What does "black tie" mean for women?
June 24, 2007 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Black tie dress codes: do I have to go and get myself a dress? How "formal" does it have to be?

I have no idea about smart clothes, and have been invited to a "black tie" event. Being female, I can't do the simple hire-a-tuxedo move... but I don't own a dress and haven't worn one for over a decade. Am I really going to have to buy myself a dress? Are there places that rent dresses out (in plus sizes, in the UK)? What about shoes? I've never worn heels in my life and don't really want to start now.
posted by handee to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (46 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Go ahead and hire the tux if you don't want to wear a dress.
posted by brujita at 10:16 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sorry, but black tie means formal wear. You certainly could show up in jeans and a t-shirt, but you may not be let in the door depending on the venue.

I can't speak to the UK, but most places in the US that rent tuxes also rent formal dresses, generally geared toward highschool proms and formal dances. Make some calls with your measurements at hand, and you'll likely be able to find something.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:16 AM on June 24, 2007

A proper black tie event is going to expect men to show up in tuxedos. You need to get a dress that would look appropriate in such a context. As for renting them, i'm not sure about that.
posted by chunking express at 10:16 AM on June 24, 2007

I guess my question is: what's appropriate in such a context? I have never been to such an event before.
posted by handee at 10:21 AM on June 24, 2007

Nthing black tie means get a dress, but you can probably pick up a reasonably affordable one at a charity shop, especially the bigger ones. I've seen entire formal sections in some larger Barnardos. There's also upscale consignment shops in a lot of areas that will keep your costs down, and you might be able to sell the dress back to them.
posted by ukdanae at 10:22 AM on June 24, 2007

Woman here. Butch(ish) lesbian, admittedly, but still. I've worn tuxedos to formal events multiple times. Most recently to a black tie event at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. My SO, who is a femme lesbian has also worn a tuxedo to black tie events.

If anyone has an issue with it, that's their problem. Have fun with it. Don't stress.

ps - what is the event? What time of day is the event, etc? That information will help to answer your follow up query.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2007

If you're not comfortable with wearing a dress, go for the tux. Or a similar black suit/pants getup.

Or a black women's suit over a white dress shirt, with black pants. Wear heels or whatever dressy shoes you have. Check out Ann Taylor and Nordstrom.
posted by Xere at 10:48 AM on June 24, 2007

It means a ballgown or other such "fancy" dress, sorry but that's it...
posted by hardcode at 10:50 AM on June 24, 2007

You can get away with a plain, block cocktail dress for black-tie, as long as it's a bit below the knees and isn't skintight. If you do some searching, you can probably find one that's fairly cheap and will work if you have to attend any other non-casual functions. I'm not sure you can get away with flats, but a low, thick heel (not a wedge) on a strappy sandal would probably be suitable and not too uncomfortable.

You DON'T need a ballgown unless the invitation specifies it--these are usually for "white tie" occasions, and you will probably be overdressed.
posted by almostmanda at 11:09 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

You don't need an actual ballgown, but it does mean a full (floor) length dress or skirt (with an appropriate blouse), in silk, satin, or similar fabrics. The cut and color is, of course, up to you.

On preview: cocktail dresses, even those below the knees, are generally considered semi-formal. It's possible you could get away with it, but also possible not. (I don't know what kind of event you're attending, and so how strict they're going to be about the dress code.)
posted by scody at 11:11 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're fine. Actually you have it much easier than a guy would, clothing-wise (grooming-wise, not so much). You can buy a dress at a thrift store for about $20 or less, and plus sizes abound. (Go to a thrift store in a rich neighborhood that is associated with a high-profile charity, eg Children's Hospital, for the best stuff) Even with dry cleaning and minor alterations (if needed) you come out ahead. If you can't find anything you like, do you have something like Loehmann's in the UK? Loehmann's clothes are almost as cheap as a thrift store, and of a more recent vintage.

I don't think you'd have to wear heels; I'd think dressy flats would be alright. In fact don't wear heels if you never usually do -- you'll be staggering around feeling like a dork, when Her Serene Highness Grace of Monaco is more what you're aiming for.
posted by Methylviolet at 11:29 AM on June 24, 2007

Instead of trying to find a dress (which you might never wear again), look instead for a dressy blouse and long skirt combo.

