Privilege Blog

Can You Make Budget Black Tie Work? OK, Sort Of Budget?

There, on your hall table. The envelope. It’s thick, uniquely-shaped, of lustrous paper. Inside, an invitation. And there, somewhere near the R.S.V.P. sit the words, dreaded or welcome. Black Tie Requested.

Now what?

For movie stars, high-level socialites, and other red carpet denizens, time to call the stylist, buy a new outfit, or maybe remix an outfit from an overfull sparkly closet. For most of us, time to fret. We know that black tie usually means long dresses. You can get away with a cocktail dress, but if everyone else will be dropping their hems you may feel more comfortable following the party line.

Few of us have closets full of long.

If you’re flush, fine. I’m particularly fond of Lanvin, in my dreams. But for the rest of us?

A couple of options. You could rush off to a prom gown store like Caché, or the “dressy” department of Macy’s. A course I can’t recommend.  You will feel wrong amongst the Lavin-clad throngs. Of course, if you don’t care, then go ahead. But if you are one who does care about feeling appropriate, and I confess I do, all is not lost.

Learn from those who do this for a living. The crowd who treat black tie like a tennis match have helpfully established some uniforms. We can review, and then recreate on a budget.

Uniform #1, the Asian-esque cheongsam/qipao/salwar kameez. We’ll use Cheongsam as shorthand. A cheongsam calls out for toned arms, glamorous cuffs, and jeweled sandals. I’d do this one in aubergine, with pale blue trousers, or maybe navy with a very off green. You want a striking color palette.

Uniform #2, the Carolina Herrera. The Carolina, for short. After all, the woman has made this look so much her signature that stylists photograph similarly dressed models in homage. The Carolina:

  • Suits those with lovely necks and bust.
  • Frames a beautiful necklace well.
  • Helps the long-waisted.
  • Requires high heeled peep-toe pumps or ballerina flats. Your choice, but you need a little heel and a little toe to show.
  • Must avoid the Full Dowager. Grandes Dames are not quite the same as dowagers.
I love you Carolina HerreraFashion Trends & Styles - Polyvore

I love you Carolina Herrera by High WASP featuring Badgley Mischka shoes

These looks center around pieces from Style Paris by Susan Sutherland, one of the boutiques featured at Taigan, an online retailer for specialty shops. Style Paris has stores in Palm Beach and Southampton, home sweet homes to black tie party goers. Susan knows whereof she sells, however, the perfectly appropriate has its price. Its high price. The Temple ‘cheongsam’ is $1700. The Giovanna black skirt, $1400. The Theo Plastron white shirt, $740.

Fear not. The genius of these black tie strategies is that you should be able to pull them off for far less than $2000.

To locate a Cheongsam, in most major cities, and many of their associated suburbs, Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese communities search out the last few talented tailors providing homeland garments. If you like tunics and pants, find a resource for salwar kameez. If you prefer the more fitted cheongsam (this is the Cantonese word, quipao in Mandarin), Chinatowns all over America create custom-fitted wedding outfits. You can have anything made.

Of course, tailors in America cost a fair sum of money. A much cheaper alternative would be to take something off the rack and have it customized. Or venture offshore, and try one of the many online boutiques.

  • Make sure to secure a fabric swatch and samples of closures, etc. in advance.
  • The success of designing your own lies in impeccable materials, and scrupulous fitting.
  • You will probably need to finish tailoring locally.

And the ‘Carolina?’ How to recreate for less? Here, Etsy will be your friend. You want a skirt in silk, satin, or velvet, with detailing and some volume. Find one with a waist suitable for display, or sash it yourself.

Victorian Ruffled Skirt, $295

For the white shirt, you want a substantial cotton, fitted, with an interesting detail at neck or cuff.

Eli white shirt, Thomas Pink, $195.

Wear it unbuttoned as far as is polite. Straight with ruffles and ruffles with straight. Contrast and restraint.

