White and black tie

White Tie Preferred means precisely that. If you can dress in white tie, please do. If you can’t, black tie is perfectly acceptable.

White Tie is a simple two-word code for the formality of dress required. For gentlemen, it defines very precisely what is required. For ladies, it usually means a long dress. The latter still seem to have a good grasp of what formal dress means. This document and its various links are therefore restricted to what gentlemen need to know.

Like White Tie, Black Tie is another simple two-word code for the formality of dress required. Even for gentlemen, its definition is now nowhere as strict as it used to be (and as White Tie still is). For completeness, a note on black tie is also included.

Bands are nothing to do with evening dress as such but they are often worn with white tie. Since we have been asked how to tie them, we have included an explanation for convenience.

White Tie

White Tie consists of the following five elements:

Shoes and socks should be black.

If you’ve seen a few Fred Astaire films (except “Swing Time” where the late Mr Astaire spends most of his time in morning dress, you will know exactly what is meant!

To buy all the above new will cost you a small fortune. However, all the items can be obtained second-hand without too much difficulty. Indeed, older garments are likely to be of a better material and of a better cut than you can obtain without having clothes made for you. Furthermore, you may already own some of the items such as a plain white shirt or a pair of trousers worn with a dinner jacket. Cautious purchases will equip you for many a long year!

There are a number of accessories you can add. None is necessary but it is worth knowing what they are in case you come across any of them being offered for a ridiculously low price.


The tail coat is the sine qua non of white tie. Fortunately, old tail coats of high quality are relatively easy to obtain second-hand.

The first thing to note is that there is a difference between the evening tail coat worn as a part of white tie and the morning coat. They are both black and with tails. However the evening tail coat is double-breasted and cut small so that the fronts don’t fasten even though there are three buttons on either front. (The morning coat is invariably single-breasted now, has one button — which may well be a double-button — and does fasten.) Furthermore, the evening tail coat has a facing to its lapels (as a dinner jacket does) — the morning coat doesn’t. Don’t confuse the two.

In general, the coat is made of the same material as the trousers it is worn with (in this sense it is a “suit”). However, since the colour is black any slight difference in texture is unlikely to be visible.

The coat has no hips and therefore no hip pockets. It has an outside welted pocket and probably two inside breast pockets. Older tail coats have a pair of inside pockets in the tails. (These are for gloves or a handkerchief — they are not suitable for a mobile telephone or the like!)

Note: A second-hand tail coat is likely to cost you around thirty pounds. In Cambridge, the best place to look is on the market stalls. Note that though the phrase ‘second-hand clothes’ doesn’t sound terribly attractive, second-hand formal clothes are usually in very good condition simply because they will have been worn very rarely — sometimes never at all — so it is possible to pick up a very good bargain. Furthermore, something dating from a few decades ago is likely to have a far better cut than most items made today.


Purists will tell you that trousers worn with white tie are different to those worn with black tie. By this, they mean that whereas the latter have one line of braid down the outside of each of the legs, the former have two lines of braid. In practice, very few people know this and, in poor lighting, it is difficult to tell the difference in any case.

What’s more important — especially if you are tall — is trying to find a pair of trousers which are cut high enough so that no gap appears below the waistcoat and above the trousers. Rather perversely, you stand a better chance of finding such a pair if you’re buying second-hand — modern-day trousers made to be worn with dinner jackets are cut low like most other trousers these days. If you do find a pair of trousers cut high (with a “fish-tail back”), you will also need a pair of braces. Such trousers weren’t made to be worn with belts.

The Shirt

If you want to, you can wear an ordinary white shirt. You may not win the ‘Best Dressed Man’ prize, but no-one will be able to say that you are not following the dress code. If you have a shirt with a (sober) pleated front (as often worn with black tie), you can also wear that. If you are going to follow either of these options, read no further. However, we hope you will read further…

When your finances allow and your inclinations prompt you, you should definitely think about a stiff-fronted shirt. The standard stiff-fronted shirt has its central front panel made of ‘marcella’ or ‘pique’. This is a thick cotton fabric with a dimpled surface (sometimes called ‘golf-ball’) – see the background to this page [if you have a good monitor]. Because the material is thick, the two halves of this central panel are fastened with shirt studs (rather than buttons). The cuffs are also stiff and these are fastened with cuff-links.

A stiff-fronted shirt produces a much better effect altogether – especially as the waistcoat and bow-tie can be of the same material.

