What Is a Black-Tie Affair?Black tie events are the second-most formal affairs. White-tie events hold the top distinction, but it is rare to be invited to those unless one regularly circulates in the company of billionaires or royalty.
First Things FirstAs soon as you receive an invitation to a formal affair and decide to attend, respond as quickly as possible to allow the hosts to plan accordingly.
The easiest way to enjoy a formal event is to arrive dressed appropriately. Confirm the dress code in advance of the event.
“Trying to select formalwear at the last minute rarely ends well,” warned Kara Lundgren, a Miami-based hotelier and frequent guest at formal events.
If you’re still not sure, opt for being overdressed rather than being underdressed. Your hosts have put forth considerable effort to entertain you, so treating the occasion as worthy of special wardrobe consideration is a great way to honor them.
For the GentlemenFor men, says Ms. Gottsman, the black-tie dress code means “a black tuxedo, a black bow-tie, a cummerbund, a white shirt with cufflinks, black dress socks, and black patent leather shoes.”
Beyond silk lapels and silk-covered buttons, tuxedo styles vary, most notably in the lapels. Some feature a notch where the jacket collar meets the lapel; these are considered too casual for a formal black-tie event. A shawl-style lapel flows smoothly up and around the neck, and while this is acceptable for formal events, for the most formal look, consider a tuxedo jacket with a peak lapel—wider than the notch style, it’s designed to make the most elegant fashion statement. Opt for a single-breasted tuxedo, considered more elegant than a double-breasted style.
Wool is considered the best fabric choice for formal tuxedos, but plush velvet is a good choice for chilly outdoor events. A rule of thumb is the most formal tuxedos have the fewest buttons; a one-button jacket represents the height of formality. To avoid a fashion faux pas, just say no to two- or three-button designs.
A man’s tuxedo should “look like it was made for him, with no loose or tight spots,” said fashion stylist Anthony Bermudez of Styled by Bermudez, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida firm. “When you feel confident in what you are wearing, you look your best.” If you’re renting, find a shop or chain that offers tailoring services; a bespoke-quality fit is paramount.
The most formal black-tie dress shirt will feature French cuffs, wing tip collars, and a pique-style bib (the front of the shirt) featuring a woven, dimpled pattern, either with or without a covered placket (the strip of fabric where the buttonholes are placed). If your shirt does not have a placket covering the buttonholes, choose simple gold or silver studs that perfectly match the cufflinks.
A hand-tied silk bowtie is a must, and tying it is a skill worth mastering. Don’t ever consider a clip-on bowtie or a shirt that does not require cufflinks. Shoes should be burnished to mirror-like brilliance, and socks go up and over the calves and never, ever droop. Mr. Bermudez also suggests having hair freshly cut and styled as close to the event date as possible.
For the LadiesA classic, floor-length gown, in black or jewel colors, is the standard. “While some may wear a dress that hits the knee or ankle, a formal black-tie dress is floor-length,” said Ms. Gottsman. “It should certainly be a seasonal fabric. I would suggest lace or satin for a fabric that wears well, not one that wrinkles, such as silk.”
“Form-fitting gowns are in right now, especially in lace or satin,” added Ms. Lundgren. “Sequins are a great look, but avoid taffeta and poofy dresses.”
All experts advise choosing an outfit that you will be comfortable in throughout the night—sitting, standing, and dancing. Ms. Lundgren cautions against wearing new shoes for the first time at a formal event—if your feet hurt, the evening will be a lot less fun.
Ms. Lundgren says renting gowns is a smart solution for a dazzling look without breaking the budget: “You wear them, wow the crowd, then send them back—you don’t even need to dry clean them.” Even very wealthy women frequently choose this option for its simplicity.
Accessories Make the Outfit
Accessories can enhance any formal attire, with Ms. Lundgren and Ms. Gottsman both suggesting that men invest in several styles and colors of cummerbunds, ties, shirts, and cufflinks. For women, a variety of shawls, shoes, and assorted jewelry can give a fresh look to the same gown.
Be Prepared for AnythingEven with advance planning and the perfect outfit, fashion emergencies can certainly occur, and pros know how to deal with them with creativity and grace.
“I was running very late for a formal event when the heel on one of my shoes broke as I was leaving the house,” Ms. Lundgren recalled. “I switched to another pair, but the heels were lower, so now the dress was too long, causing me to trip. I cut the dress, used a stapler to tack the hem, and used a black Sharpie to camouflage the staples.”
Mind Your MannersDon’t forget the basics: Arrive on time, be sure to mingle, and be respectful of and acknowledge all the support staff, from parking valets to the wait staff.
“Bring cash to tip the parking valet, bartenders, wait staff, and bathroom attendants,” Ms. Lundgren suggested. “They are there to ensure you have an enjoyable time, so make eye contact as you thank them and hand them a nice tip.”
If the event is a private affair, send a handwritten note of thanks via the mail within two days of the event.
Most of all—have fun!