Back in the glory days of StyleForum a self-proclaimed n00b started a thread for an urgent matter: he had a formal party to attend and had no time to buy a tuxedo. All he had was a black suit and a pair of black shoes, and although he knew he had a long way to go before he had decent formal attire, he only had time for a quick upgrade before the party.
From what I’ve read, I need to get a “Formal Dress Shirt” and a black satin tie. Am I close?
The responses were helpful – black shoes, a white shirt, etc – and included a link to a website that exhaustively lays out what proper black tie attire should be. And then something special happened.
A user by the name of Recondite, who by this time had attended both white tie and black tie events for 40 years all over the world, stepped in to place a reality check on the “rules.”
Show me the “rules” and I will get it. There is not one “rule” for “black tie” that is not routinely ignored, broken, or twisted at every event styled as “black tie”, “semi-formal”, or “formal” today or that I have attended in the past.
Do rules for black tie exist? Of course they do. But are they law? Hardly.
Dinner jackets, after all, were invented as an alternative for those elite party-goers who found the unbendable rules and overly starched shirts of white tie uncomfortable, silly, or both, but still wanted to look polished. And so, in the late 1800’s the tailless coat was born, first with a shawl collar, then peaked, and continued to evolve throughout the 20th century but never really strayed from its original intent to be elegant and comfortable, which you can do in myriad ways, even within the confines of what is considered appropriate.
I especially like how others have interpreted black tie nowadays. For his wedding and reception, Robin Wibom of Sweden wore a traditional double breasted tuxedo and cream jacket. Never mind that he wore the cream jacket after six; he still looked fantastic.
J. Mueser and 18th Amendment are two outfits in New York City that do black tie their own way, and are all the better for it. While I visited Jake’s showroom in November, a client popped in to choose something for upcoming events. “I don’t want to look like everyone else, but I still want to look dressed up.” He finally put on a blackwatch tartan jacket in plush velvet and smiled. “Yep, this is the one.”
Angel Ramos of 18th Amendment describes the season’s offerings this way: “ELEGANT CREATIVE CHAOS. An infusion of Basquiat and Lucky Luciano in a dinner jacket. It’s pop, it’s loud, it’s elegant and formal.” I’d have to agree.
Seeing these pictures almost makes me wish for a magical place where black tie canon was dutifully followed. Wouldn’t that be great? There’s not much else that one can put on that imbues one with graceful sobriety, even at the most riotous booze-up. However, such a world does not exist, and formalwear, even creative spins off it, are becoming increasingly rare. But that doesn’t mean you have to fastidiously attempt to keep everyone beholden to black tie “rules” — doing so flies directly in the face of its very ethos. As Recondite explains:
Black tie events have always been a place to experiment with personal preferences and affectations since the beginning, In fact, the entire idea of a tuxedo was one WASP thumbing his nose at a roomful of other WASPs attired in white tie rig…
Despite the best efforts of history buffs and menswear nerds, black tie is all but dead. Even when an invitation calls for “formal wear,” the end results will likely be a far cry from those early days in the roaring 20s. Does that mean you can’t wear a tuxedo? Not at all. In fact, I encourage it; you’ll look amazing in one. But if you can’t, do try to stick to the spirit of black tie, which is in reality very simple and easy to follow:
If you wear really nice shoes, a black bow tie, and a black cummerbund with a turndown medium spread white shirt [even with barrel cuffs] and a black two piece two button single breasted suit; 99% of the world, and probably all of your friends, will assume you are wearing a tuxedo, because it will look correct even with the notch lapels.
If you do have the opportunity and means to carry the torch of tradition, carry on; I salute you. But please, don’t be that guy that wags his finger at the poor soul who doesn’t know any better. Besides, how many guys do you know that have a complete black tie ensemble? Enough for a party? Probably not. Do everyone a favor and let everyone enjoy themselves. And to those who wish to showcase their festive formalwear, however eccentric or affected, I say: please continue. Break the rules and have fun.