What is Formalwear?

Perhaps you’ve received an invitation to an event that requests black tie, white tie, or cocktail attire. Were you confused? Did you just end up going in one of your “meeting” suits?

All three (NOT the “meeting” suit) are considered formalwear. They are usually reserved for the evening (when most formal events happen), they are typically black, and that is where the similarity ends. We’ll discuss white tie, black tie, and cocktail attire, ranked from most to least formal.

Perhaps you’ve seen Downton Abbey (don’t hate – it’s a great show). During the day the men of the house were chilling in the library in a “lounge” or “sack” suit (click here if you don’t know what those are). Dinner, however, was black tie. Every. Single. Night. Imagine that. With such daily stuffiness seen from sunup to sundown, how much more formal could you go?

Downton Abbey characters in proper White Tie
what is formalwear

Enter White Tie. Reserved for notable occasions, it had (and still has) black tails, black trousers, black patent leather shoes, and a white winged shirt, vest, and of course, tie. The jacket is wool, double breasted, left open, with silk lapels. Trousers have a silk band down the side leg seam, no cuffs, as cuffs were invented to protect from mud, and only plebeians walk in mud. The nobility walk on marble, granite, or preferably, on the back of plebeians.

It is also referred to as “full dress,” as it has its roots in the Royal Army, back when British gentry would have honorary military titles shoveled upon them wholesale, just because, and they would have to show up for them to receive said titles, and therefore dress accordingly.

In the heyday of formalwear, many Hollywood stars would rock white tie, but that was almost a century ago. White tie had its time, but like the accompanying top hat and cane, it became outdated and stodgy, relegated to the most formal of events. Trust me, unless you routinely conduct symphonies or are a magician, you’ll never need to wear it. Perhaps when you go to an inauguration for a Head of State, but even then, as a civilian, it is so archaic that you might as well be wearing armor, you dashingly oblivious Don Quixote.

Have you other options? Yes, you do.

Black tie has enjoyed enduring popularity, possibly due to its rascally roots. Known initially as the “tailless dress coat”, historical records confirm the Prince of Wales (the 1800s one, Edward VII) had one such jacket made for him by Henry Poole of Savile Row in 1865. How it made its way Stateside is a bit unclear. One account of the story is that the Prince urged an impressionable American guest to order a jacket from Poole of the same style, whereupon he did and took it back to a country club in a New York town called – wait for it – Tuxedo Park. Another version has it that a native son of Tuxedo itself had the jacket commissioned (also by Henry Poole) for the Club’s annual Autumn Ball.


At any rate, the “short dinner jacket” henceforth became known as the “tuxedo”, and the whole rig as “black tie”. The items that qualify for this are pretty simple: white shirt, black jacket, black trousers, black shoes, and the eponymous black tie. Done.

Or are we?

Two styles of the tuxedo, as worn by Newman & Redford
what is formalwear

Black tie is great precisely because it lacks the preciseness of white tie. Look at the differences in Paul and Robert in the photo. Shawl collar? Sure thing! Single or double breasted? Either! Vest or cummerbund? Your choice! Just keep it black. Or, do as did the younger, cooler, 1930s Prince of Wales: midnight blue, which under the artificial lighting of evening fundraisers and paparazzi flash bulbs actually looks darker and richer than black. And if your event is during the day, try a white or ivory dinner jacket. Just keep the trousers and shoes black.

Bogey in a white dinner jacket
what is formalwear

And there you have black tie. What, then, is cocktail attire? Colors are generally dark and muted, but this is your chance to get creative. You can opt for a velvet smoking jacket in a rich maroon or forest green. Or channel your inner spy and sip your martini in ablack or oxblood nehru jacket. If you’re visiting Vegas, try swinging the one-button silk shantung or mohair suit. And if you’re hosting a cocktail party yourself, reach for a plaid dinner jacket in Black Watch or Royal Stewart, or even a classy tapestry.

Niven in a velvet dinner jacket
what is formalwear

Connery in a nehru jacket
what is formalwear

Life stock photo in a plaid dinner jacket
what is formalwear

Ferry in a tapestry dinner jacket
what is formalwear

Nowadays, occasions to wear such attire are dwindling. Many men spend more time dressing their beards than their bodies. While we would never urge one to bust out white tie in a noble attempt to bring class and sophistication to his neighborhood PTA meeting, we do recommend to have a black tie rig on standby in your closet in case the situation calls for it. At the very least, plan a party, print invitations with “Cocktail attire kindly requested” in fancy stock calligraphy, and have fun for an evening.

The only thing non-negotiable in any of these is the tie. Never wear a regular tie. Get a bow tie. A real one.


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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.
Peter Zottolo

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  1. Erik Mannby

    January 3, 2017

    Finally got around to reading this. Of course I’m still holding out for the rebirth of white tie though. Until,then I’ll probably join a club just to have a reason to wear it.

    • Peter Zottolo

      Peter Zottolo

      January 5, 2017

      Let’s call it the Honorary Advocates of White Tie. That’d be so HAWT.

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