Emergency reader e-mail: Black tie SOS

Black Tie: What To Do When You Get a Last Minute Invite | CorporetteToday’s reader e-mail comes with smoke signals…

I was just invited to a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf for a benefit my firm supports. Although I have lots of dresses, I’m not sure what is appropriate for a black tie business function. Is a knee length dress ever appropriate at a black tie function?

This is one of those reasons why we always snap up black cocktail dresses, both long and short, when we see them on sale. Our advice actually involves a bit of legwork on your part.

  1. Call the Waldorf. Ask what they recommend ladies wear to the event. (You can do this anonymously.)
  2. E-mail a female coworker who’s attending the event (or two) and ask them what they’re wearing. If you like what the Waldorf’s advice was, include this in your e-mail. (If not, keep it to yourself.)

If the Waldorf’s answer is “long” and your colleagues’ answers are “long,” guess what — you should really wear a long dress. If the answers are somewhat different, then you might want to choose a dress closer to what your colleagues are wearing.  For example: Let’s say the Waldorf answers, “Cocktail attire is fine.” But your colleagues answer, “Long dresses!” You might want to choose a very very simple black dress that’s long. (For what it’s worth, this author has been to galas at the Waldorf on at least one occasion — most of the women at the table were wearing short cocktail dresses, including me. To be honest, we saw women in sparkly evening suits and business suits. But that may have just been that particular event.)

As for where to get the dress… ask your friends if you can borrow anything if you don’t already have one.  Otherwise, you might want to hit a Filene’s or TJ Maxx to see what they have.  If you have time for Internet shopping, we recommend the Calvin Klein dress above, available at Zappos (free overnight shipping!) for a reasonable $134.

You might also want to check out our post (and the comments) on the DC gala scene, and Tim Gunn’s recent suggestions in Marie ClaireReaders, what are your thoughts? What are galas like in your region, and what are your rules of thumb?

Shop more evening dresses, below:


  1. divaliscious11 :

    I always thought Black Tie was formal (gowns and tuxes) and cocktail attire was what you have posted. If your a rule breaker – YOU could wear a tux (I have a gorg one by theory) but it would totally depend on the event, and the purpose of the event etc….

    Did you google the benefit to see if there are pics from last year’s event? That may also be helpful…

  2. The same dress is on sale at Nordstrom for $78.90.


  3. My rule of thumb is it’s worse to be over-dressed than under-dressed, as long as it’s not glaringly under. And, a good solution I have found, wear a tuxedo pantssuit. This works best if everything else is otherwise quite feminine, shoes with bows, dangly earrings, long hair.

    • divaliscious11 :

      Me too…and I have these really girly delicate shoes that fems it up nicely!

  4. My firm also holds big galas and dinners at the Waldorf. As a young associate, I have worn a long black gown with a shawl each time thus far. I’ll pair it with a diamond or pearl bracelet(s). The goal is to not bring too much attention to yourself by your dress as a young associate. I let the partners shine. The men wore tuxes, so my long gown was appropriate.

    Ask other female associates what they’ve worn. Also, if you don’t like the idea of a long dress, consider a black cocktail dress that’s more like a strapless sheath dress, and then wear black hose. A fellow associate did that and paired her outfit with a shawl and gorgeous diamond cuff. She looked great.

    My issue with attending functions at the Waldorf is what jewelry to wear. Now that I’m attending more black tie affairs for business and social functions, I need to start collecting appropriate jewelry. I have lots of jewelry for daily wear at the office and for going out with girlfriends. But only a few pearls and diamonds for black tie affairs. If anyone has ideas on what key pieces to get and where, I’d appreciate it.

    • Since seeing it mentioned on here, I monitor Brooks Bros. sale for jewelry, which seems to have great prices. Additionally, keep an eye on www.gilt.ocm or ruelala.com. If you need invitations to either, let me know.

  5. I thought black tie was cocktails and suits, white tie was long gowns and tuxes?

    • I thought so, too, Liz, especially with weddings. But I was wrong, at least with my firm’s functions at the Waldorf, and being in NY. I was told it’s best to be conservative, especially since many of my partners and the executives that hire us are in their 60s-70s. Plus, since I’m a young associate, it was suggested that I (and others) wear long dresses so that we avoid looking too young or like we’re escorts for the old men.