Cocktail cuff shirt, Thomas Pink, $185.

Alternatively, a cotton lawn shirt, transparent, embellished. This short sleeved blouse moves the look younger, towards the land of Boho, and Little Women. Can’t you just see some beautiful unknown girl, in Victorian skirt and blouse, hair up on her head, sweeping into a room full of fancy people?

When all is said and done, we might be able to get to our event for just over $300, without accessories. Leaving you room for a cuff by Alexis Bittar, below.
Or some serious faux pearls. Yes. For this occasion it’s just fine to go big and go fake. You’re carrying it off. You’re Sabrina, only you didn’t sew your own.

Most importantly, you will want to try everything on together. Wrap, bag, shoes, jewelry, makeup. There’s no point to black tie without that feeling of, “Ta da! I’m here!” Otherwise you’re only fulfilling societal obligations. And there are lots of those more important than wearing appropriate clothes to a gala.

Orange/lilac cheongsam variant via Style Paris by Susan
Collared white shirt via Style Paris on Taigan
Silk satin skirt via Style Paris
White cheongsam via Oriental-Cheongsam
Low necked “Eli” white shirt via Thomas Pink
Tailored white shirt via Thomas Pink
White short-sleeved blouse and black skirts via Etsy
Lucite cuff via Alexis Bittar

52 Responses

  1. I love the silk cheongsam – being a small-boned, short woman, it would probably look good on me (if I were a many pounds thinner).

    But I need not worry, for the only invitation we've received lately had Mickey Mouse on it – The G Man will be a year old on Sunday.

  2. My favorite source for Black Tie wear is a good consignment shop. I got the go-to simple black velvet dress I wore (with different accessories) for 10 years at the Junior League thrift shop for $25. The silk YSL evening pumps I wore with it cost $40.

  3. I love the Cheongsam style for the artsy cousin and the Carolina Herrera style style for the grand dame. They are both classic. But what does the sturdy gal wear?

  4. i wore a cheongsam to see joe when we were in stratford-upon-avon a week or two after we met (it was a little weird for an RSC production and the pub, but it was one of my favorite pieces). he blinked. "i always hoped i'd have a girlfriend who wore one of those, but they always said no."

  5. Great post! You're exactly correct about the "uniforms". I have those few things that I always call on for all the required events: weddings, funerals, deb balls, etc. Really makes dressing so much easier, doesn't it?!? :-) xoxo

  6. Practical AND fun. Thank you. And I like your emphasis on the possibility of Both.

  7. Great ideas! I agree with avoiding a Gown™. I'm far too curvy for a cheongsam, but a salwar kameez would be workable. Does anyone actually do Black Tie anymore?

  8. I'm on my way over with an armful of frocks!

    "Black Tie" always excites me, The Carolina look is quite stunning.

  9. BLACK TIE would totally sideline me….I would probably wear my mother of the groom silk shantung patches of scallops mid calf skirt and sleeveless shantung wrap top with a pashmina….all by Strawberry Jill, which is now Raspberry Jill….and wear masses of pearls….my peep toe Nike swarofski crystal encrusted sandals…..and hope not to be turned away at the door!
    I seem to recall you have a black tie ensemble in the back of your closet…you mentioned it awhile back!

  10. Carolina Herrera all the way!

    I have a periwinkle taffeta full, floor length skirt from JMcLaughlin… that I adore. I've worn it with a crisp clean white blouse(a la Carolina Herrera), with a simple sweater (cashmere), and with a plain white T-shirt and loads of pearls… love the versatility of that skirt!

  11. The great thing about classic black tie outfits is once you own them, you can wear them over and over with a slight change in accessories. We like to go on cruises and look forward to the formal nights. I have a selection of simple dresses that never go out of style and look elegant and appropriate. Husband has a classic tuxedo. Done and done.

  12. We go to one black tie a year, unless the skiing is good. I usually just hope everyone gets good and liquored up so they don't remember my outfit year to year.

