Not all black and white

White tie, black tie, morning suit, glamorous, festive, sparkly cocktail, business smart, mountain chic ... you need to be a mind-reader or a linguist to parse the meaning of contemporary party dress codes.

“I’ve been to black tie events where gents show up in a grey suit – then wear a black tie and think they are sorted,” says shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood. “You see a lot of women in black or white dresses and you realise they didn’t understand what black or white tie meant. In fairness, though, a lot of people don’t know what the rules entail.” When even the most prolific event-goers run into trouble, what chance do the rest of us have? Possibly more than we suspect.

“It can be a little confusing to differentiate between the two,” says designer Roksanda Ilincic, winner of the BFC’s red carpet award for 2012. “White tie is officially a touch more formal than black, but I like to blur the lines and just go for a stand-out piece that suits my mood. Rules today are a lot less conventional than before, and people can be experimental with their evening wear.”

Caroline Issa, executive fashion director of Tank Magazine, says, “Women can interpret dress codes a lot more than men”, in any situation. “Recently, I was invited to a friend’s housewarming party where the dress code on the invitation stated ‘glamorous’. So I pulled out a demi-couture dress, sparkly earrings and a fur jacket – only to get there and be surrounded by women wearing jumpers and jeans. At first I felt ‘uh -oh’ but after 15 minutes I thought ‘To hell with it, glamorous is glamorous, and I feel good in what I am wearing.’

“Then Kate Moss walked in: evening gown, furs and statement hair. Suddenly, I felt appropriately dressed, and at the same time, you could tell all the other women in the room felt under-dressed.”

Theoretically, “white tie” is the most formal of dress codes, and for men means top hats and tails with cummerbunds, vests, silk socks and patent leather shoes; women should think ball gowns and cloaks, furs and heirloom jewels. However, they should not think white dresses, which are traditionally for debutantes and brides. In fact, designer Daniella Helayel of Issa, who dressed the Duchess of Cambridge for her engagement announcement, says women should think colour.

“For white tie, men usually wear tails or tuxedos and you don’t want to go all matchy matchy,” she says. “Vibrant jewel colour dresses are good, and don’t be afraid of bling. A perfect example is the Oscars, where the men look handsome but very similar in tuxedos, and the women really shine.”

From left: Caroline Issa, Anna Wintour, Roksanda Ilincic and Kate Moss

During holiday time, however, black tie is a more common diktat. This is relatively straightforward for men, though of late long black ties have become trendy as opposed to the regulation bow tie. Indeed, at a recent “black tie” party in honour of his wife, stylist Charlotte Stockdale, industrial designer Marc Newson noted almost the only men in traditional bow ties and tuxes were the waiters, clad in Tom Ford.

“Tying a bow tie is an art form – and a lost one,” Newson says. “So, to make it easy on themselves, most men just wear a black tie. I think it’s more of a socio/political study than an actual fashion statement.”

Stella McCartney

Meanwhile, for women, “black tie” is even more wide open: long, short – even trousers are possible. “I think it just means no blue jeans at this point,” says Louise Wilson, director of the MA fashion design programme at Central St Martins. Indeed, at the British Fashion Awards last month, a purportedly formal occasion, Stella McCartney accepted her award for Designer of the Year in a strapless jumpsuit, albeit with crystal tuxedo stripes down the sides. And though Caroline Issa says, “I equate white or black tie with long dresses, so I always make sure that my knees are covered,” Helayel’s only rule is “never wear anything less than an 8cm heel, nor a platform or boots. It just doesn’t look ladylike.”

When it comes to “cocktail”, says Caroline Issa, “I love a tailored pair of jeans, a white shirt, stilettos and statement earrings. Or separates for that matter: a great cashmere jumper with a sharp skirt.”

Ultimately, says Nicholas Kirkwood, “If you put a rule on it, people are going to naturally want to break it. These days, people want to experiment a bit, have fun and don’t want to conform.”

Take one investment banker from the American Midwest now living in London who was invited to a summer wedding in Spain that required a “morning suit”: “I didn’t know what that meant,” he says. “Where I come from, weather, not fashion, counts. So I went by the temperature, which was 40C, and wore a silk shirt and trousers. Other guests sweltered under the Spanish sun in their wool morning suits. I honestly thought the best man was going to faint. But the point is, nobody threw me out.”

We’ll toast to that.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.