An invitation drops through your door. ‘Dress code: white tie’, it says. You read it again. And again.
But no matter how long you stare at the card, it still says white tie – and that is probably why you’re reading this. You’re wondering what you need to wear, how to wear it well, and – let’s be honest – if there are any corners you can cut. (Prepare to be disappointed on that last point.)
“In short,” says Richard Fuller, general manager of Chelsea tailors and outfitters Oliver Brown, “white tie is the most formal manner of civilian dress in the Western tradition for men.”
White tie – also called ‘full evening dress’ or ‘dress suit’ – is a dress style that’s been around for nigh on 200 years: a more minimalist style (as far as 19th-century gentlemen did minimalism) evolving from 18th-century swallow-tail coats into something suitable for an evening gallivanting at dinner parties and dances. It’s changed very little over time.
As a result, it’s the most prescribed set of threads you’ll ever don. There are rules, and there are rules about those rules. Luckily, we’re here to provide you with the ultimate guide to white tie dress code: a one-stop shop to getting everything just right.
What Is White Tie?
Being the formalest of formal, the kinds of gatherings where white tie is required have (thankfully, from a wardrobe space point of view) reduced in number over the years.
For a long time, white tie was standard evening dress among society types before black tie nudged it into more niche areas.
Now, the few occasions you’ll wear white tie vary from country to country. The Swedes love a white tie wedding, for example, and it’s worn at the Nobel Prize ceremony as well as at Viennese balls.
In the US, some debutante balls and state dinners require white tie, along with certain club dinners and charity events. In the UK – the code’s historic home – it’s seen at Eton and Harrow, some university balls, and at Livery Company dinners. Oh, and one other type of function: if you get a dinner invitation from her madge the Queen.
“Since the 1950s white tie has been adopted as official court dress,” says Fuller. “If you go to the palace for an official state visit, you’ll be wearing white tie. If it’s not official, it might be black tie.”
What’s The Difference Between White Tie And Black Tie?
The most obvious difference is the colour of the tie (or rather, the bow tie), but you probably worked that out for yourself.
Beyond that, black tie is a tad more casual and allows for greater wriggle room and opportunity for personalisation. This is why you see men at awards dos and on red carpets wearing anything from a bog-standard suit plus a black bow tie to rhinestone-encrusted white tuxedo and cowboy boots.
With white tie being reserved for ultra-formal occasions and having a list of regulations so long it’s surprising that no-one’s blamed them on the EU, there’s very little you can do to ‘make it your own’.
“With black tie, you can wear a velvet jacket,” says Fuller. “You can wear a plain black tie. As long as it’s black and white, you’ll be fine. Wear a TEXTHEREred sock if you like. But white tie you have to play by the rules. The whole point is to give over your personality into a higher order.”
White Tie: The Key Pieces
Not to be confused with daytime tails or ‘morning dress’, which have a different cut, you should wear a black barathea tailcoat. It’s ostensibly double-breasted but doesn’t do up, so don’t try.
“The jackets began to exist during the Regency, when they were often higher cut, double-breasted and worn fastened,” says Fuller. “The cut-away front was for riding on horseback. All dresswear coats with an arched tail are originally riding jackets. The two buttons at the back would have been for when you got off your horse – you would have pulled the front part of the coat back and tied it on to them. That’s where that shape comes from.”
If there was one thing your 19th-century Beau Brummel dandy-types liked to do more than ride, it was to cut a rug. This means the outfit is also made for dancing – and nobody wore it better in the ballroom than one man.
“That’s why it doesn’t do up at the front – so you get a nice flow – and you have the great big trousers,” says Fuller. “We made the white tie outfits for Fred Astaire.
“If you look back at the ’30s to the ’50s, the trousers were up just below your nipples, and the waistcoat would consequently be very high. You wouldn’t show any white below the points of the jacket. Now, because the trousers aren’t worn as high, you’ll show about two fingers’ width of waistcoat.”
Like the tailcoat, the evening trousers that are worn with white tie are very particular. They have a ribbed double stripe as opposed to the single stripe you get with black tie trousers. They also have a fishtail back with brace buttons (white moire braces – the type worn by Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale – are traditional, but you can get away without them if you’re confident your trousers will stay up) and side-adjusters.
The alien thing to most modern men, though, is the way white tie trousers are worn: really high, well above the waist so as to remove the pleat. Not as high as Fred Astaire wore them, but high enough to make Simon Cowell look like he’s into drop crotch jeans and to, ahem, trouble your own ballroom.