    I've also felt solidly Carolina, but that cheongsam is stunning!

  13. I have a number of opportunities every year for black tie, although I'm finding short is getting to be almost as common as long (and dark suits as common as dinner jackets). I'm trying to figure out if there is a way to make the 'Carolina' work with my current shape. I seem to have lost my waist with menopause. Love the more global and or vintage choices, but if a Grande Dame can't play on black tie occasions, when can she play?

    I definitely agree about prom/MOB department store offerings. I think the strategy if one must look there is a very simple, solid dark dress in a decent fabric with no attached trims or sparkles. As long as you add quality accessories and jewelry, the look will work.

  14. i love the Caroline H look – saw a pic of her in whirt shirt and black skirt, probably on The Sartorialist and she looked so elegant. I really like that cuff by Caroline Grace, such wonderful colours, you have fab taste LPC. Bx

  15. How interesting – over here you rarely see a two-piece outfit, not to mention a simple white blouse, when the dress code says black tie. Cocktail dresses, knee-long or longer, are de rigueur, and some flair and flaunting is expected. Low-cut backs or necklines, quirky details, big rings, black tie is all about having fun.

    However, I do love your suggestions, especially the Herrera set with a full skirt and a crisp white shirt with nice accessories. I think I'll keep that one in mind. Thank you!

    Tomorrow I'm throwing a formal work-related dinner party which requires white tie. Looking forward to stepping into my gorgeous new long dress. :c)

  16. Mmm, yes. I made the mistake of trying gowns when I first started at uni, but I soon learnt. I wore both these uniforms, and many variations on them, in my years there. I even acquired a collection of long dresses, I needed them so much. All now in storage, bar one. A life more ordinary. But I couldn't part with fuschia feathers beneath black tulle, somehow…

  17. I would sew the skirt – in fact I did sew one like this for the millennium party we held – and buy the white shirt, preferably customized to me. In 1999/2000 I wore my dark gray skirt with a black cashmere sweater because we were hosting at home and thus being less formal.

  18. Your images are simply stunning, especially "The Carolina" polyvore, my word, what bit of bliss you created.

    And the tips are spot-on, it *can* be done for less, the point is one has to feel it, nothing less works.

    Stellar post Miss LPC. :)

  19. I really like the first set you put together. That is really pretty. Budget black tie is so do-able with great jewels for a spash of glimmer and shine. :)

  20. Seems to me I saw many photos of somebody Bass -Ann?- in New York in a Cheongsam a few years back.

    It was green with embroidery and sticks in my mind because it just happened to be the same dress that Nicole Kidman wore someplace she was photographed.

    Little did I know she was donning a uniform.

    One plus of the Caroline is that you can switch out the tops and not always look the same. You never know when somebody will be taking pictures.

  21. the CH look always wins… but as I'm a little blonde critter, I'm rocking the cocktail length dresses as long as it's "legal" ;)


  22. Ah, I've long been obsessed with the Carolina. I think I will have finally arrived at the age of 50. Somehow, Ms. Privilege, you manage to put into print the un-utterable thoughts in my head with such class and dignity. Adore.

  23. Loved this post and loved your Carolina insights. She always looks wonderful, but lets's face it, she is beautiful, slim, has access to divine clothes and has the best emeralds ever. So all that helps. Oh, and her hair is nice. All those South American billions probably help too. Enjoy your weekend. x

  24. In my country not many wear black. Black Sarees are not worn by many Saree shoppers. What other colors is equivalent to Black's appeal

  25. I am very late to this discussion, but I wanted to tell you that this is my favorite post (so far).I intend to bookmark this one for future reference. I am probably not your "target" reader, so I don't often offer an opinion, but I still enjoy your blog. One of the things that can make events like black tie so overwhelming is lack of understanding an appropriate place to start (when trying to get dressed). You provided some structure-a starting place for what is appropriate. Thank you.