Get a plain silky tank top paired with a gauzy shirt and long skirt (or palazzo pants) in white or black. The accessory - a bold necklace, a fancy scarf, snazzy earrings or even a big bracelet but just one piece. Be a little sparkly with your makeup and keep your hair sleek.

You can get fancy with your shoes but if you're not comfy in heels, you could get away with black or white flats or sandals (or even beige if you're wearing white).

The best dressed woman I know (not me!) wore something similar to a wedding and used a peony from her neighbor's garden as an accessory - she look smashing and told me later that the whole outfit cost about $60 (the gauzy shirt was a beach cover up) She liked it so much and got so many complements that she put together similar outfits in different colors to wear to dressy events all summer.
posted by jaimystery at 11:32 AM on June 24, 2007

The best thing to do would be to call the organizers and ask, since the common practice of women at black tie events may vary slightly. I've been to black tie events where the women were predominantly wearing cocktail dresses and others where they were mainly full-length.

What is the event for?

In the absence of extra information, I would expect at least tea-length dresses at a black tie event. It's hard to see that you would look out of place wearing a floor-length dress, so that's the safest thing. If you don't know that it's okay, don't wear a cocktail dress.
posted by grouse at 11:43 AM on June 24, 2007

Many thanks for all of your helpful comments so far. I am going to have to go shopping.

It seems that some long smart dress with smart shoes (with a bit of heel if I can handle it) is likely to be acceptable. The event is a big university bash with bigwigs and a few celebs - I will be far from centre stage.

Looking through the "formal wear" bit of M&S, I have to ask is something like this black dress likely to be OK? I suspect this one is more me but less acceptable.

I've never worn makeup either. I don't think I can manage that without looking like an 8 year old dressing up - so that might have to get ignored unless it's really really vital.
posted by handee at 11:48 AM on June 24, 2007

I do not think a skirt & blouse combination would make it to black tie level, unless perhaps it was a very glitzy set and you are in the silver-haired set.

If you want to blend in and not look out of place, get a floor length formal dress. Go for black if you feel awkward, you will blend in and no one will think you look strange. If you don't want to wear heels, you don't have to, but you need to wear attractive, formal shoes. Try to find a pair that is satin - most leather shoes are not formal enough for a black tie event.

You can wear a tuxedo if you want, but people will pay more attention to what you're wearing than if you just conform and wear a decent dress. You can wear whatever you want, probably, but it sounds like you want to fit in, so that's why I'm suggesting what I'm suggesting. Cocktail length or tea length dresses are too short.

I wish you were in the US so I could suggest some stores, but I am sure if you do enough searching you can find someplace with some nice, comfortable, attractive dresses in your size.
posted by tastybrains at 11:51 AM on June 24, 2007

If anyone has an issue with it, that's their problem.

I have to disagree with this. If you are dressed inappropriately, depending on the type of place you're going to, it will be your problem.
posted by oaf at 11:55 AM on June 24, 2007

handee - the first dress is nice, but i think it's too short. the second one is too casual.

here are some styles that i think would work: 1 , 2 , 3 , 4
posted by tastybrains at 11:58 AM on June 24, 2007

oaf - Disagree all you want but if a woman shows up in a tuxedo she's adhering to the dress requirements even if she's turning gender norms on their ears.

I'm not suggesting she show up in a hefty bag.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:17 PM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Disagree all you want but if a woman shows up in a tuxedo she's adhering to the dress requirements

No, she's not. "Black tie" does not imply that proper attire for women is a tuxedo, and in almost all cases, it isn't. I'm not saying I agree with how it is, but that is how it is.
posted by oaf at 12:37 PM on June 24, 2007

I suspect I'd get more attention in a tuxedo (which would be a bad thing). I also think finding a tuxedo which fits will take more time, effort and money than a dress, whether or not it is appropriate.
posted by handee at 12:43 PM on June 24, 2007

Looks like you're in Leeds -- I would check out the Ann Harvey there. They don't have an online store, but judging from a few eBay items (including this one) it looks like you might be able to pick up a simple satin-y evening dress from them.
posted by ukdanae at 12:53 PM on June 24, 2007

After months of reading askmefi I finally registered so that I can answer this question.

handee, part of the problem is that the site you linked does not have formal dresses. What they have classified as "formal dresses" are barely the formality of cocktail dresses. None of that would qualify as black tie.