A single-breasted white marcella cotton waistcoat is the only option here, although it can be with or without a back. This choice is due to the pique weave, which holds more starch and gives a stiffer look.
Stiffness is key with white tie: stiff waistcoat, stiff rules, stiff upper lip. The waistcoat is paired with a white marcella bow tie, which you can hand tie or have pre-tied. There is no shame – and a lot of convenience – in the latter, just make sure yours has a size adjuster so it fits your neck.
Stiffness is less important for the shirt – also white marcella – than it used to be, but if you want to be Mr Traditional, rigidity is still applauded.
“You originally wore a boiled front shirt, with a starched bib,” says Fuller. “That’s the correct white tie shirt. Or the semi-stiff, which is a boiled version of the marcella.”
That said, a softer shirt is both common and acceptable these days. It features a wing collar and is fastened with silver and mother of pearl studs and cufflinks (also mother of pearl).
“You should almost not see any of your neck, the collar is so high. The opera outfits in Sherlock Holmes films are actually a great example.”
Another area where you get to go crazy and make an actual decision is white tie footwear.
“Shoes should be patent Oxfords,” says Fuller. “For a one-off, you could get away with an ordinary Oxford, if you […] give them a mirror shine on the toe and the heel. But there must be absolutely no broguing.
“The traditional shoe is an opera pump with a black ribbon. Socks should be plain black and long. You must never show any flesh, even if you’re sitting down.”
White Tie Style Tips
Less Is More
“White tie is by its nature an antiquated mode of dress,” says Fuller. “While the size of lapels and trouser legs and bow ties, the shape of the waistcoats, position of buttons, preferred type of shoes, etc. have all altered over the past century, there is very little by way of ‘fashion’ when it comes to wearing white tie well. In general, ‘less is more’ is best.”
How many white tie events do you think you’ll find yourself at? If it’s more than one or two then a) welcome to FashionBeans, your lordship, and b) it could be worth your while getting a bespoke white tie suit made.
“Because it’s a smaller market we do most of our white tie to hire,” says Fuller. “We sell it as well, and if somebody wants a particular look, we’ll make them the trouser and make them the waistcoat – it’s quite a cost-effective way of doing it.
“We had a guy who was obsessed with Tom Ford’s white tie suit. We had to make it bespoke – it was a labour of love. If you want to have something bespoke you could create your own silhouette, maybe make something more streamlined.”
Don’t fancy forking out to get your own bespoke suit? Why not buy one from an old guy? White tie events used to be a lot more common and therefore more people had white tie outfits – and fast fashion it was not.
White tie suits were investments, so they were made well; they were worn relatively rarely, so they kept well; and they were really, really stylish. If you think you can carry-off a nipple-bothering Astaire-style without looking like you’re wearing a man-bra, why not hunt down something used?
Keep Colours Simple
White tie colours are simple in that you have absolutely none. No blue jackets, no colourful socks, no whacky bow ties, and you should never, ever wear a black shirt.
“Ooh, you’re stifling my creativity,” you might say. Maybe, but think of it this way: the stricter the guidelines, the fewer choices you have to make, the fewer chances there are to make a mistake, and the easier your life is. Save colour decisions for your sofa.
Do Not Wear Black Tie
You can wear white tie to a black tie event because it’s a step-up in formality, but do not turn up to a white tie event in a dinner suit. This is like pulling onto a Formula One starting grid in a family estate car. Perfectly good when required, but way out of place here. And absolutely do not turn up in an ordinary lounge suit. You might think you’re being cool by ignoring the dress code. You categorically are not.
Accessorise With Caution
Accessorising white tie requires bomb-disposal levels of caution here. No cummerbunds, no pins, no glitz.
You can wear a top hat or opera hat (the type that flattens). A pocket-watch is a nice touch, as is a boutonniere. If you’ve earned some medals in your time (this code is sometimes called ‘white tie decorations’), you can wear those. You can even carry a cane and wear a cloak if you feel like channelling your inner-Victorian murderer. Beyond that, there’s little you should attempt.
“These days you can get away with plain silver or gold cufflinks,” says Fuller, “as long they match your ring and your dress watch.”
Heed The Rules
For ye shall stick out like a sore, poorly-dressed thumb who is either too lazy to make the effort or too cocky to think that the rules apply to you. You may well be a rebel, with or without a cause, in everyday life, but if you RSVP to a white tie event and turn up in anything less than your best effort to conform, you are going to look and feel very silly.