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Decoded: the black tie dress code made simple

Olivia Lidbury,
Fashion Editor

A ‘black tie’ dress code is easy to master – even though it's often enough to send even the most outgoing partygoer into a spin

The black tie dress code: what to wear, when and how

A gilded invitation stating ‘black tie’ doesn’t automatically mean floor-length dresses and diamonds (that would be white tie). It’s merely a savvy way for hosts to ensure that guests make a suitable level of effort in opulent fabrics and elegant eveningwear, thus discounting anything casual or work-smart, such as a shirt-dress or cotton separates, or anything too short. While this always means a black dinner jacket for men, it can be interpreted much more broadly for women. 

Take your time and shop logically

“Black-tie events usually create an instant wardrobe dilemma and impulse buy,” warns fashion stylist and writer Virginia Chadwyck-Healey. “So my advice would be to make time in your diary and really seek out something that makes you feel fabulous but that also works for you after the ‘big reveal’. Ask yourself If the outfit could be worn again for a wedding, birthday, office party or festive gathering – so it doesn’t just sit forlorn in your wardrobe for years to come.”

Wear a dress – or a chic alternative

On or below the knee is the simplest rule to stick to when it comes to choosing a dress. Anything floor-sweeping can be relied on to create impact, as will a structured midi-dress. But that doesn’t rule trousers out entirely: flowing palazzo pants are eternally elegant, just be sure to pick an equally dressy top. 

Don't go for black every time

You can wear black, of course, and nothing is more versatile than a lacy, midi-length prom dress. If opting for black, Virginia suggests you "be sure to add some sparkle with a pair of statement earrings or, my favourite, a Cinderella-esque, sparkly occasion shoe". But this is also a wonderful opportunity to embrace colour and textures. "Opt for Quality Street colours, such as deep purples, ruby reds and emerald greens," says Virginia. Bold primary colours are also perfect for commanding attention. Don’t be afraid to experiment and play around with hues that suit your skin and hair tone.

Be sure to address the occasion

It sounds obvious, but study your invite carefully. Are you attending a dinner, a gala, a wedding or a party? The latter lends itself to a voluminous silhouette but for a sit-down meal you’ll want to opt for something more streamlined. For a wedding, full-length is appropriate and means you can forgo a hat, while a Christmas party is the perfect excuse for sequins. The setting is equally important: marquees tend to be warm, while sleeves are a good option if the event involves lots of standing around outside. If in doubt, always ask your host – they’ll be only too happy to help.

Don’t forget your (over)coat

Nothing dampens a ‘wow’ outfit like a beige trench coat or a quilted jacket. If you’re on the guest list for a winter event, your coat will be the first thing anyone sees, yet it's likely to be the last thing you think about when planning your outfit. So rather than reaching for whatever's by the front door, invest in a chic cover-up that will serve you time and time again. A faux-fur stole looks decadent yet is practical, while a kimono can be styled off the shoulder. 

Wear embellished flats

This is 2018, after all. But the caveat is that they need to be really fancy flats. Glitter and embellished ballet-style shoes that are dainty in profile are appropriate – just don’t even entertain a lace-up or loafer.

Remember to have fun

It’s not every day you get to go all out on the glamour front, so enjoy adding some dazzling accessories, such as earrings, brooches or a statement necklace – costume jewellery is fine. Etiquette experts Debrett's decree that tiaras are not black tie appropriate, so leave those in the dressing-up box, but do ensure you have an elegant clutch bag or demure chain-strap bag to hold your essentials.