How To, Style, Wardrobe

Black Tie at Any Age: A Guide for Women

Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

One of my favorite parts of my job is planning our annual dinner dance, which is traditionally black tie. It’s an elegant, special evening, and it’s wonderful to gather together with everyone looking their best! In this day and age, it’s rare to have an official “black tie” or “white tie” evening–far more events are becoming “black tie optional.” There is also conflicting advice given for black tie events, whether a long gown or short dress, so it’s understandable that there are often many questions around this sort of event. At a suggestion from a friend, I’ve put together a guide to black tie at any age. I hope you find this helpful!

For Any Age

Your goal for an evening like this (or, truly, at any moment of life), should be poise and elegance. Being comfortable and confident in yourself, wearing clothes that fit you and suit you, are all key to this. If you feel good, you will look good! While confidence comes from within, there are a few things you can do too help you feel at your best.

  • Wear colors that make you look good. Go to a store and find a salesperson to help you with this. Try on dresses (or clothes, if you’re shopping for regular attire) in a variety of colors. Look at yourself carefully, and ask for advice. Try colors you wouldn’t usually try on, and make careful note of the colors and shades that work best for you.
  • Find a tailor and visit them often. A tailor might seem an unnecessary expense, but I can assure you that when you do have your clothing altered to fit you properly, it makes a world of difference!
  • Don’t wear uncomfortable clothing (or shoes.) If your shoes don’t fit, or your dress rides up or twists around, you’ll feel uncomfortable as long as you are wearing them, and you’ll look uncomfortable. You don’t need to suffer for beauty! You will look (and feel) a thousand percent better if you wear things that make you comfortable.
  • Black tie means a long gown (or long skirt and silk blouse.) Black tie events are not the place for tea-length gowns or knee-length dresses. Please save those for events that ask for black tie optional or cocktail attire.

In Your Twenties and Thirties

A scene from Metropolitan (dir. Whit Stillman, 1990)

In my twenties, I went to a handful of black tie events a year (for nonprofit events, or organizations I belonged to, and the occasional wedding.) While I wanted to look elegant, I didn’t have the budget for a bespoke gown. That’s not necessary, of course–there are many great places to find a gown if you know where you are looking! The important thing to remember is elegance.

At this point in your life, you’re beginning your career and trying to establish yourself. If you are at an event for an organization you volunteer for, or a work event, it might be tempting to wear something to help you stand out. Please do not. Your dress should not be too revealing; it should not be too loud; it should not be an inappropriate fabric for the season. You will stand out, but not in a good way.

Your attire should be simple and elegant. Your jewelry and accessories should be classic. It’s easy (and wallet-friendly!) to invest in a classic long silk skirt in a neutral color (black, navy, or dark grey) and several silk tops for a variety of black tie outfits without seeming to repeat any looks. Match your accessories to the color of your top, and you’re all set!

What to Wear

Gown: A simple gown in a good neutral color, or in solid, vibrant shade that works well for you, is appropriate. Plain pieces are easier to re-wear to a series of events where you might see the same people, as you can change your accessories and make the outfit look new. A long silk skirt and a silk top in a complementary color is also a good option. If you do choose to wear a pattern, wear a seasonally-appropriate one!

Jewelry: Put on as much as you think is appropriate, then remove one piece. Don’t wear large, gaudy, faux pieces. Tasteful costume jewelry is wonderful here. Just remember–less is more!

Shoes: Buy the best you can afford, prioritize comfort and elegance, and make sure that your shoes coordinate with your attire and other accessories (e.g. don’t buy shoes with silver accents, then carry a gold clutch.)

Clutch: Don’t carry a handbag. Bring a clutch that’s small enough to be unobtrusive, but large enough to carry the essentials: your phone, your ID, credit card, and an extra $20, and any makeup you might need for a quick touch-up in the ladies’ room. Room for a comb is also helpful! You do not need to bring your entire wallet. A simple clutch in a tasteful neutral color looks much more expensive than it may have been and will stand the test of time.

Hair and makeup: Tasteful, understated, and most of all–not fussy! You don’t want to be running to the powder room to fix your makeup every five minutes.