  26. I can so see the Cheongsam on you. That would be absolutely brilliant on you! Gorgeous post.

  27. Oh, the Carolina is DIVINE! I always had visions of wearing the light pink satin ball skirt from my prom with a button down in her style. Alas, I can't find that skirt ANYWHERE.

  28. Love this post: the classic ideas for black tie, plus the mention of "gowns" versus dresses. How true!

    I would add that New England wasp culture espouses the idea that you buy it right and you don't have to buy it again – even for dresses. I can think of several black tie events I went to in my twenties where there were dresses decidedly older than I. I am also lucky enough to have several classic dresses inherited from my grandmother (1930's) and my aunt (1960's) that can still do the trick. At least, in Boston they do.

  29. I have a long black skirt in my closet and would be able to put it to use should such an unlikely event occur here. Granted it may not have the correct label, but it serves me perfectly. With an appropriate blouse and a colorful cummerbund, it is suitable.

  30. Jan – The G Man isn't having black tie baby birthday?:)

    Mistress Cynica – That is another very good solution. I don't thrift so unfortunately I am unable to advise here. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Belle – Aha. A follow up post:).

    Lauren – How wonderful to make someone so happy.

    Preppy 101 – Where we we be without uniforms?

    Mater – Thank you.

    Deja – Ha! Gown (TM) Perfect! And yes, especially on the East Coast, and in San Francisco, people still do black tie. Even Santa Barbara…

  31. Tabitha – Great! I will pour the martinis!

    Hostess – I bet you could pull it off. And I would have to pull out my 30 year old Caroline Charles:).

    EM – OOh. Periwinkle taffeta!

    Louise – Exactly. Done and done well:).

    Patsy – Hahahahahaha. That sounds like the salty Sturdy Gal kind of comment I know and love.

    House of Queens – Yes, when you have a cultural heritage with a formal dress, it works perfectly. When we don't have that heritage, it appears we sort of appropriate the uniforms.

    DocP – I agree. If a Grande Dame can't play then, when?:)

  32. Susan – Yes, I think that's true.

    Blighty – Thank you:). Those Caroline Grace cuffs are somewhat affordable too.

    Anna – Interesting. And I hope you have enjoyed your new long dress. I love that first wearing of a new dress.

    agirl – I hope you bring out your fuchsia feathers for many occasions.

    Miss Cavendish – I have a soft spot in my heart for J. Peterman. The stories, as someone mentioned, DocP I believe, ARE the product. And the iconoclast should follow their heart.

    Sewing – Oh if I could sew, absolutely. And the cashmere sweater topping is perfect for winter and less formal. Of course Sharon Stone famously wore a Gap tshirt in her Carolina look.

    TPP – Thank you. I'm still waiting for the day you and I wear our ball gowns:).

  33. CDS – Thank you. I love the colors.

    Rose – Yes! I remember Kidman's dress. It was Dior or something. Made a huge splash.

    QBS – Youth clearly isn't wasted on you. Yay.

    Vogue – Thank you so much. The Carolina has to be done very carefully if you are young, I completely agree.

    FF – At least she does her beauty justice with style, right?

    Sarees – I think the next step after black is red, but of course the red saree is for weddings, so maybe purple?

  34. aaonce – Welcome. And thank you. If you find what I say valuable, or entertaining, or evocative, in any way at all, you're my target reader. Thank you very much.

    Belette – Oh do not encourage me….

    Muffy – You can, some day, have it made.

    Elizabeth – That's so true about the New England High WASP. Buy right and you don't have to buy again. Perfect way to put it. Unfortunately I wore my grandmother's dresses when I was in high school, and the silver lame with a crystal star on the hip shredded. You are lucky or else just less reckless than I. Enjoy.

    Nellie – I think the good part of this kind of outfit is that labels don't matter.

