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

Shop for a Black-Tie Invitation:

Refined and elegant, you’ll nail the black-tie dress code in this stunning satin gown.

Available in sizes UK6 to UK14.

Gunmetal hardware gives these shoes a subtle edge.

Available in sizes IT35 to IT41.

The perfect accessory for holiday parties.

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

Shop for a Black-Tie Creative Invitation:

The high slit lets your statement shoes peek out.

Available in sizes 2 to 4.

The boots beloved by Hollywood’s most stylish crowd.

Available in sizes EU35 to EU42.

Single statement earrings are the under-the-radar jewelry trend we’re seeing everywhere.

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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On Emma Roberts: Diane von Furstenberg dress

Shop for a Black-Tie Preferred Invitation:

This is exactly the kind of versatile LBD that should be in everyone’s closet.

Available in sizes 2 to 10.

Satin shoes were made for evening dresses.

Available in sizes IT35 to IT41.

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

Shop for a Black-Tie Optional Invitation:

If you plan on showing a little leg, balance it out with a high neckline.

Available in sizes 0 to 4.

Simple yet stunning.

Available in sizes 4 to 10.5.

Not like all your other going-out bags.

Winter wedding invitations flooding your inbox? Our complete guide to what to wear has you covered.

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