In Your Forties and Fifties

CZ Guest and friend.

At this point in your life, you’ll know what makes you look best–silhouette, colors, neckline, et cetera. You may want to invest in a bespoke gown, or a more significant purchase. In any case, your gown should be classic, timeless, and not tied to any specific trend. Trends are all well and good, but if you choose to have a gown made, the lead time for such a significant design will likely mean that the trend has passed by the time your event arrives.

What to Wear

Gown: Accentuate your best features with judicious use of color, silhouette, and style! Tasteful patterns are good here, too.

Jewelry: If you are married, wear your wedding and engagement rings, even if you usually only wear your wedding band (as I do, in daily life.) Wear special jewelry you don’t often have the chance to wear–the rule according to Miss Manners is, unless tastefully set in a wedding or engagement ring, the following should never be seen in daylight: diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.

Shoes: Again, comfort and elegance is key. A low slingback is my particular best friend. I love satin for evening shoes, though they require a little extra care!

Clutch: No need for a handbag–a nice clutch, perhaps in a fun color, is a nice way to accentuate your outfit!

Hair and makeup: I’m hardly one to talk about having fun with hair and makeup (I have kept my hairstyle the same for years, and rarely wear makeup), but this might be a good time to try something slightly different! (Be sure to do a test run in advance of your event–the last thing you want to do is be rushing to get ready!)

In Your Sixties and Beyond

Mrs. Rachel Mellon at the opening of the exhibition Paintings from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Buffalo, New York at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, on 17 May 1968. © National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gallery Archives.

One of the women I know is just the epitome of how I want to look and dress when I reach her age. She wears beautiful, vibrant colors; large gold jewelry; and has a very particular (elegant) hairstyle that everyone knows by sight. But most of all she is supremely confident and gracious, whether hosting one of her famous parties in her beautiful apartment or attending an event. That’s what I strive for now, and I hope that by the time I reach sixty I have attained even a fraction of her poise!

What to Wear

Gown: Something bright, bold, and colorful!

Jewelry: The rule for gemstones still applies. Wear your most beautiful pieces on a special occasion!

Shoes: Comfort and elegance, always!

Clutch: It’s always been a dream of mine to have a Judith Leiber bag. Not a very realistic dream (I’d be too afraid of damaging it somehow!) but I think that it would be very fun and whimsical!

Hair and makeup: At this point, you may have a signature style, or you may enjoy switching things up now and again. Whatever you choose, make sure that you feel like you!

Where to Shop

Beyond the Big-B department stores, Rent the Runway, and similar shops, here are some of my favorite places to find black tie attire.

Ann Mashburn

CK Bradley

Molly Moorkamp

Modatrova

BHLDN

And your local opportunity shops! I’ve found stunning clothing at some of ours for a fraction of the cost of a new couture gown. Where are your favorite places to shop? Happy hunting!

4 thoughts on “Black Tie at Any Age: A Guide for Women

  1. This is wonderful and so helpful! I’m ashamed to say I had missed the Miss Manners guidance on gemstones, but the good news is that I no longer have to mourn not having nice diamond studs to wear as an every-day.

    I still have the black raw silk ball skirt I bought at J. McLaughlin too many years ago to name (I was in my 30s). To your point, I’ve worn it with a wide array of tops and it always looks different. A formal skirt that stands the test of time is also easier to have tailored at the waist as you move from a 20s figure to … well … the rest of life.

    Thanks for this delightful and well-informed blog! Love it!!!

    1. Thank you so much! Ann Mashburn sells a beautiful silk ballskirt every fall/winter that is a wrap so you can just adjust it yourself… so perfect!! A great investment as it will literally last a lifetime 🙂 So glad you found this helpful!

  2. I love this post, so helpful! I’ve always loved the beautiful gowns they have on BHLDN, and I look forward to having an opportunity to wear something from there someday. The Belize Dress is one of my favorites right now. Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, BHLDN has some great options, I have definitely taken advantage of their good and selection in the past! I also love the wide color options they have. I’m really looking forward to being able to wear a gown again, hopefully (fingers crossed!) next month for the work event I’ve been planning!

Leave a Reply to Christa L Sagmoe Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *