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  • Writer's pictureNiels Strohkirch

When to wear a White Tie vs a Black Tie Suit

We all have seen the dashing black tie worn by James Bond in his movies, it’s also called a “dinner jacket”, only beaten by James Bond himself when, he wore a white tie suit. But, what is the difference of these very formal attires? When do you wear a black tie suit or also called a tuxedo, or respectively called a “Smoking” attire in Germany. When do you wear a white tie suit? How is it worn correctly so that the pros are not being able to point you out, as a rookie?

The white tie or “full dress’ as it is also called is undisputedly the most formal civilian dress code in the 21st century. But let’s be clear, even if you own a white tie suit, the opportunity to wear it regularly would be slim, all over the world, as functions where it is required are seldom and typically related to high society or royal events. The white tie suit is also typically worn to European state dinners, society balls or society weddings. If you were to travel to Northern Europe, then you will find more opportunity to wear a white tie suit as weddings often do require this form of dress code, especially, in Sweden, Norway and Finland. The Vienna “Opernball” is also a good occasion to wear a white tie suit.

Before I do forget, a “White Tie” event does not mean a white tie or necktie should be worn, it clearly means a white bow tie and it should be manufactured out of cotton pique material while matching your white west made from the same material. The wings, of your wing collared shirt should be tucked behind the bow tie and not pushing over it. If you attend such a high profile event, simply stay away from pre-tied bow ties, and just in case if you do not know how to tie a bow tie, it would be wise to learn to do so, as soon as possible.

With regards to the jacket, or to be more precise, to the tail coat jacket, any intention, to go for a rented version, or one of the rack would not be advisable. You better think twice, as these jackets may look great, but they might not be as well fitted on you and you might look like Frank Sinatra wearing a poncho in the rain. A made-to-measure tail coat, is the only alternative. If you are not willing to invest, then you better stay away from such an invitation. And needless to say, that choosing cheap fabric, like polyester or a mixed wool, will not “cut” it either. You better stay home, if you are not willing to invest here.

The jacket should be in black or midnight blue in colour, with silk peaked lapels, either satin or grosgrain. The cut of the jacket is the double breasted style but it leaves the front part of the jacket always open and goes from there in a sharp slope back at your legs and down to the tail. The tail can be split or vented. This relates to the event you go to, while both styles are typically acceptable.

The pants are from the same fabric as your tail coat jacket and have either two narrow stripes or one wider stripe down the outseam of your pants. The material for the stripes should be the same as you have chosen for your lapels on your jacket. As we are talking about formal pants here, you do not wear them with turn ups or cuffs at the end of your pants and for sure you do not wear a belt. If the pants are properly fitted, then you do not need anything to hold them up, otherwise suspenders are the holding choice of the evening.

Your shoes have to be black and nothing else. Court shoes have been the original choice. But today, they are more seen as “ladies wear” and are typically not the first choice for men. Now, lace-up shoes and Oxford shoes are widely accepted. Make sure they are “new” and highly polished.

How does the black tie suit look in comparison to the white tie suit?

While just learning that the “White Tie” is more formal than the “Black Tie”, it is far from being informal. Typically you can wear a black tie to “Award Nights” as well as to annual dinners from political or commercial organizations such as chambers etc as well as the “ball season” or charity dinners can demand a black tie suit. Being a business leader, you should be owning a black tie outfit, to use it for a couple of times in a year.

The classic tuxedo jacket is using the same black or midnight blue material, that you would use for an evening tailcoat. Typically, it is single breasted with one button and without vents. You either combine it with peak lapels in satin or a dégagé shawl collar. The pants are following the full dress, while some prefer only a single stripe to differentiate the pants. But nowadays both have merged and all the discussed styles here are acceptable.

Since the 1950’s a cummerbund is accepted around the waist line to cover your low cut pants style. The material is the same as your chosen lapels. Especially, in Europe the cummerbund is not very popular. Anyhow, internationally, you should only disregard the cummerbund, if the event is not very formal or in case, you wear a double breasted jacket, which is worn closed only.

Your shirt is similar to the full dress shirt. You have a wing collar behind your bow tie, while a soft front turn down, formal shirt is also acceptable, in case you do not like to expose the band of your bow tie. The bosom is ideally decorated with pleats (this shirt is also called a “dress shirt”) or pique and having French cuffs / double cuffs with cuff links, is a clear must have, while using studs to make the shirt simply round and perfect.

Your bow tie should match in very formal events your lapel color and your shoes are the same as for the white tie suit as described above. Maroon, red or blue bow ties are better, only when used in events that are fashionable, as part of the event. If you are not sure, the safest way to stay is with black bow tie, ideally as a self binder.

When can you wear a White Dinner Jacket?

In a tropical weather, where places usually have very hot summers, or on board of a cruise ship, an alternative for the black dinner jacket, can be an off-white dinner jacket. But the rest stays the same, as for a dinner jacket.

Modern Variations of a Dinner Jacket

In today’s world, you have many variations of dinner jackets. Depending on the occasion, this might be a nice contra point to the very formal and very black dinner jacket, of the past. Anyhow, ensure that you be clear upfront, of what kind of event it is. Are you invited to a fashionable event? A fancy blue bow tie and fitting blue lapels, might be the fashion talk of the evening. Wearing this, to a formal political dinner with political leaders and business leaders, it is for sure, a way of getting a lot of laughs, for the wrong reasons, as you might be considered a “fashion victim” instead.


While the occasions to wear a white tie suit or a black tie suit are quite rare, ensure you have a perfectly fitted suit, for this kind of event. Avoid attending such prestigious events, with an off the rack version or even worse a rented version. Invest into a tailor made suit. Otherwise, this only shows that you lack class or that you cannot afford a proper outfit or worse, both! Avoid also of becoming a fashion victim.

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