      Each year I attended the Waldorf functions, I heard from my male associate buddies that other men made lewd comments about females who wore low cut dresses (even though they would’ve normally looked great and not risque at all anywhere else!). E.g., “There’s nothing better than having dinner and staring at a great pair of boobs across the table.”

      There’s no rule, in my opinion. For a first business black tie affair in which your bosses will attend, I’d go as safe as you can.

      • Anonymous :

        There is little distinction between black tie and white tie for women. Both require long gowns. People have come to tolerate cocktail length dresses for women, but in my experience it’s always tolerating, not expecting/approving. The black tie/white tie distinction is mostly for men. Black tie is a tux, white tie is tails. (Technically, for women, a plain black floor length dress would be black tie, but a bit too plain for white tie.)

        Re: the emily post comment below, that may be true for DC and south and/or CA, but I’ve spent my whole life in NY and Boston and can’t imagine wearing a cocktail dress to a black tie event there unless it was for an event in a creative field.

        Last point: for an associate, a cocktail dress just makes you look like you’re too young and you don’t know what you’re doing at a formal event. Go get a dress you can have in your closet for events like this. (And get a proper garment bag – not the plastic from the store/dry cleaner – for it to live in.)

    • Black tie traditionally means evening suits (tuxedos) with black ties for men and long dresses for women, but not big gowns. White tie is a cut-away tail coat with a white vest and white tie for men and a ball gown for women.

      Nowadays, black tie generally means tuxedos for men, although some men slide by with dark suits and white shirts, and fancy long (better) or short dresses or evening suits–pants or skirt, including le smoking (women’s tuxedo pioneered by YSL). What women wear depends on the locale and the other circumstances, so I agree with the Corporette’s advice above. I also think the idea of dressing discreetly, as BitterJD suggests, is wise. Let the big shots shine.

  6. Any suggestions for shoes – not more than 2 inches high? I cannot walk in heals and have a black tie event, two weeks away, not a thing to wear and no shoes either.

    • I got a pair of balck David Tate satin sandals with a diamante doodad from Zappos with lower heels that are very comfortable and have lasted a year now. I don’t see the exact shoes, but David Tate shoes are under a $100. I ordered 5 different types of shoes (sent the rejects back–free returns!) and these were the most comfortable AND the cheapest and they have held up.

  7. FWIW, Emily Post says that Black Tie is short cocktails OR long dressess…


  8. White house/black market has fabulous appropriate cocktail dresses that will suit formal or semi-formal events and are generally under $200. They are always classy and stylish.

  9. Im so glad I practice out here in the wild west. I have enough trouble figuring out what to wear to the once a year holiday party at the local convention center. lol.

  10. Anonymous :

    what does everyone think of this:

    • I’d be wary of dolman sleeves. The overall thing here is not to make a mistake. I’d go with short sleeves, reasonably fitted but not tight. As for jewelry, the thing is not to look like your mom and dad gave it to you. In other words, not too small. Of course not too big, or it’s showoff. I think it’s best to look for interesting diamond earrings. They can be small but dangle.

    • This dress is spandex. In my opinion, that fabric is not formal or appropriate for black tie.

    • It reminds me of the Adams Family — not a good thing. Sorry.

    • looks like a bathrobe.

  11. If it was me I’d go with something like this

  12. http://www.bluefly.com/Tadashi-black-pleated-silk-chiffon-v-neck-gown/COLOR_CROSS-SELL/304416401/detail.fly

    But this is my favorite. And it’s navy:).

    • Both are gorgeos and very appropriate. I am wary of satin–it can show everything underneath it, and these two will work well! Love the blue!

    • I agree, they’re both very pretty and would be great for black tie affairs at the Waldorf. The top part and sleeves/straps of the dresses show a fine amount of skin, and they don’t make the dress look dowdy. LPC’s got this down. That was kind of you to post exemplary suggestions.

    • that navy dress is gorgeous and makes me wish i had a gala to go to just so i had an excuse to buy it.

  13. For black tie if you’re going cocktail-length, then it has to be very formal looking. Traditional black tie is definitely floor length gowns.
    Also, I completely disagree with the comment that it’s better to be under-dressed. In my experience it is always better to err on the side of being overdressed. Being under-dressed can make you look unprepared and disrespectful.

  14. Or this….
    Again, it’s not just a black dress, it’s not revealing, the material is good quality, there is some design quotient.

    You get my particular drift. Not that I’m the goddess of firm galas or anything, but I do have a fairly highly developed sense of what is or is not a social gaffe in the work clothing world.

