If you're not up on your wedding etiquette, you may not know the difference between a formal black-tie event, black-tie optional and casual chic wedding. Whether you're getting ready to host a black-tie wedding reception or have been invited to one, there are some rules of etiquette to know before heading out to the party.
Black tie is a type of evening wear for special events and occasions such as wedding receptions. The significance of black-tie attire originated in Victorian times when the black-tie attire symbolised leaving the dirt and smell acquired by riding to events on horseback behind you. As automobiles came into existence, black-tie attire transitioned into a type of attire reserved for social purposes that represented being clean, neat and attractive.
Before World War II, black-tie wedding reception attire was associated with a dress that symbolised what "polite society" wore to these special occasions. Black-tie attire during this time meant a dinner jacket and tailcoat. During the interwar period, the tuxedo became the black-tie attire reserved for men. After the war, black-tie attire became a bit more relaxed and casual so a black-tie wedding reception would warrant a business suit, known at the time as a sack or lounge suit. During the 1940s and '50s, the tuxedo made a comeback as the preferred black-tie attire. As the '80s began, social standards began setting the standard for what was considered a black-tie wedding reception, so you would see diverse interpretations of black-tie attire depending on whether you were on the East, West or Gulf Coast of the U.S.
Etiquette rules state that black-tie attire is reserved for wedding ceremonies and receptions that take place after 6 p.m. Britain has continued this tradition, where black-tie formal wear is reserved for evening weddings and adorns what the British term morning dress for weddings that take place before sundown. Americans, however, are more commonly known to wear the tuxedo and tailcoat as black-tie attire no matter what time of the day the wedding reception is held.
Etiquette also states that black-tie wear is reserved for adults. The Encyclopedia of Etiquette says, "As a general rule, boys do not wear dinner jackets much before they are 15, or tailcoats before they are about 18." Since the book was originally written in 1967, interpretations of this etiquette have waned so you often see young ring bearers or other wedding reception guests wearing black-tie formal wear at a younger age. In some instances, the long trousers are substituted for tuxedo shorts, which are more age-appropriate. The general rule of thumb is that if a boy is too young to tie a formal bow tie, he is too young to wear it.
When you receive a wedding reception invitation that doesn't indicate what the attire requirements are, even if the event is after 6 p.m., you may be in a quandary as to what you should wear. In modern times, almost all black-tie wedding receptions are explicitly stated as so on the invitation so that there is no misinterpretation or confusion as to what to wear to the wedding. Emily Post's Etiquette says that dress attire should be included on a formal wedding invitation to let the guests know that the attire is "black-tie."