Formal dress codes explained: cocktail, black tie and white tie

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered!

couple in black tie at event
(Image credit: John Lewis)

It’s that time of year again when the invitations start flying in and the diary starts filling up. Whether you’re going to a wedding, awards night or graduation, it can be daunting trying to figure out the dress code. Walking into a room full of people wearing something you shouldn’t be can be the stuff of nightmares, so it’s important to plan in advance. Before you go and pick up your (probably very expensive) suit or ball gown, let us give you the low down on what you should and shouldn’t wear to your upcoming events.

Before we start, we’ve rounded up the best women’s perfume and best men’s cologne which will make a perfect final addition to your chosen outfit. 


Cocktail dress code is a nice bridge between formal and casual attire, proving to be an extremely popular choice for weddings. Men should stick to suits, but these can be any colour or material. A nice neutral linen suit is good option, especially for summer. Have a look at our 2023 best suits for a further browse. 

Women should opt for a knee-length or midi look, but keep necklines and transparency modest. Any colour is fine but whites and creams should be avoided if you’re attending a wedding!   in any colour. Cocktail doesn’t me And while tuxedos are no longer an option, men are required to wear a suit and tie, regardless of the wedding's setting.

Black tie

For men, the clue is in the name. It means you should wear a black dinner jacket, white or cream shirt (check out our best shirts for 2023 to help you choose) with a bow tie and black trousers, and avoid your regular suit! Black tie is typically meant to be worn for events starting after 7pm, but it’s becoming a more common dress code for weddings taking place during the day. 

Black tie is a little more ambiguous for women. As it was a dress code originally introduced for men in the 1930’s, women would normally echo the darker tones of their husbands outfits and wear long black or dark dresses. However, this was nearly 100 years ago and things have since changed - phew! There’s now less expectation and women can wear whatever colour they’d like. 

White tie 

Also known as ‘full evening dress’, white tie attire is considered the most formal of all dress codes. It’s reserved for very special occasions such as a state dinner, indicating that  guests are high-calibre, royal or have high social standing. Men should aim for an evening tailcoat with a white waistcoat, formal shirt and bow tie. The trousers must be high waisted with two lines of braid down the outside, and formal footwear must be worn. 

It’s also a little stricter for women, who should wear a formal, floor-length evening gown with elegant jewellery, heels and a clutch. 

Have fun at your event!

Lizzie Wilmot
Staff Writer, Home

Lizzie is T3's Home Staff Writer, also covering style, living and wellness. She works closely with Bethan Girdler-Maslen, T3's Home Editor, ensuring all the latest Home news, trends and recommendations are covered. Outside of T3, Lizzie can be found mooching around Bath, attempting (or at least trying to) a new DIY project or spending time with family and friends.