  15. Anonymous :

    If you wear a cocktail-length dress, what do you think of wearing subtly patterned hosiery with it? It seems to be a trend this fall, and may be a way to jazz up a dress you already have. Concern would be that it’s too trendy/informal. Thoughts?

    • Don’t jazz up when you are already riffing on tradition. Sheer black hose.

  16. I have an invitation to an event that says “black tie optional.” What does that mean as a practical matter?

    • It means that you may wear what you would to a black tie event, or you may wear something slightly less formal. Practically speaking, you will probably see a fair number of (often younger) women in cocktail attire and quite a few men in dark suits rather than tuxes. I always feel like I should wear black tie to events where it is optional, because it always seems like that’s what the host would prefer but they are being flexible for people who don’t own something appropriate.

    • In my experience, black tie optional means that most women will be wearing short (but nice) cocktail dresses and men will be wearing nice suits (but not tuxes), but that if you wear a long gown and/or a man wears a tux, you won’t be considered overdressed by the host–although you might feel that way.

  17. Find out what your boss is wearing.

  18. I’ve been to a decent number of “formal” events – both all-firm events and ones where the firm has bought a table and I get guilt-tripped into helping fill it – and I have to say, floor-length gowns are pretty rare. I’m in the midwest, not D.C., so we might be less formal, but there are several events where I would have looked weird and out-of-place in an all-out floor-length formal. I’ve never been to an event where a dressier cocktail dress would have made me feel that way.

    My too big rules – not too short (I like ones that hit at or below the knee, actually) and no cleavage.

  19. I went to a black-tie dinner at the Oriental House/Palace/Hotel (Columbus Circle) (my law firm bought tickets and I snagged one). Men wore tuxes, but nearly all the women wore knee-length dresses, especially the women who looked like they were under 45. I wore a cocktail dress because I didn’t have time or money to buy a long gown, and, thankfully and surprisingly, I didn’t feel at all under-dressed.

  20. definitely find out what the female partners are wearing, or what they wore the year before. you do NOT want to show them up. at my firm, the men always wear tuxes to galas, but the women partners always underdress significantly (IMO): black cocktail dresses, non tuxedo pants suits or those rather mature flowy pants with blouses with portrait collar and brooch ensembles. you don’t want to be the one female wearing a long dress if all the female partners are wearing short or pants.

    I also think this is the right occassion to pull out a cocktail suit: a skirt suit made out of evening materials like satin. stores tend to sell these around the holidays, and nanette lepore makes them a lot. i have one i picked up at end of season at something like an 80% markdown.

  21. Maybe it’s a midwestern thing as well; I have never seen a work event in which women wore floor-length formals. Just cocktail dresses, or dressy, clearly-evening-not-day suits.

  22. What about strapless gowns? Do they show too much skin for a work event?

    I have a full length black wool strapless gown from Brooks Brothers. It has a matching jacket with fur collar, but I wouldn’t want to keep that on all night indoors.

    Could I wear it to an event like the one described above? It IS Brooks Brothers, after all!

    • If it makes a difference either way, I am very fit and toned on my upper half. Thanks in advance for any advice!

      • I’m also in the midwest and twenty-five. I wore a floor length, black strapless dress to my boyfriend’s black tie firm even last year with large black jewelry. Many partners commented on how beautiful I looked. If you wear stapless well, do it!

    • I think it sounds beautiful and appropriate! (and I’m in the midwest as well).
      I have worn strapless to our firm’s gala and have never felt uncomfortable (and I’ve been attending it for a decade now, so I’ve seen plenty of dresses at it!). With strapless, I think it’s important to make sure it fits well and comes up high enough to not really show cleavage, and I find that a substantial necklace with it makes me feel “covered up” enough to feel appropriately dressed.

  23. Ah, but what is appropriate to wear as the *date* of someone who works at a firm is different than what one should wear if someone actually herself works at the firm in question. You don’t want people looking at you and thinking how gorgeous you look, you want them looking at you and thinking that you seem like a professional and sophisticated savvy person with good judgment who they should staff on their next big case.

  24. S,

    Are we now saying that strapless isn’t sophisticated savvy? Being a lawyer and having dressed similarly to all female lawyers in his firm under 40, I would say yes.
    Example: http://www.bluefly.com/BCBGMAXAZRIA-black-satin-tiered-pleat-strapless-gown/cat20112/302951101/detail.fly
    I think that black strapless is sophisticated for black tie, especially with a classy wrap. I think this still shows good judgment and (age) appropriateness.

