White tie, also called full evening dress or a dress suit, is the most formal in traditional evening Western dress codes. For men, it consists of a black dress coat with tails worn over a white starched shirt, Piqué waistcoat and the eponymous white bow tie worn around a standing wingtip collar. High-waisted black trousers and patent leather oxford or optionally court shoes complete the outfit. Orders insignia and medals can be worn. Acceptable accessories include a top hat, white gloves, a white scarf, a pocket watch and a boutonnière. Women wear full length ball or evening gowns and, optionally, jewellery, tiaras, a small handbag and evening gloves.
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The dress code's origins can be traced back to the end of the 18th century, when high society men began abandoning breeches, lacy dress shirts and richly decorated justaucorps coats for more austere cutaway tailcoats in dark colours, a look inspired by the country gentleman and perhaps their frocks and riding coats. By early 19th century Regency era, fashionable dandies like Beau Brummell popularised this more minimalist everyday style, favouring dark blue or black tailcoats with trousers, plain white dress shirts, cravats, and shorter waistcoats. By the 1840s the black and white had become the standard colours for evening wear for upper class men. Despite the emergence of the shorter dinner jacket (or tuxedo) in the 1880s as a less formal but more comfortable alternative, full evening dress tailcoats remained the staple. Towards the end of the Victorian era, white bow ties and waistcoats became the standard for full evening dress, known as white tie, contrasting with black bow ties and waistcoats for the dinner jacket, an ensemble which became known as semi-formal black tie.
Following the counterculture of the 1960s, white tie was increasingly replaced by black tie as default evening wear for more formal events. Since late 20th century, white tie tends to be reserved for the most formal evening occasions, such as state dinners, audiences, in addition to balls and galas such as the Vienna Opera Ball in Austria, the Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm, Mardi Gras balls in New Orleans, and the Al Smith Memorial Dinner in New York. White tie still also occurs at traditional weddings and church celebrations, at certain societies and fraternities, as well as occasionally around some traditional European universities and colleges.
19th century: origins and development
Throughout the Early Modern period, western European male courtiers and aristocrats donned elaborate clothing at ceremonies and dinners: coats (often richly decorated), frilly and lacy shirts and breeches formed the backbone of their most formal attire. As the 18th century drew to a close, high society began adopting more austere clothing which drew inspiration from the dark hues and simpler designs adopted by country gentlemen. By the end of the 18th century, two forms of tail coat were in common use by upper class men in Britain and continental Europe: the more formal dress coat (cut away horizontally at the front) and the less formal morning coat, which curved back from the front to the tails. From around 1815, a knee-length garment called the frock coat became increasingly popular and was eventually established, along with the morning coat, as smart daywear in Victorian England. The dress coat, meanwhile, became reserved for wear in the evening. The dandy Beau Brummell adopted a minimalistic approach to evening wear—a white waistcoat, dark blue tailcoat, black pantaloons and striped stockings. Although Brummell felt black an ugly colour for evening dress coats, it was adopted by other dandies, like Charles Baudelaire, and black and white had become the standard colours by the 1840s.
Over the course of the 19th century, the monotone colour scheme became a codified standard for evening events after 6 p.m. in upper class circles. The styles evolved and evening dress consisted of a black dress coat and trousers, white or black waistcoat, and a bow tie by the 1870s. The dinner jacket (black tie/tuxedo) emerged as a less formal and more comfortable alternative to full evening dress in the 1880s.
By the early 20th century, full evening dress meant wearing a white waistcoat and tie with a black tailcoat and trousers; white tie had become distinct from black tie. Despite its growing popularity, the dinner jacket remained the reserve of family dinners and gentlemen's clubs during the late Victorian period.
By the turn of the 20th century, full evening dress consisted of a black tailcoat made of heavy fabric weighing 16-18 oz per yard. Its lapels were medium width and the white shirt worn beneath it had a heavily starched, stiff front, fastened with pearl or black studs and either a winged collar or a type called a "poke", consisting of a high band with a slight curve at the front. After World War I, the dinner jacket became more popular, especially in the US, and informal variations sprang up, like the soft, turn-down collar shirt and later the double-breasted jacket; relaxing social norms in Jazz Age America meant white tie was replaced by black tie as the default evening wear for young men, especially at nightclubs. According to The Delineator, the years after World War I saw white tie "almost abandoned". But it did still have a place: the American etiquette writer Emily Post stated in 1922 that "A gentleman must always be in full dress, tail coat, white waistcoat, white tie and white gloves" when at the opera, yet she called the tuxedo "essential" for any gentleman, writing that "It is worn every evening and nearly everywhere, whereas the tail coat is necessary only at balls, formal dinners, and in a box at the opera."
