Black-Tie Wedding Etiquette

Written by paula carvajal
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Black-Tie Wedding Etiquette
The black-tie wedding attire -- tuxedo with a black tie for men, black dress for women -- is important, but etiquette doesn't start and stop with what you wear. (Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

The good guest is almost invisible, enjoying him- or herself, communing with fellow guests, and, most of all, enjoying the generous hospitality of the hosts.

— Emily Post

Abride and groom labour for months planning their perfect day. If there ever was a time for extraordinary elegance, it would be their wedding day. Because the wedding is a black tie affair, dozens of cakes were tasted; seating charts were meticulously mapped out -- to keep Aunt Edna away from Uncle Walter -- and the flowers were picked to perfectly match the bride's signature colours. Receiving an invitation to such an event is a great honour because guest lists are painstakingly whittled down. Those honoured with an invitation can do their part to ensure the couple's day is flawless, magical and memorable by following simple etiquette protocol. Emily Post, who set the standard in social conduct, once said, "The good guest is almost invisible, enjoying him- or herself, communing with fellow guests, and, most of all, enjoying the generous hospitality of the hosts."


The path to becoming the consummate guest begins with responding to the invitation. "You should be tarred and feathered if you don't RSVP for a wedding," said K. Cooper Ray, founder of Social Primer, a website dedicated to manners.

Whether you can attend or need to send a regret, you must reply.

"It's not just a nice thing to do," said Lizzie Post, spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute. "It's really practical and it's really important because of the cost per head for this event. This isn't your beer and pizza get-together."

The proper RSVP should follow the host's instructions. Make sure to RSVP by the date given and use the requested method. If the invitation does not include "and guest", you'll be flying solo. Post explains that typically, unless you are married or living with your significant other, it's up to the discretion of the host to invite your boyfriend or girlfriend.

"You definitely never ask if you can bring somebody," said Post, who is Emily Post's great-great-granddaughter. "You don't say, 'I think there was a mistake.' No way. You stick to what you got."

The Gift

To celebrate the couple's union, you want to get the bride and groom a gift. But black tie does not dictate that the gift must be expensive.

"This is the coolest thing that has never changed within etiquette," Post said. "You should only be spending within your budget."

Once you set the budget you are comfortable with, then comes the fun part -- shopping. There are many ways to choose the perfect gift.

"A wedding registry is great to choose a gift from because those gifts have been hand-selected by the couple," said Ray, who has been featured in "GQ," "Vanity Fair" and "Southern Style."

"It's what they really need and it takes all the mystery out. There is also a wide range of prices to choose from."

It's acceptable to veer away from the wedding registry. Consider contributing to the couple's honeymoon fund, Post suggests. You can also be inventive by creating a thoughtful, homemade gift. Two recently stood out to Post: "I saw a handmade quilt that I thought was stunning and wonderful. Another was a collection of both families' recipes put together for the couple."

There is no existing protocol for the giving the gift according to Post. It can be sent or brought it to the wedding. However, she suggests considering whether the couple is getting married at a destination. If this is the case, then it might be more practical to send the gift so the couple does not have to carry it back home.

Standard etiquette used to be that guests had a year to get the gift to the couple. However, Post notes, it is now suggested that you send the gift within three months of the wedding.


At a wedding, the most beautiful woman in the room is the bride and the most handsome man is the groom. They should be the focus. A manners-minding guest would under no circumstances show up the bride or groom by choosing attention-grabbing attire.

"The most important thing women should not wear is a white dress that could be confused for a bridal gown," Post said. "Also, don't wear anything too extravagant that can take away from the wedding day."

Post says hemlines generally fall at least below the knee for a black-tie wedding.

For men, the rules are simple. "If it's black tie, then wear black tie," Ray said. This means a dinner suit -- known in the United States and Canada as a tuxedo -- with a black jacket and a white shirt and a black tie.

If you don't have a dinner suit, Ray says you can certainly wear a black suit with a normal-point collar with a white shirt and a long, black tie.

The Reception

With the "I dos" done, the celebration begins. Don't let improper etiquette ruin the elegance of the evening. As the guests convene for the cocktail hour, you will cross your first etiquette hurdle of the evening, the introduction."

"You always say a person's first and last name when you are introducing people," Ray said. "Also, introduce younger to older and female to male. It's a respect thing."

Next up is the seating for the dinner. This can seem precarious in terms of etiquette, but with a few tricks, everything should be good to go.

"If there is a buffet, wait to be invited," Post said. "You can begin eating once three people have sat down."

If it's a plated dinner, wait until everyone has been served. Don't worry if you don't know what each utensil is for.

"Just start using them from the outside in, " Post suggested. "Your silverware will be set to match the courses."

While the food is being served, don't turn a glass upside down to signal you do not want wine. "Simply say, 'No thank you,'" Post advised.

At the end of the meal, to signal that you are finished and that the waiter may clear your plate, place your knife and fork at the 4:20 position on the plate with your fork in front of your knife, Ray says.

While this is not common practice, Ray includes in his manners Bill of Rites that a man should always stand to shake hands or when a woman approaches the table. And nothing will clash more with your tux or gown than picking your teeth.

Finally, before cutting loose on the dance floor, be a gracious guest. Post said, "It's always really nice to go up to the parents and say thank you if you know they planned the wedding or compliment them on how beautiful the bride looks or how happy the couple looks. It's usually a really big day for the parents too, and it's a good idea for them to know you recognise that."

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