If this is an annual event, look at last years society page photos. People dress with the same level of formality each year. If women are wearing cocktail length and the men are wearing dark suits, then you have your answer. University events are often a bit less formal if students attend - mostly because not every student budget extends to evening wear.

One thing to consider it your host/date/escort. If you're there as someone's guest, you should consider what they're wearing. I'm not talking matching cummerbunds, just a similar level of formality.

Here is what I'd suggest for you:
- Simple floor-length black or navy dress with a full skirt. Fuller skirts are usually easier to move in than more body conscious styles. Also, be sure you can wear your normal bra. You don't want to add complicated foundation garments.
- Flat ballerina slipper.
- A dressy evening bag (someone will loan you one)
- A nice evening wrap (optional)

Have a friend do your make-up for you if you want to wear cosmetics. Ask her to do a demo run a few days earlier so you get used to it. Maybe you can be comfortable with just lipstick and mascara. Wear your hair simply - a low ponytail can seem quite dressy because it's simple.

Here's a dress from Target that would work. Just an example, there are plenty of similar dresses out there.

The trick here is to not get so gussied up that you feel foolish. The dress and the evening bag are fancy enough. Keep everything else simple so that you can shine.
posted by 26.2 at 1:00 PM on June 24, 2007

As a plus size gal myself, I've noticed the skirt/top vs dress rule isn't as strictly enforced. Because of sizing difficulties (you're a lot more likely to be a different size on top and bottom if you're plus) it's a lot harder to find plus sized dresses than skirt/top combos, and those are often sold as sets, so it's really more like a 2-piece dress.

Looking at the M&S page I can't see a single dress, even in the standard size section, I would classify as "black tie." The most formal of them look to me more like "dinner in a nice restaurant" level of formality. Most look like business casual.

For a good idea of plus size black tie maybe look for pics plus sized stars at awards shows. Clearly, no one has the cash they do for fancy clothes, but it could inspire you. Kathy Bates tends to favor long jackets that coordinate with simple, clean lined dresses. Camryn Manheim and Queen Latifah tend to favor lower cuts and more dramatic outfits, but both do tend to wear wraps and the like with them. Depending on your age one may be a good source of inspiration when you go shopping.

I'm also going to disagree with everyone else and say pants can be black tie, if done right.[1] I can totally see black palazzo pants in a nice fabric, a flowy long tunic top in silk or a sheer material with a silky camisole under it, with some embroidery or beading on it, and maybe a nice long silk or satin jacket working completely when paired with the right shoes and accessories. A bold necklace, some earrings, maybe a bracelet or two, and a nice clutch bag.

As for shoes... if you don't wear heels normally DO NOT get heels for this, you won't be able to walk in them, and you'll be in pain. What will people notice more- a woman in flats or a woman limping and looking like she's about to trip over her own shoes?
Get some smart flats or at most a kitten heel. Maybe something like this or this.

Makeup... eh, why spend the dough buying everything if you don't wear it? Just schedule a makeup session at a salon or beauty counter. Shouldn't be a lot of cash (we're all doing that for my sister's wedding, I think it's like $20 for each of us), and you won't have to worry about getting the eyeliner right or anything. Less money than going out and getting foundation, powder, eyeliner, mascara, shadow, lipliner, lipstick and all the associated tools.

[1]note: I am an American, so the rules may be less strict here.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:05 PM on June 24, 2007

I'm in San Francisco, where formality is not exactly prized, but most of the US publications I searched when trying to figure out how formal I needed to be for a black-tie event said that women could wear cocktail dresses, floor-length dresses, or super-dressy pantsuits (think sequins and silk and satin).

