We Decoded What Black-Tie Formal Wear Really Means (and What to Wear)

When it comes to formal dress codes, knowing what’s okay and not okay to wear often eludes us. What dress length is appropriate for a black-tie invitation? Do I need to wear black? When is the right time to err on the side of classic versus more trend-forward? We all face these uncertainties and more when getting dressed for any type of black-tie event that warrants formal wear.

The truth is that as invitations these days are much more varied, there is no one standard to approaching black-tie formal wear. Instead, you might encounter a number of “black tie” occasions that warrant a spectrum of dress codes. From standard black tie to black-tie creative, we’re breaking down the details you need to know when getting dressed for any type of formal event.

Read on to see the celebrity-inspired looks that fit the bill for every variation of black-tie formal wear.

Dress Code: Black Tie

If your invitation simply reads “black tie,” this indicates the most formal of attire. For men, the standard is typically their best tuxedo. For women, a floor-length gown is appropriate, and while you aren’t actually required to wear black to a black-tie event, a darker color palette is preferred. Most women opt for an updo to show off their glamorous jewels.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Olivia Culpo: Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini Sheer Lace Gown ($1995); Hueb Mirage 18K White Gold and Diamond Earrings ($13,550)

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Dress Code: Black-Tie Creative

For black-tie creative, think black-tie standards of formalwear (floor-length gown, your best jewelry), but with more room to play with cuts, colors, and trendy pieces. You might try an asymmetrical dress here or one in a vibrant color. Creativity encouraged.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Lily Aldridge: Ralph Lauren dress; Bulgari earrings; Balenciaga Knife Over-the-Knee Boots ($1690)

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Dress Code: Black-Tie Preferred

Just like standard black tie, a floor-length gown is the most appropriate, though the addition of “preferred” indicates that you should opt for the most elegant dress (or suit) you own. If that means you don’t have a darker floor-length gown on hand, an elevated cocktail dress may be appropriate, though you’d be best suited to dress it up with beautiful shoes and accessories.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Emma Roberts: Diane von Furstenberg dress

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Dress Code: Black-Tie Optional

This is the least formal of the black-tie dress codes. Similar to black-tie preferred, there will be a wider spectrum of formal attire at this event. You may choose between a floor-length and cocktail-length dress, but nice heels and an evening bag are still appropriate. Think of black-tie optional as a touch more elevated than cocktail attire.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Behati Prinsloo: Gucci dress and Patent Leather Sandals ($730)

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Editor

Anna is an editor on the fashion team at Who What Wear and has been at the company for over five years, having begun her career in the Los Angeles office before relocating to New York, where she's currently based. Having always been passionate about pursuing a career in fashion, she built up her experience interning at the likes of Michael Kors, A.L.C., and College Fashionista before joining the team as a post-graduate assistant editor. Anna has penned a number of interviews with Who What Wear's cover stars over the years, including A-listers Megan Fox, Issa Rae, and Emma Chamberlain. She's earned a reputation for scouting new and emerging brands from across the globe and championing them to our audience of millions. While fashion is her main wheelhouse, Anna led the launch of WWW Travels last year, a new lifestyle vertical that highlights all things travel through a fashion-person lens. She is passionate about shopping vintage, whether it be at a favorite local outpost or an on-the-road discovery, and has amassed a wardrobe full of unique finds. When she's not writing, you can find her shooting street imagery on her film camera, attempting to learn a fourth or fifth language, or planning her next trip across the globe.