening territory. Tights and a fitted jacket or blazer can be added for cooler seasons, but are not necessary for summertime soirees.

Options for Male Guests

In lieu of a timeless black tuxedo and white pleated dress shirt, male guests have the option of simply wearing their nicest suit. This black tie optional attire is only appropriate if the suit is in perfect condition, properly tailored, and a dark shade such as black, navy or dark charcoal gray. Ties or bow ties should be conservative in color and print, and shirts should always be stark white. Complete the look with freshly polished black dress shoes or wing tips, and a black leather belt. For fashionable fellas, trendy options such as black velvet dinner jackets can add personal style to black tie optional suits.

Photo Credits

  • Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images

About the Author

Marie Sporich is a SoCal native, classical ballerina and devoted Yogi. She holds an A.A. in product development and B.S. in business management from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She has spent nearly 10 years in retail, is a published writer and certified wedding planner.