What Not to Wear To… a Black-Tie Affair

what not to wear to a black tie affair2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on office what not to wear to a black-tie affair, and links have been updated below. Looking for general advice on what not to wear to work? Check out our latest discussion.

On the off chance anyone’s company is still having their black-tie affair this year, we thought we’d give some advice on what to wear, and what not to wear.  (Although the best advice we can give you is: ask a colleague who’s already been to the dance at least once.)

1.  First of all, ways to tell dressy formal attire is required:  generally, your invitation will tell you what to wear.  Secondary clues that dressy attire is necessary:

  • the event is held on a Saturday, not a Friday
  • significant others are invited
  • the event is held in a swank place that is not necessarily well-located near the office
  • your company holds two parties: one for staffers (held on a Friday night near or at the office) and one is held for the executives/lawyers (the dress code will be very different for the two events) (check out this advice on what to wear to a more low-key holiday office party)

what not to wear to a black tie affair for work2.  Our first piece of advice:  Even if it’s not black-tie, buy a black dress or another muted color — although color is acceptable to wear at some events, this can vary greatly from event to event.  (Nordstrom has some amazing sales on plain long gowns — and Rent the Runway is always a great option.)

avoid this for black tie for work3.  When shopping for your dress, think “classic beauty,” NOT sexy.  To this end, avoid skin in unexpected places (see left — the keyhole above the empire waist is trouble).  No side-boob, no under-boob, and no dresses with the low-low back (um, at right).

4.  Strapless can be acceptable so long as your dress is well-anchored — no chance of things heading south.

5.  Cleavage can also be acceptable — a very little amount of cleavage — if it’s controlled. (If you’re on the busty side (same here, sister!), check out our style tips for busty women.

6.  No trains or fishtail hems (see below).  Seriously, you’re going to be mingling, trying to balance your drink, and trying to indulge in the occasional bite of sushi or pig in a blanket.  You don’t want people stepping on your dress in the midst of all that…

7.  In fact, a cocktail-length dress (above the knee) can be acceptable if the dress is fancy enough.  You can always accessorize with a crystal or diamond brooch, sparkly shoes, a sparkly wrap, etc.  If you’re unsure of how fancy the event is, you may want to go with either a fancy cocktail dress or a plain floor-length black dress.

what not to wear to a black tie event for work8. Don’t wear anything too outre.  Even if you really know your fashion stuff, anything cutting edge can just make you look like a hack.  (Remember Patsy and Edina, after all.)

9. Splurge on accessories or shoes. A sequined or beaded wrap, some jeweled shoes, or a quality clutch like these will all serve you well throughout your life. The fancier your dress is the fancier your bag should be, the minaudiere and box clutch are classic pieces. If diamond earrings aren’t in your future, check out this brand for highly rated cubic zirconia pieces. Also, these glitter stud earrings are always a hit.

10. If time and money allow, get your hair done, but definitely get a manicure.  We always find that if you’re shaking hands and talking with people while holding a glass, focus tends to be on your hands and how well manicured they are.  If you’re not a polish sort of girl, just get clear or pale polish.  If you are a polish sort of girl, we recommend keeping it tasteful and avoiding sparkles and trendy shades.  Still, it’s a party — choose a color that compliments your outfit.

Original Photo credit at (martini, no longer pictured) : the perfect martini, originally uploaded to Flickr by berbercarpet.  Updated social media images (2018): Deposit Photos / Deklofenak.

what not to wear to a black-tie affair - image of a woman in gown This is one of our top posts of all time -- what NOT to wear to a black-tie affair for work! For women lawyers, executives, and other overachieving chicks, you may get invited to a lot of black-tie gala dinners -- but choosing your outfit can be difficult because you want to be fashionable, appropriate -- but still professional and respected. We weighed in with our thoughts on what to wear -- and what to avoid.





  1. This is a very good article, and not just for your holiday party — we often have to go to client oriented black tie events, as well as “cocktail” events, Corporette’s advice — to get something that works at both — is excellent.

    Also, as Corporette notes, having a fantastic accessory — mine is an insanely expensive and non too Peta friendly Nancy Gonzalez crocodile bag — will make you feel fabulous no matter what the occasion is. I work that with a Nanette Lepore two piece (jacket and spaghetti strap rather plunging neckline, which can be hidden or unhidden as the occasion requires with the jacket) at some very posh charity events, and though I can’t match the socialites on attire, my purse has secret confidence conferring powers that make me feel appropriate in any setting!

  2. I think asking around is always the best way to go. At our firm, our holiday party is on a Saturday, at a super fancy Beverly Hills hotel, but staff and attorneys are both attending and the attire is “cocktail” not “black tie.” I would be totally out of place in a long formal gown. However, the advice on having a basic dress, with nice accessories, is always a good idea.

    As far as manicures, I almost never get them, and keep my nails trimmed fairly short. Should I get a manicure with just polish on my natural nails, or should I get acrylic/gel/silk nails (short, not scary long) for the occasion? If I do get fake nails, which do you recommend? Acrylic, gel, or silk (or something else)?

  3. T – fake nails require maintenance, and they really destroy your natural nails so it’s not worth getting for just one holiday party.

  4. Our holiday party is black tie but I work with people with no concept of what that means.

    T, I never polish my nails in the traditional sense. Like you I keep them short, and neat. For polish I use a 2 sided nail buffer. They are inexpensive, easily found at any drugstore, and do not tear up your nails like polish and/or fake nails can.

  5. Could the nails thing be an east coast/west coast difference? I feel like painted nails are more of an east coast thing whereas women can get away with nicely buffed nails on the west coast.

    For that matter, the question of floor length (east coast) or cocktail length (west cost) is also regional, no?

  6. totally good advice re: the manicure! also good advice to when in doubt just wear a black dress. i was recently talked out of wearing a conservative long gown to an nyc event that was billed as black tie, and boy was i glad. the men all wore tuxes, but almost NONE of the women wore gowns: lbds all the way.

  7. Yasmin: I would have said the reverse re: manicures. When I lived in southern California, _everyone_ got manicures (and pedicures) –or acrylics. Here on the East Coast, most of the women I know don’t get regular manicures (or if they do, it’s a pale/neutral color)

  8. I agree with all of this advice except the color black. If this is a client mixer if you wear anything but black you will stand out and that is a good thing. Get a conservative cocktail/formal dress in a dark color, think eggplant, forest green, even navy or a gray and you will stand out, in a good way, from the crowd.

  9. 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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