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Women's Black Tie Dress Code: A Style Guide

“Black Tie Dress Code” is as scary as “Black Ice”. It rivals “black holes” in its ability to confuse people. As for the “black sheep”? It’s easy to feel like one if you manage to muddle through a collective decision to dress in a very defined way for a dreaded specific occasion.

In a world of increasingly casual dress code boards, the dress code dilemma is ten pennies. Fresh hell: Useless passwords that just confuse – “evening”, “smart casual”, “smart formal”, “a touch of glamor” are in small italics – and don’t give any hint what they are de rigueur.

Not even Diana Vreeland, the legendary arbiter of taste, can help here. While her adage that “unpolished shoes are the end of civilization” still holds true, her advice on the black-tie dress code is less constructive: “The best time to leave a party is when it’s just started. As the saying goes , no drink kills except the drink you don’t want to drink, no time kills except the hour you want to stay after you go home.”

So, we know when leave. But how – and in what way? Here’s Vogue’s guide to decoding the black tie dress code for this season’s party invitations: What does the black tie dress code actually mean?

“Black bow tie with evening dress,” the dictionary helpfully notes. “More formal than white tie…suitable for dinners, parties and dances, as well as some seasonal events such as Glyndebourne,” adds Debrett’s. However, it all depends on the host. One man’s “impressive attire” is another man’s “barely a Balmain miniskirt”. Impressive as it may be – but all wrong for a charity gala. First, don’t be afraid to text your hosts about what level of formality they expect their guests to respect and what they themselves intend to wear.

What’s the best way to navigate the black tie dress code?

Simply put, a women’s “black tie” is best translated as “long”, along with fabrics suitable for evening wear, such as velvet, chiffon, silk or lace. If your host has an easy-going personality (or if the gown is dramatic Alexander McQueen), then a cocktail dress – shorter and possibly sleeker – might be more appropriate, but it’s best to assume a sweeping number (or Tuxedo case – yes, women can wear pantsuits to black tie events).

How do I predict how smart a campaign will be?

There will be clues. First, consider the inviting medium. The thicker the weave of the carrier pigeon stamp (and the fancier the calligraphy and first-class stamps), the smarter the campaign. If the subpoena is issued digitally via Facebook or WhatsApp, you can relax a little. Paperless mailing is the exception — just because an invitation is sent via email doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. The medium of texting should also be respected: It’s a way to imply “I’m laid back about my invitations” but mean “rhinestones are encouraged.”

How can I avoid a closet faux pas?

Get the guest list. This will give you plenty of people to test out their personal interpretations of the dress code, as well as handy intelligence if you’re considering re-wearing an old favorite. (This is no longer a faux pas; it just shows that you know your style). Most importantly, you don’t want to show up wearing the same clothes as everyone else. If the worst happens, create an Instagram story right away and get away from your doppelgänger.

What shoes should I wear?

Determine the location. Gravel, paving, lawn, parquet? Assess the route you may need to take at night, and be prepared to park your stilettos. Or, if you just have to don your new crystal-studded Saint Laurent metal sandals, find a squire willing to escort you through dangerous areas. (Note, never, ever take your shoes off on the dance floor. You might step on a rogue shard of glass—or another guest might step on your pedicure. Either way, it’s not trendy.)

Can I wear black?

sure. Everyone else is wearing it for a reason. Just make sure your accessories are icebreakers – as long as you wear this Céline crystal choker from the era of Phoebe Philo, your master will appreciate your efforts. And if all else fails, buy a string of diamond brooches and pile them on lapels and necklines—or on tousled bedside hair. Tell everyone they are heirlooms and ready to sparkle.

What have we learned over the years?

Take the advice given above, but don’t forget to use your own judgment. Not every black tie event is the same, so different rules apply. Pay homage to your hosts and follow the rules they have set for your attire for the evening. When in doubt, ask the host – they will know the answer.

Dressing for formal occasions can present an unnerving challenge to dress for, but once you’ve completed that challenge, you’ll know what fits the bill while also allowing you Feel comfortable while wearing it. From simple dresses to dramatic gowns, don’t be afraid to repeat an outfit. It looks chic, but it’s even chicer when done in a responsible way. Yes, even royals and celebrities wear clothes they used to secretly wear. Whether you’re doing it by organizing your collection by season or by level of formality, create your very own black tie capsule wardrobe and you’re all set.

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