At the event I went to, it was mostly cocktail dresses. Floor-length would be safest, I'd say. Plus I think it's easier to get away with flats with a longer dress; they'll just look a bit better -- both because the dress covers them a bit, and because it keeps your (otherwise bare) legs from looking like they're ending abruptly.
posted by occhiblu at 1:09 PM on June 24, 2007

yep, get a nice black pantsuit made out of black crepe (which you can also wear to a job interview, funeral, whatever). wear it with a white or ivory silk camisole underneath with a little bit of lace and a string of pearls or a diamond solitaire necklace.

for shoes, find a pair of black satin or patent leather (but not regular leather) ballet flats. they're very popular now and will be easy to find. wear them with sheer black knee-high stockings.

there is no reason you have to tart yourself up like a barbie to look nice. i hate heels and haven't worn them in years, although i do wear dresses.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:34 PM on June 24, 2007

You're fine. Actually you have it much easier than a guy would, clothing-wise (grooming-wise, not so much). You can buy a dress at a thrift store for about $20 or less, and plus sizes abound.

Meh, someone attending a black-tie event likely isn't worried about money, the fact is, everyone knows that black tie for a guy = tux, everyone agrees what tuxes look like, you pick one up and there's no question, whereas this thread has at least as many contradictory opinions as it has posters.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:49 PM on June 24, 2007

With respect to posters from the left side of the pond, I think the rules on formality in dress are slightly different in the UK. I've been to four black tie events in the last year and I can't remember seeing a single women's suit. It would definitely make the OP stand out, when that's what she said she wanted to avoid.

I'll reiterate my advice that the best thing to do is to contact the organizers for more specific advice. Or follow 26.2's excellent advice and try to find photos if it is an annual event.

Wearing dressy flats should be fine. Anyone who notices is petty.
posted by grouse at 1:55 PM on June 24, 2007

I was presented to British royalty at a black tie reception, in flat shoes and no makeup. (I was otherwise formally attired, including elbow-length gloves, which you won't have to worry about.)

If you're not comfortable with face-frosting, by all means don't pipe it on, and don't let anyone make you go to get a salon job, either.
posted by Sallyfur at 2:32 PM on June 24, 2007

I can't give much advice, as I've never been to a black tie event, and my mum made my Grad Ball dress (no, she doesn't do commissions). But if I needed to buy a dress for a formal event, my first stop would be Debenhams not M&S, I'd probably also try House of Fraiser. I might not buy one there, but it would give me an idea of what's out there (and remind me how much I do not want to dress up in a big pink pompom for any reason, ever).

I think you will get away with a well put together, dressy skirt and top combination (and I'm thinking camisole rather than blouse).

I don't know of anywhere were you can hire dresses, but a quick google found this: http://www.promdress.co.uk but I don't think you're going to save much money by hiring one. If you buy, you could always ebay it after the event.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:17 PM on June 24, 2007

I've been to lots of large black tie events and while the US may be less formal than the UK, I always find there's a great range of dresses. There's always some fabulous old coot wearing something insane, and someone in a totally wrong dress, and several panstsuits.
Personally, I think that crinkle dress you like, as long as it's dressed up with sparkly jewelry, an evening bag and (yes, you can't avoid it) heels, would be fine. But I appear to be in the minority here.

Also - a good secret is that a really fabulous shawl in either lace or silk or with spanglies or whatever you like, can turn a plainish dress into evening wear just like that.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:29 PM on June 24, 2007

Do you not know any other women that are going to be there? Ask them what they're going to be wearing. If you and a few of your girlfriends decide on similar style outfits, you're not going to look out of place whatever you wear.
As previously noted, black tie can mean anything from cocktail dress to ball gown and opera gloves for women. Unless this is a party for major socialites then no-one will much notice or particularly care what you're wearing - you're not going to be thrown out because your dress doesnt reach the floor or you're wearing a 2-piece rather than a dress or even a nice trouser suit.
As longer as you dont stick out the focus will be on the celebrities and bigwigs.

If you really cant find out what anyone else is going to be wearing keep it simple. A plain black dress - below knee length, plain shoes, a nice shawl/wrap (if the dress is short sleeved/strappy) and a small purse. Simple silver jewellry if you have it.

