Ask the Stylist

Black-Tie Attire for Women: Your Questions Answered

by Leah Bourne


Have you ever gotten an invitation in the mail that says “black-tie attire” and felt more perplexed than excited? Well, you’re not alone. Navigating this dress code can be confusing. You may worry about being underdressed, and you may ask yourself questions like: Do I have to wear a gown? Are pants ever acceptable? What does “black-tie optional” even mean?

With this in mind, here are some of the answers to your questions about black-tie attire for women.

Do You Have to Wear a Gown to a Black-Tie Event?

Do You Have to Wear a Gown to a Black-Tie Event?

The Emily Post Institute defines black-tie attire for women as a “formal floor-length evening gown, [a] dressy cocktail dress, [or] your dressiest ‘little black dress’.” The idea of a black-tie dress code stems from what men should wear—a black tuxedo jacket and matching trousers with a black bow tie—and women are expected to wear an outfit that complements that level of formality.

Considering how open-ended that expectation is, you can err on the side of caution by sticking to a floor-length gown, but you can also wear a cocktail dress. If you’re going with a shorter length, pick one in a rich fabric like velvet or brocade. You should also consider a silhouette that has a little volume and make sure the hemline is below the knee or three-quarter length.

If you’re wearing a pair of pants, the classic wool-blend pants you wear to the office will not cut it for a black-tie event. Wide-leg trousers, or satin or velvet pants will be your best bet.

What Does “Black-Tie Optional” Mean?

This type of event is going to be slightly less formal than black tie. For these occasions, it’s likely that quite a few guests will be in a dressy cocktail dress rather than a gown. If you’re feeling fancy, you can still wear a floor-length dress, but a short dress—in satin or with beaded detailing—is a perfect choice.

If you’re in a pinch and don’t want to buy something, pull out your favorite little black dress or black pantsuit. Just make sure to dress it up by wearing the right statement jewelry and feminine heels.

What about Black-Tie Work Events?

What about Black-Tie Work Events?

Black-tie attire for a work event—like an awards ceremony or a conference—can be tricky. Expect guests to wear a wide range of outfits, from dressy pants to gowns to short cocktail dresses. Your best bet is to go with either your most formal little black dress or a pantsuit. Pair your suit with a bodysuit under it rather than a blouse to give it a more formal vibe.

What Does “Creative Black Tie” Mean?

Your host is giving you permission to have fun. Pants or even a jumpsuit will be perfectly appropriate. Look to the red carpet for some inspiration on how to knock a creative black-tie look out of the park. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing, and Emma Stone have all worn jumpsuits to the Golden Globes, and that’s about as black tie as it gets.

This is also an occasion to have fun with your accessories. Take the word “creative” literally and experiment with adornments like drop earrings, an oversized crystal pin, or beaded sandals. If you have a fascinator that your grandmother passed down to you that’s been sitting in the back of your closet for years because you’ve had no clue when to wear it, this might be its time to shine.

Do You Have to Wear Black to a Black-Tie Event?

Do You Have to Wear Black to a Black-Tie Event?

Absolutely not. The words “black tie” allude to the expectation that men wear a black tuxedo, but women have all the room in the world to play with color. Bright colors and prints can make a stylish statement. And as long as you aren’t attending a wedding, white can also be a very elegant color choice.

Staying within the parameters of black-tie attire for women can be a little overwhelming, but you don’t want to worry about feeling like you’re not dressed for the occasion. Use these guidelines, and look at it as an opportunity to play with texture, silhouettes, and accessories.

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