Black Tie Dress Code Explained!

“A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.”

– Oscar Wilde


University life isn’t all about studying!  There are times when you’ll be invited to exciting formal events, dinners and parties, and the May Ball will be the pinnacle of the year. As alumni, you’re likely to have formal events linked to your work or hobbies. The multitude of rules and regulations regarding black tie dress code can be daunting but fear not! We are here to guide you through the trials and tribulations of getting it right…

What is Black Tie?– This is the most common type of formal evening wear, and should be worn for dinners, parties and balls, as well as some ‘Seasonal’ events.  It can also be described as wearing ‘dinner jacket’ or ‘DJs’. 


Dinner Jacket - You might only need a dinner jacket for the rare formal occasion, but owning one that fits you correctly makes sense as you will get the use of it for years.  It is traditionally a black or midnight blue, two- or three-piece suit. What makes a picture-perfect dinner jacket is the fit.  This is all important and should never be compromised on. The classic dinner jacket will have a shawl collar, usually of satin or silk (which matches the side seams of the trousers). It can be single or double breasted, with no vents. The jacket will ideally have one button, but if you have two then you would traditionally only ever do up the top button. It should be fastened when standing and unfastened when sitting down.  A white handkerchief in the left breast pocket is a classic detail.

The trousers will have a natural taper to the leg, no turnup, and a single silk or satin seam down the outside of each leg. They should not have belt loops and a belt should never be worn.

The shirt should be white with the traditional wing collar or a standard collar; each collar has tended to be in favour at various times throughout the ages. Avoid any kind of ruffles or frills and stick to a plain shirt with either buttons or studs, which may be black or decorative. Ideally you want to show between half-an-inch and an inch of shirt cuff, along with cufflinks or studs.

The bow tie should be black (or in College colours!) and hand tied.  If you don’t know how to tie a bow tie, learn in advance. The size of the bow should be in proportion to the head – an over-sized bow tie can end up looking clown-like.

The cummerbund is the perfect accessory and helps to give the final result that extra polish; they are worn to hide the meeting of the shirt and trousers but are not considered essential. The cummerbund is a strip of fabric wrapped around the waist, and worn instead of a waistcoat. Wear it with the pleats facing upwards and match the colour to your bow tie.

A waistcoat may be worn but is not seen very often.  A waistcoat and cummerbund are never worn together.

Shoes and socks should both be black. A simple shoe design is timeless. Anything fussy or trendy might look good now, but will date quickly.  Choose good quality shoes in a classic style (traditionally patent leather oxford lace-ups or opera pumps for Black Tie) and treat them like an investment – they should be re-soleable and last fifteen years or more. And remember, badly fitting shoes can affect your posture and mood. The socks should be fine knit and over the calf – a flash of hairy leg is not ideal!

The Watch– A watch is not just for telling the time! A watch should be chosen because you love it and because it says something about you as an individual; it can mark your own personal journey and accomplishments, or be a cherished heirloom, but it must also be practical, aesthetically pleasing, and the envy of all who see it.  It must fit well, be comfortable, and be the correct size and depth in relation to your wrist.

One of the finest watches to own is beautiful to look at, reasonably rare, easily identifiable, and coveted by all.  Oxbridge Watches are only available to staff, students, and alumni, of Cambridge and Oxford Universities, provide high-end British-made university mementos.  They are limited edition unique time-pieces that will be cherished for a lifetime and passed on as a legacy from generation to generation.

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Quality and Care – Buy the best quality you can for your budget. Invest wisely in well-made good-quality items. Look after and store your suits properly; always dry-clean, use wooden hangers, and store polished shoes on shoe trees to help them keep their shape. Finally– have fun!  

Ladies fear not, we’re planning a future blog post about the women’s equivalent black tie dress code. Register below and follow us on social media to keep updated.

Owen Thompson