White Tie/Cravate Blanche
This shindig couldn’t get fancier if Drake and Iggy Azalea were co-hosting. White tie is a level up from even black tie in formality – and no, it does not mean ‘a white tie’. What it does mean is a black tailcoat (not to be confused with a morning coat – see Morning Dress) and matching black trousers, a white waistcoat, a wing collar shirt, a bow tie, and a pair of patent shoes. If you don’t have these in your rotation, get thee hence to the hire shop. This is not a dress code to be trifled with.
The good news is that invitations which stipulate this are extremely rare unless you are a Ferrero Rocher-munching diplomat or extremely rich and/or posh, in which case you’ve probably got all of the above in your rotation anyway. Also, a top hat is not considered strictly necessary nowadays, so you can let that one slide.
A word (well, two) of warning: ‘formal attire’ can technically refer to the above for evening events, or morning dress (see below) for daytime. Chances are, your hosts just mean ‘smart’. But check yourself before you deck yourself out.
The daytime equivalent of white tie, hence why it’s also referred to as ‘formal day dress’. You should be wearing: a morning coat with tails in black or grey, grey trousers (or grey and black striped), a waistcoat (usually light to mid-grey or beige), a double-cuff shirt with turn-down collar (usually white but blue or pink is acceptable), a tie or cravat, polished black shoes and a top hat.
Again, you can’t really mess around with this kind of thing. At least not if you want to get into the royal enclosure at Ascot. Or the wedding album.
Or ‘dinner jackets’, ‘dinner dress’, ‘tuxedo’, ‘cravate noire’. Again, it doesn’t mean ‘a black tie’: it means a dinner suit, or a tuxedo if you’re American. This is materially different from a black suit, with contrast lapels in a fabric like grosgrain or silk and braiding down the leg. If you’re the kind of person who insists on saying dinner suit rather than tux, then yours should be midnight blue, which is historically more fitting of the code and looks like a richer black under artificial light.
You’ll also want a dress shirt with a turn-down collar and fancy front of some kind, usually with detachable studs and cufflinks instead of buttons. At a push, you could probably get away with a normal white shirt; a wing collar shirt is strictly speaking for white tie.
Shoes-wise, reach for highly polished Oxfords, although patent is acceptable. The dinner suit started out as a more relaxed alternative to tails, but for most of us today, it’s as smart as it gets. Slippers are – unsurprisingly – really for ‘at home’ invitations.
Can you wear a black suit? Well, you shouldn’t – as we’ve outlined above, it’s not the same thing at all. And know full well that if you do, someone may ask you to fetch them another drink, or transport a top-secret cargo across Europe in an Audi.
A (black) cummerbund is not essential, especially if you have a spare hand to hold your opera tickets. But it can do a good job of stopping your shirt showing between your jacket button and trouser waistband, as can a black waistcoat.
‘Semi-formal attire’ is upper-class code for black tie so, again, depending on the circles you’re moving in, this could actually just mean smart-casual. Another reason to pick up the phone before you gussy up.
Really this means black tie, but it’s also sometimes used (incorrectly) to refer to cocktail attire (see below). Unless it’s preceded by ‘full’, in which case it means white tie. Hit up your hosts to clarify.
Black Tie Optional
One of the most misleading codes. Your hosts are going to wear it, and want you to wear it too, but they’re politely giving you an out in case you can’t, or won’t, rent or buy. That doesn’t mean you should take it. Unless it’s really impossible, just wear black tie.
A normal suit with a long tie – AKA ‘Hollywood black tie’ – is more acceptable here. But it should be as close to a dinner suit in DNA as possible.
Black Tie Alternative/Creative
Normally, black tie is asking you to operate within strictly defined parameters to create a uniform effect. It’s not – out of respect for your hosts and the occasion – the time to flex your fashion muscles.
This, however, is an invitation – albeit an annoyingly vague one – to do something a little more unusual than the typical penguin suit. That could be a fabric like velvet, a colour or pattern, or some other flourish. Trainers? Maybe. How far you can push it really depends on the hosts and the context.
If your invitation says ‘with a twist’, then you may want to re-evaluate your friendship with these ‘zany’ people. Jeeves, fetch my shotgun.