Being plus-sized you can get away with a lot more in the wardrobe department, you choice is limited much more by what is available. I doubt anyone would expect you to be in a full ballgown - unless it was custom tailored it would probably look bad anyway. Unless you're stick thin, dresses can be a problem - they're made for you to be the same size top and bottom and very few people are.

At the end of the day the point is to not stand out and draw attention to yourself, if you're wearing something that makes you clearly uncomfortable it will stand out and people will notice.

...and if there are going to be students there I dont think you need to be the one to worry about non-conformity ;)
posted by missmagenta at 3:40 PM on June 24, 2007

Here's my two cents, from experience.

I have been to many black-tie affairs, and have seen men without a tux, and women with suits on. However, they usually worked for the catering service.

No, seriously, I have seen both, although I don't remember anyone seeing it as acceptable. Quite the opposite, in fact. I distinctly recall people making fun of these people to their face. Not that I was a part of that, just sayin'.

I would say, if you don't want to stick out like a sore thumb, you should probably go out and buy a dress. Most likely, any employee at a decent shop will show you exactly what you need.
posted by bradth27 at 4:09 PM on June 24, 2007

Seconding missmagenta. A university event in the UK will have a great deal of variety in what the women wear. Your crinkle crepe M&S dress with evening accessories would be fine, or a hired dress, or try your local charity shops or "dress agencies" (smart second hand clothes shops) for an evening dress or an exciting top that you can team with a plain long skirt (or trousers if you really prefer them). Certainly use a charity shop for an evening bag and a stole or shawl. Flat shoes, especially sandals, should be fine, and so should going without make-up. Colourwise, you probably want to avoid black-and-white as that is what the men will be wearing

Have fun!
posted by Idcoytco at 4:26 PM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oxford and Cambridge ball photos are probably a good guide, as long as the men are wearing black (i.e. not white) tie. This gallery, for example. And shawls are your friend.
posted by holgate at 4:29 PM on June 24, 2007

A lot of the advice here is good if you were going to a black tie ball at an embassy, but I get the impression, especially with the time of year, that this is a university ball attended by undergraduates.

If so then, apart from the guys in dinner jackets, most of the other people there won't look out of place at a nice restaurant. There will be plenty of guys wearing suits rather than dinner jackets, apparently breaking the rules of Black Tie. I've been to White Tie Oxbridge balls in sneakers, suit trousers and a shirt. I had a neck tie (not bow tie) in my pocket, forgot to put it on, and never have it a moment's thought all night. Seriously, if this is an undergraduate thing, wear whatever you feel good in. The second M&S dress you linked to, that you worried wouldn't be OK, would absolutely be OK at an undergraduate ball in the UK (and I think it's really nice)!

For shoes, wear heels if you feel you'd like to, but bear in mind that you may be up late and on your feet for a lot of your night. No one will notice if you wear flats.

Some people enjoy getting worked up and stressed out about what to wear to this sort of event. If that's not your thing, just get something you'd feel good in at a nice restaurant.
posted by caek at 4:39 PM on June 24, 2007

Easy. For a woman, Black Tie means floor-length dress. You could also get away with a matching two piece long skirt and top, if they are made of a fancy-looking material. Is the event in the evening? Then a dark color would probably be best. For footwear, a nice pair of dressy flats is fine. Nylons are generally worn at formal occasions. Some sort of wrap to use instead of a coat (especially because it's summer), and a smallish evening bag.
I wouldn't bother renting- you could probably find something cheaper at a second-hand clothing store or on sale at a department store. If you don't want to spend a lot of money, look to buy you accesories secondhand or borrow them from a friend.

Make sure you feel comfortable in whatever you wear, so you can relax and enjoy the fancy food and champagne. I'm assuming your goal is to blend in, and for this reason, I strongly recommend NOT donning a woman-tux.
posted by emd3737 at 5:55 PM on June 24, 2007

For a woman, Black Tie means floor-length dress.

I really beg to differ.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:28 PM on June 24, 2007

[1]note: I am an American, so the rules may be less strict here.

I'm an American too, and I just think a lot of people don't seem to know or care about what's appropriate. Is that abad thing? I don't know.