    • Do you think it matters how old the wearer is? I think black strapless is beautiful and appropriate for a wide age range, but as a 26 y/o lawyer who already looks a little young, I would probably avoid it for a work event for fear of looking like someone’s date.

      • maybe i’m biased b/c i’m busty, but no, i wouldn’t do strapless to a work event.

  25. It sounds from the email like your firm bought a table at the event. Don’t know the cause, but there are probably going to be a huge range of people there, dressed in a huge range of styles. Don’t stress too much, and have a good time! (Note that good time does not equal getting hammered, it means making pleasant conversation with your tablemates and getting to know some of the higher-ups at your firm in a less worky situation).

    You don’t want to look like a stripper. You also don’t want to look like a 65 year old WASP /lady-who-lunches. I’ve seen a lot of older women wearing those satin suit thingys, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them on someone under 45.

  26. Anne Vohl :

    At this time of the year – and through the end of the year – in the more northern parts of the country, it is always elegant to wear something long which has a plaid skirt and a velvet or silk top. The plaid part can be anything from silk to wool. The top part can have a turtleneck or a scoop neck. Hence this look can be anything from the dressiest to the more causal. It a great backdrop to rocking some sparkly jewelry.

  27. Each organization has a different culture, including its’ galas. Having attended many social events as a “society reporter” the best bet is to call the sponsoring organization and asking what attendees usually wear.

  28. For my firm’s black-tie anniversary dinner, I wore pants and a long evening coat in the same dressy color with a sparkly shell underneath. (This sounds weird — what I mean is that they were bought as separates in the same collection from Dana Buchman and were designed to be dressy – I don’t just mean that I just wore pants and a jacket in the same color.)
    Most women were in long gowns and those who wore shorter dresses looked out of place. I got compliments on my outfit (worn with a diamond necklace and earrings) and have since worn it to black-tie weddings without feeling out of place.

  29. I know this is an old thread, but I feel I must comment for anyone who may reference it. “Black Tie” does NOT mean you must wear a black dress!!! It is merely the description of the level of formality for the gentlemen. Any sophisticated color will do — leave the neon for prom-queens and pageant contestants. Here is a guideline for women:

    WHITE TIE: This is the most formal. You generally will not see this outside of State Dinners, very formal Charity Balls, or very, very formal large weddings. Gentlemen must wear White Tie, meaning a black tailcoat, black trousers, white pique tie, shirt, and vest. No exceptions. (This is what the gentlemen wear for dinner on the show “Downton Abbey”) LADIES: Ladies should wear a formal, full-length gown… this is your night to break out your finest jewelry too! A cocktail dress will be too casual.

    BLACK TIE: This is one step down from White Tie. Gentlemen wear a tuxedo. They have a bit more freedom here as to color, tie-style, etc., depending upon the tone of the event. A younger, more fun crowd, do a colored bowtie or a long “European” tie (think of the guys who attend the Oscars), if it is a work event, you can never go wrong with black tux, white tuxedo shirt, black bow tie. (Hey, it works for James Bond!) LADIES: You have more leeway too! You are invited to wear a long evening gown, or you may choose a very formal cocktail dress. Fabulous accessories are a must. If you are going for a cocktail dress, your go-to LBD may not be formal enough. Think embellishment, even if subtle. There have been some gorgeous lace dresses recently that would be perfect paired with your most fabulous stilettos and formal jewelry. Leeway does not make the choice easy, so never hesitate to contact someone in the know (a friend who has attended the event before, an event organizer, etc.) and ask them.

    BLACK TIE OPTIONAL: Gentlemen are invited to wear their tuxedos, or they may wear a formal, dark suit. Black/grey/navy. Keep the accessories elegant (tie, pocket square, cufflinks). LADIES: You may wear a simple long gown or a fabulous cocktail dress. You can be a bit more playful and creative here. Same advice for asking someone in the know!

    COCKTAIL ATTIRE: Men in dark suits. LADIES: this is what the cocktail dress was made for. No long gowns tonight! Keep it dressy and chic. A sedate skirt and top will not be dressy enough. It should feel a bit special.

    Remember two bits of advice from Coco Chanel:

    “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.”

    “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

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