It also continued to evolve. White tie was worn with slim-cut trousers in the early 1920s; by 1926, wide-lapelled tailcoats and double-breasted waistcoats were in vogue. The Duke of Windsor (then Prince of Wales and later Edward VIII) wore a midnight blue tailcoat, trousers and waistcoat in the 1920s and 1930s both to "soften" the contrast between black and white and allow for photographs to depict the nuances of his tailoring. The late 1920s and 1930s witnessed a resurgence in the dress code's popularity, but by 1953, one etiquette writer stressed that "The modern trend is to wear 'tails' only for the most formal and ceremonious functions, such as important formal dinners, balls, elaborate evening weddings, and opening night at the opera". It was the dress code for the Lord Mayor of London's Mansion House dinner until 1996.
The last president to have worn white tie at a United States presidential inauguration was President John F. Kennedy in 1961, who wore morning dress for his inauguration, and a white tie ensemble for his inauguration ball.
White tie is rarely worn in the early 21st century. Nevertheless, it survives as the formal dress code for royal ceremonies, debutante balls, and a select group of other social events in some countries. The male form has also been adopted for some formal weddings.
In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, white tie is the traditional attire for doctoral conferments and is prescribed at some Swedish and Finnish universities, where it is worn with a top hat variant called a doctoral hat.
Some fraternities such as Freemasons and Odd Fellows wear dress coats to their meetings. For example, dress for Grand Lodge Officers in Australia at official functions and Installations is "Full Evening Dress (Tails) with stiff white shirt and peak collar, white bow tie, white buttons or studs, stiff white waistcoat and white gloves with Full Regalia or Full Evening Dress (Tails) with plain white long-sleeved business shirt, white bow tie, soft white waistcoat and white gloves with Full Regalia or when the prescribed dress of the lodge is lounge/business suit, all members of the Grand Delegation may wear the same, with no gauntlets."
In Britain, it is worn at certain formal occasions such as state banquets and certain balls at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and St Andrews universities. White tie is also rarely seen as part of some elite UK public schools' uniform, such as Harrow School, where the Head Boy is allowed to wear white tie to special events.
A few state dinners at the White House apply white tie, including the one held for Queen Elizabeth II in 2007. Other notable examples include the Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington, D.C., the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City, in additions to a few debutante balls such as the International Debutante Ball in New York City, and the Veiled Prophet Ball in St. Louis.
In southern United States, white tie is sometimes referred to as "costume de rigueur", adapted from French language due the historical background of New France. It is sometimes used in invitations to masquerade balls and Mardi Gras celebrations, such as the Mardi Gras in Mobile in Alabama, or New Orleans Mardi Gras in Louisiana, emphasising the white tie expectations for men and full-length evening gowns for ladies.
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala in New York City announced a white tie dress code in 2014, a number of media outlets pointed out the difficulty and expense of obtaining traditional white tie, even for the celebrity guests.
According to the British etiquette guide Debrett's, the central components of full evening dress for men are a white marcella shirt with a detachable wing collar and single cuffs, fastened with studs and cufflinks; the eponymous white marcella bow tie is worn around the collar, while a low-cut marcella waistcoat is worn over the shirt. Over this is worn a black single-breasted barathea wool or ultrafine herringbone tailcoat with silk peak lapels. The trousers have double-braiding down the outside of both legs, while the correct shoes are patent leather or highly polished black dress shoes. Although a white scarf remains popular in winter, the traditional white gloves, top hats, canes and cloaks are now rare. Women wear a full-length evening dress, with the option of jewellery, a tiara, a pashmina, coat or wrap. Long gloves are not compulsory.
The waistcoat should not be visible below the front of the tailcoat, which necessitates a high waistline and (often) braces for the trousers. As one style writer for GQ magazine summarises "The simple rule of thumb is that you should only ever see black and white not black, white and black again". While Debrett's accepts double cuffs for shirts worn with white tie, some tailors and merchant suggest that single, linked cuffs are the most traditional and formal variation acceptable under the dress code. Decorations may also be worn and, unlike Debrett's, Cambridge University's Varsity student newspaper suggests a top hat, opera cloak and silver-topped cane are acceptable accessories.
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