But black tie is black tie. Suits do not cut it. Skirts & tops that do not look like a dress will not cut it (and will probably look matronly, which may or may not be your thing). Pants that are not part of a tux will not cut it. A tux on a woman may or may not cut it, but it will attract attention.

I see a lot of people encouraging the OP to break the rules & do what she wants. From her posts, it seems to me that she wants to do what's appropriate. Which is pretty much exclusively a floor-length dress.

I'm plus size, so I know it can be difficult to find something you feel good about yourself in - especially if you aren't used to getting dressed up. But if you want to blend in and not call attention to yourself, then get yourself a dark-colored, floor length dress. The flat shoes will be fine. Simple hair will be fine. Minimal or no makeup will be ok.

Hopefully you can find a nice, basic black dress that you don't have to worry about selling - something you can keep in your closet for the next time you are expected to look fancy. Hell, I have two black dresses, one floor length, one tea-length, that I have worn over and over again to various functions and continue to get compliments on. If you forsee having to go to more events like this, or people's weddings, or whatever, it's a sound investment to get a flattering, classic style dress that you are comfortable in.

If you are really at a loss, you might want to try shops that carry bridesmaids dresses. They almost all come in black or other dark neutrals and you should have no problem finding a plus size dress in a black tie appropriate style.

I don't know your shape, but an A-line skirt with a scoop or v-neck and no sleeves is usually very flattering regardless of weight.
posted by tastybrains at 7:34 PM on June 24, 2007

The "rules" of black tie will not be enforced on the door. In Britain at least, while a lounge suit is not black tie, there will be plenty of people wearing them. In Britain, what black tie means in theory is very different to what it means in practice (or, apparently, in the US). As you can see from the Oxford ball gallery linked, lots of girls (most) will be in cocktail dresses.
posted by caek at 4:14 AM on June 25, 2007

The "rules" of black tie will not be enforced on the door.

You really don't know that, and I can vouch that sometimes, yes, the rules are enforced on the door, and people in lounge suits are turned away. If you're saying that women will probably not be turned away with a restrained cocktail dress, then I agree. But once again, the OP wasn't asking what she could get away with, but rather what is appropriate, and will draw the least attention.
posted by grouse at 5:25 AM on June 25, 2007

Thanks all. I suspect I'll be shopping for a long black dress and some shoes and a handbag and then ebaying soon afterwards. I now have a much better idea of the expectations.
posted by handee at 5:40 AM on June 25, 2007

An interesting lesson in how the same words mean different things in different places!

For those of you who were dogmatic about "long dress only", I attended a big expensive black-tie awards ceremony in London a few weeks ago. As far as I can remember, the women on our table (all of whom attend formal evening events regularly) wore: a black knee-length "cocktail" dress, a long skirt with a contrasting sleeveless evening top, a calf-length sparkly dress, a dark office-type suit of trousers and short jacket with a silk blouse, a flowery silk knee-length dress also suitable for smart daytime events.
posted by Idcoytco at 12:33 PM on June 25, 2007

An interesting lesson in how the same words mean different things in different places!

Yes, I told my English girlfriend that women in America wear something called a "pantsuit." She thought that was hilarious (the name, not the outfit).

posted by grouse at 1:36 PM on June 25, 2007

A while back Martha Stewart wore a pantsuit to a White House black tie event. She looked totally out of place and stupid.

When you get told "black tie" that means there is an expectation on how you are supposed to dress. If you don't want to do that, don't go.
posted by erikharmon at 3:52 PM on June 26, 2007

Following up: I went for this black marks+spencer dress, with silver flat pumps and a silver clutch bag, and a thai silk scarf thing. It was the honorary graduation dinner (not a student do, lots of bigwigs including at least one Sir and at least one Colonel) but I was fine, it was fun, and there were plenty of people there more scruffy than me. Thanks all.
posted by handee at 6:28 AM on July 15, 2007

Just for future reference, I found my prom dress in a local shop but the Prom Planner website had links to loads of shops. www.promplanner.co.uk
posted by The Sturgeon at 4:52 AM on November 7, 2007

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