Aside from the date and destination, there are three main details you notice right off the bat when reading a wedding invitation. First, whether or not you have a plus one. Second, what the dining options are. And lastly, the recommended dress code. Anyone who has attended a wedding or formal event before knows that navigating the world of dress codes can be a murky endeavor, especially when the invite reads white tie.
What Is White Tie Attire?
White tie attire is the most formal dress code and is typically interpreted as floor-length gowns for women and a black jacket or coat with tails and matching pants for men.
Uncommon for modern weddings, white tie attire has been around for centuries. “White tie attire evolved in the 19th century and began to wane after World War I,” Beaumont Etiquette weddings specialist Anne Chertoff tells Brides. “Men on both sides of the Atlantic were looking for something a little less formal and they chose to wear black-tie: a black jacket without tails, white dress shirt, and black bow tie.”
Meet the Expert
Anne Chertoff is a wedding specialist at Beaumont Etiquette, a consultancy that offers courses in British, Continental European, and American etiquette as well as wedding webinar programs for couples.
Chertoff offers up the example of this shift spotted in the television series Downtown Abbey: “After World War I ends during season two and three, you see the male characters above stairs starting to wear black tie for dinners that don’t have esteemed guests. And in a later season, Violet the Dowager Countess mistakes her son, the Earl of Grantham, for a waiter because he was in black tie and not white.”
White Tie Attire for Men and Women
Because white tie is the most formal dress code, “a woman can wear a grand ballgown and opulent jewels,” Chertoff says. Optional additions include white gloves and a tiara if you are a married woman or a bride on her wedding day. “Women should avoid cocktail style dresses or anything that is considered semi-formal or other less formal dress styles,” Chertoff adds. When in doubt, a full-length gown in an elegant fabric should do the trick.
“There is no such thing as white tie casual,” etiquette expert Diane Gottsman tells Brides. “White tie is a very traditional type of attire and you would never wear a pre-tied bowtie or a shirt without studs or cufflinks.” The standard items for a man to successfully achieve white tie attire are black pants with a matching jacket or coat with tails that reach the back of the knee.
Meet the Expert
Diane Gottsman is a national etiquette expert, author, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.
“The shirt, waistcoat, and bowtie are white and the shoes are black patent leather with black laces,” Chertoff notes. Modern interpretations of white tie attire are slightly more lenient and allow men to incorporate a touch of personality with pieces like colorful or patterned bowties. Similar to women, white gloves are also optional for men.
White Tie Attire Etiquette
A white tie dress code signals to guests that formality is an important component of the wedding. “If the couple requests that their guests dress in the most formal attire the guests should dress in the most formal attire,” Chertoff says. “If a gentleman doesn’t own white tie, there are men’s formal stores they can rent a suit from if they don’t wish to purchase one.”
Receiving a wedding invitation that requests white tie attire implies a feeling of grandeur. “It’s reserved for extremely special occasions and when the celebration is extremely ceremonial,” Gottsman adds. “People put a lot of effort into going the extra mile. The reality is, most people don’t have this type of attire hanging around.”
If you’re planning a wedding and are debating on whether or not to request a white tie dress code, the expense might deter guests from being able to attend, in which case a black-tie attire might be a second-best option.
Chertoff adds that other formal occasions you’ll find teamed up with a white tie dress code include the International Debutante Ball in New York City, the Gridiron Dinner in Washington, D.C., the Vienna Opera Ball in Austria, and Royal State Dinners at Buckingham Palace.