0 Cart
0 Add all flipped products to cart Flipped

Why I never want to dress in black-tie again

Black Tie: A symbol of exclusion, not elegance?

Article contribution by Isaac Yankem

The author, coming from a working-class background, finds the "black tie" dress code deeply uncomfortable. He sees it as a symbol of elitism and exclusion, reinforcing class divisions rather than being a gentleman tradition.

Picture: Men's Gregory Wool Barathea Peak Tuxedo / Ralph Lauren Purple Label


Two words on an invitation can send shivers down my spine: "black tie". As a Malaysian with working-class and immigrant roots, these words scream elitism and exclusion. Sure, it's a formal party, but one where the costume signifies belonging to a club I wasn't born into.

Now, I don't mind skipping a costume party, but declining black tie often means the host is an august institution whose invitation holds a certain weight. While I relish the freedom of my life, ditching the shirt for polo shirt whenever I please, black tie goes beyond sartorial preferences. It's a symbol, like most dress codes, that blatantly highlights the class divide.

You don't need a sociology degree to recognize the underlying message: those who wear black tie belong, those who don't, well, don't. It might seem like a personal quirk, but I'm not alone in my discomfort. Even Gordon Brown, the former UK Prime Minister, famously refused to wear the traditional white tie at events like the Mansion House speech for years. His critics called it a childish political stunt, while others defended the dress code as a harmless, quaint tradition.

But not all traditions are harmless, or even truly traditional. Formal menswear has undergone constant reinvention since the 18th century. Imagine 19th-century aristocrats rocking tailcoats with wingtip collars and white ties. Daring, right? The shorter dinner jacket, introduced in Victorian Britain, was actually a more casual alternative to those tails, initially considered too racy for mixed company. It only became standard formal wear after World War I.

Even in the 1950s, American etiquette expert Amy Vanderbilt deemed the tuxedo "essentially lacking seriousness," unfit for church. Yet, in the UK, black tie still evokes the image of dressing for dinner in a grand country house. Those who glide in black tie with effortless ease are likely graduates of the "old boys" (Harrow, Eton, Charterhouse) elite universities, accustomed to balls and formal dinners. They can't fathom what it means for an outsider to be expected to mimic them.

To them, the absence of an evening suit in one's wardrobe is as bizarre as me owning one. Even the most impeccably tailored tuxedo wouldn't erase the feeling of playing dress-up, a poor imitation of someone I'm not.

That's the crux of formal dress codes: they force the outsider to choose between two uncomfortable options. Defiantly arrive without the "right" attire and become a glaring sore thumb, or spend money renting or buying an outfit to awkwardly blend in. Most opt for the financial burden over the social one.

Plenty, even those who didn't grow up amidst balls and gowns, readily embrace evening wear to gain entry into this exclusive world. Brown eventually donned the even more formal white tie for a royal dinner. I don't judge them for conforming in specific situations, but when others readily roll over and conform, it feels like colluding with a system built on privilege. The tie that binds is also the uniform that alienates many.

Refusing black tie isn't simply a rebellious act of preserving my "authentic" individuality against group pressure. It's far more distinct. Even everyday clothes invite judgment based on accents, names, and educational backgrounds. When class and privilege are thrust into sharp relief, we're forced to confront how our identities aren't solely shaped by our choices. We carry our histories, especially in cultures attuned to the subtle markers of class.

For me, the black tie demand creates an unbearable tension. It forces me to acknowledge the conventions of a class I can never truly belong to. Refusing isn't an egocentric display of uniqueness, but an acceptance that simply following a new etiquette won't change who I am. It's a reminder to those who expect conformity that their world, this tiny, elite sphere, isn't the only one that exists, and it certainly doesn't encompass mine.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of GC.

Related posts