You can find stiff-fronted shirts with soft (attached) wing collars. No-one will object to your wearing one of these. Indeed, virtually no-one (other than yourself) will even know that you are wearing such an item. However, if you’re going to the trouble of wearing a stiff-fronted shirt, you might as well do the thing properly and have a stiff collar too. Such a collar is attached to the shirt at the time of wearing – it is not permanently attached. Therefore, you buy a collarless stiff-fronted shirt and then buy detachable collars separately. The collar is attached to the shirt by a pair of collar studs.

If you do buy a collarless shirt and detachable collars, you need to know something about collar sizes. You buy a collarless shirt with collar band half an inch smaller than your usual collar size and wear it with collars of your usual size. Thus, if you normally wear shirts with a 15½" collar, you need a collarless shirt with 15" collar band and some 15½" collars.

Note: If your normal collar is relatively tight, go for a collar ½" bigger than normal. Whatever, collar size you do eventually decide on though, the rule about the collar band being ½" smaller than the collar always holds.

Unless your shirt has buttons at the cuff, you will need cuff-links. Cuff-links come in two forms:

Provided you can get your hands through the closed cuffs, put your cuff-links into your cuffs before you put your shirt on unless you are confident you can insert cuff-links using only one hand!. Chain links tend to be looser than swivel-bar links so you can always put these in before wearing. Some swivel-bar links are so tight that you will have to put them in after putting the shirt on. (This will test your dexterity!)

Shirt Studs

Shirts studs are essentially detachable buttons and they are used to fasten the front of stiff shirts. (They can sometimes be used on some soft-fronted shirts.) You will normally need three and they are therefore usually sold in either threes or fours.

Shirt studs can be divided into two types.

Some modern shirts have a slit in one side of the chest allowing you to get a hand to the inside of your shirt even when it is fastened. You will find this makes putting shirt studs in easier.

It is very easy to drop shirt studs (especially those that unscrew). If you’ve never been able to understand how your mother or sister or girlfriend manages to lose so many ear-rings, you are about to find out!

Detachable Collars

The usual form of detachable collar worn with any form of evening dress is the classic “wing collar”. Variations are the rounded wing collar and the “Imperial”.

A stiff collar has three holes (or slits) in it. One is at the back; the other two are at the front and overlap when the collar is closed.

Collar Studs

Collar studs secure a detachable collar to the collar band – a sort of residual collar – of a collarless shirt. You will need a pair: a front stud and a back stud. They have the same form but the front stud is taller than the back stud since it has to go through four layers of material and not two. Each consists of a base, a stem and a head. (The head is more of a flat cylinder than a sphere.)

The head of a modern-day collar stud can be swivelled. When it is parallel to the base it is in the “Closed” position; when it has been tilted as far as it will go (about 45°), it is “Open”. If you can’t make the head swivel, look under the head to see where the axis is.

Plain-Fronted Stiff Shirts

There is a second form of stiff shirt not often seen these days. This is identical to the form described above except that the stiff fronts are completely plain (and not dimpled). It is regarded as even more formal than the dimpled version; on the other hand, because it is plain, it can also be worn with morning dress (or even a lounge suit).


At a pinch, you could get away without a white waistcoat. However, the result would be something which is not “white tie”.

The most common form of white waistcoat is one made of two marcella (or pique) panels, each forming one front of the waistcoat. They are joined by elastic at the neck and at the back of the waist. Although these allow for final adjustments, this does not mean white waistcoats fall into the ‘one size fits all’ classification. You will find waistcoats do come in different sizes and you should look for one in your size.

This form of adjustable backless waistcoat has been around for many years. However, you will still find waistcoats with full backs in some second-hand clothes shops.

White waistcoats are usually cut very low and represent something of an optimisation exercise. The waistcoat should not allow any of the soft material of the shirt to show (either between it and the stiff part of the shirt or between it and the trousers) but not show any of the elastic either.


Although it is possible to buy white bow-ties in white silk or satin, the most common material is marcella (or pique). This is the same material which is used for the stiff portion of stiff-fronted shirts and has a dimpled surface — see the background of this page. This material is very easy to tie so you should definitely consider it if you intend to wear a tie of type (2) or (3) below.

The eternal question with bow-ties is “Do I want one that is already tied or do I want to tie it myself?”. It is not difficult to tie a bow-tie — the geometry of the knot is identical to that in your shoe laces — so we hope you will consider the latter. However, for thoroughness, we list both types. Since the latter has two sub-types, there are in fact three forms of bow-tie to choose from (ignoring so-called single-ended ties).