  35. Great post! I've done the long skirt and white button down or simple buttoned up cardigan top several times and it never fails. Classic is always in style!

  36. The real cheongsam — a 100% silk, floor-length tight sheath with high slits — is rather unforgiving.

    I'm not terribly heavy, but my wedding cheongsam had to be paired with a corset, even after weeks of dieting. If only I could fit into it now! It was made of three different types of red silk. But it's way too small. Plus, I enjoy being able to breathe and walk at the same time.

    That said, there are many modern cheongsams, with stretchy mixed fabrics, more generous cuts, or sequins / embroidery to give more heft (and support) to the garment.

    Anson Chan, a very elegant pro-democracy figure in Hong Kong, is famous for wearing cheongsam to black-tie events. And she's 70!

    She's the one in the bright red. That's what I want to look like when I'm old.

  37. Susan Sutherland is a good friend of mine and although her clothes aren't budget, they are worth every penny. Cut from the absolutely finest fabrics and made-to-order for the wearer they never fail to please.
    I buy a few pieces each season and wear them until they don't owe me a dime. I think it's the new post-recession (post = optimism) trend, few pieces but fine ones — French women have been doing this for years.

  38. Another option is to hit the sales of Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and small local specialty shops at the end of season. If you buy something classic you can wear it forever. I have a good collection of things suitable for very grand charity balls as well as smaller corporate or local events, and I paid full price for none of them. I would only have to go shopping for an inaugural ball.

    I'm somewhat restricted in my acquisitions because many of the black-tie events I go to are hunt balls, and ladies in the US are only to wear black or white at these occasions (the striking scarlet cutaways of the gentlemen provide the color, and on this one night of the year the men are the peacocks). For these country balls, Lanvin, Oscar, and the other major designers are going to be un peu trop; the high WASPs in the countryside of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are restrained in their taste and look askance at those who make a big splash with a flashy dress. One option I've used: buy a good velvet skirt and pair different styles of velvet tops with it. I have one velvet top that is virtually backless, another that dips low in front, another that's more modest. It looks as though I have several different velvet dresses. A beaded ladies' cummerbund comes in handy, too.

  39. I used to think I was black tie material…now I think they'd kick me out before I made it past the coat check!

  40. I am in for the white shirt and long dark skirt! Good to know where to turn to when it comes to boarding the Queen for a transatlantic passage with 5 blackties in a row! :)

  41. Here in Ontario, Canada, 'Black Tie' means a tuxedo for men, and although women have more options, most wear long, or ballet length dresses.
    Even at our huge Fall equestrian event, 'The Royal' you can't sit in your (mucho dinero) box seats, unless, you are dressed appropriately; men MUST wear a tuxedo (except on Tuesday, when a jacket will suffice, for some bizarre reason) or they (like my husband) will have to find seats with the hoi polloi.
    It's really loads of fun, running around the horse palace, in a long gown, amidst people in jeans and polar fleece. lol.

  42. The Carolina works for me. Dresses simply don't work for long-waisted types. Another economical option to accomplish this look, which I in fact used for a company black-tie event: I bought, yes, a gown (gasp) that fit well in the hip area. I asked the tailor to cut off the entire top of the gown and make it into a solid color skirt rather than the two-tone ghastly gown on discount that it was. Worked fantastically with the requisite white shirt. Don't overlook those gowns, as long as they are a respectable material, just cut off the tops.

  43. I cannot explain to you how much I am in love with that “Carolina” polyvore…all of it is perfection and it’s calling my name! Herrera happens to be one of my favorite designers (as an aside, her 212 perfume is divine). Now, I know you aren’t a stylist but maybe you can answer my question. I’m 5’4 with a FULL bust (DDD) AND I am a short-waisted hourglass (curses). What are my chances of wearing this outfit and not looking 9 months pregnant?

    1. ShabbyChick – I thought this was such a good question I am putting it up in the Ask LPC section. Hope that’s OK with you!

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