Black Tie

‘Black tie’ is another way of saying ‘dinner jacket’. It is now often:

A more formal version is:

Morning dress

For the sake of completeness, here is what is meant by Morning Dress. There are three main elements:

Shoes should be black, and socks either black or grey depending on the colour of the trousers. The safest colour of shirt is white. Choice of tie depends on the occasion: a funeral or memorial service clearly requires black; a wedding or some other celebration offers an opportunity for something brighter.

How to tie a bow-tie

Contrary to popular myth, it is not difficult to tie a bow tie. In fact, if you can tie a pair of shoe laces, you can already do it. The trick, if there is one, is to do it neatly. A slight extra complication is that the knot is at your neck (and not at the end of your leg) so you will need to use a mirror… but is using a mirror that difficult?

In any case, there are already numerous web sites which explain the mechanics of tying a bow tie. This page will therefore address the question of how to produce a bow so neat that people will accuse you of wearing a made-up tie.

The diagrams below show what you will see in a mirror if you follow the instructions. Obviously, the tie can also be tied if you consistently exchange right for left and vice versa in everything that follows.

  1. Drape the tie around the neck with one end — the left in this set of instructions — about an inch and a half longer than the other. One end has to be longer because it will contribute the material which forms the centre part of the bow between the two wings.

  2. Cross the longer end over the shorter end.

  3. Tie a simple knot. A better final effect is produced if you make the longer end do all the work and wrap it around the shorter, passive end.

  4. Hold the longer end with your thumb and forefinger up by your face so that it is out of the way. However, point your middle finger down towards the bow — it will come in useful as a hook in a moment. With your other hand, form the passive end into a bow (this will be the front). It is at this point that you can use that middle finger as a hook.

  5. Your hands will now change roles. Your right hand should be holding one end of the tie out of the way. Let that end now fall down over the front of the bow and with your right hand grasp the bow which you have just formed. The job of your right hand is now to hold that bow in position throughout the rest of the operation. The end that has fallen down will form the material between the two wings. It should be vertical. Grasp the hanging end with the thumb and middle finger of your left hand and make sure that it is vertical where it crosses the bow.

  6. Use the middle finger of your left hand to force the middle of the hanging end through the gap which is behind the bow from your right-hand side. Once you think it is far enough through so that you can release it, do so. Having pushed the bow through from the right-hand side, you can now pull from the left-hand side. However, be careful as you tighten it — see Stage 7.

  7. The diagram shows what you would see if you had a camera mounted underneath your mouth and pointing at the tie. There are six layers of material emerging from the central knot.

    • Pull on one of the loose ends (black arrow) and you will lengthen one side and shorten the other without tightening the tie;
    • Pull on one of the middle layers of material (red arrow) and you will lengthen one side and tighten the tie;
    • Pull on one of the remaining layers (blue arrow) and you will lengthen that side and shorten the other side but without tightening the tie.

By juggling with these three mechanisms and remembering that the red arrow stages cannot be reversed (i.e. the tie cannot be loosened) without starting again, it should be possible to produce a very good knot.

Scientists (especially those who have had dealings with pulleys) may spot that when a loose end (for example) is pulled (black arrow), the loose end lengthens at twice the rate at which the other end shortens (because the loose end is one layer of material whereas the other end is two layers). When deciding which piece of tie to tug, you should bear this in mind!

One particular point to note is that if the back part of the tie is rather skew (and it often is just after it has been pushed through in Stage 6), twist it so it is horizontal just before tightening.

Thin material will produce a small tight knot. In this case, the longer arm of the tie (Stage 1) should be only an inch (say) longer than the shorter one.

Shiny material will produce a simple knot (Stage 3) that will slip almost as soon as it is tied. One method to hold the knot while you form the bow (if you don’t have a third hand available) is to put a pin into it. Pull the pin out as you tighten the bow. Use this technique, however, at your peril!


Bands are a form of neckwear used by members of universities, those in holy orders and members of the legal profession.

There are several ways to hold them in place and consequently they are made up in different ways. One way is to include a loop of elastic. The loop is pulled on over the head and the bands adjusted so that they hang at the throat. This is clearly a simple technique but the bands easily twist and the elastic no longer remains hidden. The method we give here uses bands that have a long tape extending from either side. It also assumes they are going to be worn with a white bow tie and a stiff wing collar (secured by collar studs).

The basic technique is to wind each tape around the back of the neck and bring it back to the front of the throat again. The two tapes (both now back at the front of the throat) are tied and the bands thus secured. As with many methods used in formal dress, however, the trick is to get it right - in this case so that bands are secured and the tapes hidden from view. The rest of this page tells you how to achieve this.

To produce the best effect, don’t twist the tapes as you pass them round the collar band. Iron them beforehand to make sure they are flat.