How Do You Black Tie?

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.”

Single breasted, one button, peak lapel jacket with gauntlet cuffs
Shawl collar suit in blackwatch tartan

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.

Angel in a shawl collared dinner jacket in Royal Stuart tartan plaid
18th Amendment textured double breasted shawl collared dinner jacket
Angel in a blackwatch tartan shawl dinner jacket

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.

For the original thread on styleforum, click here. It’s worth a read.

many thanks to the following for graciously letting us use these fantastic photos: hall madden, j.Mueser, 18th amendment, Andy Poupart, Erik Mannby, Robin Wibom, Andreas klow, and the many posters in the Black Tie thread on Styleforum

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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

15 thoughts on “How Do You Black Tie?

  1. Unless you are Javier Bardem, or perhaps even if you are, do not wear a straight four in hand tie with black tie. Especially a satin finish one ! Do not wear a pre-tied bow tie. Do not wear a matching bow tie and pocket square.

    Thank you

    • I wholeheartedly agree. But while I personally hold myself to a certain standard and encourage others to familiarize themselves with historical precedent, if someone wants to jazz it up with burgundy velvet, then I say go for it.

  2. To add to the above list of “DO NOT”…Do not wear black formal shoes without socks! According to a fashion consulting female friend of mine, “that social faux pas is considered rather nasty”…LOL

  3. Wirh all due respect, the comment in the article that “black tie is dead” is ridiculous and most ignorant. Anyone who thinks that it is “dead” is an uninitiated slob and and no place at a true black tie even..period. If one does not understand propriety…then go learn about it.

    • In America, even at opening gala for ballet, traditional black tie is, as noted, “all but dead.” It’s there, but not nearly as much as you would think, with all sorts of deviations from canon.

      I’m curious, though: where is black tie alive and flourishing?

      • As a follow up….yes…”deviations from the norm”…..you said it. I notice that some supposedly “classic” men’s stores are offering for sale Tuxedo jackets in tartan patterns, Black Watch etc. Absolutely ridiculous. I’m American, born and raised and it’s nauseating to see that which some people consider to be “style”.. You might find interesting the Gentleman’s Gazette website and videos.

  4. Again, with all due respect, I disagree. At opening night for the opera, ballet etc. some gentlemen do wear black tie. In addition, there are many private clubs which hold black tie events and the invitations are indicated as such. Yes, in the U.S.A. I could list a dozen for you, but you can find them on your own. We’re attending a New Year’s Eve event where black tie is required every year. I agree that in general, in America, people have become unkempt slobs….not all…. but most. Just take a look at some people on the street….they look as though they’re something the cat dragged in from the sewer. I must say, however, that in many places, London, Paris, Naples, Italy…and others , , there are many black tie events. Just because the majority of Americans…public firgures included… don’t even know how to tie a necktie doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has turned into slobs.

    • Private clubs and high-ticket fundraisers are another story. If you’re invited to one of those, you probably already know what black tie means.

      On this point we appear to agree: while some still wear outfits at public events that fall within the traditional scope, the overwhelming majority do not. While I enjoy old school black tie and have five different jackets with another on the way, personal feelings aside, it’s all but dead. Last time I went to the gala opening at the San Francisco ballet, which specifically says “black tie” on the invitation and is arguably the City’s dressiest public affair, less than 20% were following the “rules.” The rest wore nice clothes, mostly in black and white, with a smattering of velvet and patterned fine jackets. Everyone looked good, even if they weren’t strictly in “correct” black tie.

      You seem to be bemoaning its rarity at public events. Nothing wrong with that, but it does support my statement that it is “all but dead,” which is not meant to be taken as dismissive, but rather as a comment on the decline of traditional black tie.

    • Subtle flex.

      I can speak for NYE in Palermo. It’s the same as San Francisco: about 20-30% of dudes in proper tuxedos on Via Maqueda the whole night. Everyone looked nice though. Can’t speak for the other cities. How is general black tie turnout where you are?

    • I’ve read it, and was unable to find whether or not your experience in the general public wearing tuxedos reflects mine. You seem to be evading my question, which is: how often do you see “correct” black tie? Is it around 30% of the general public? Much more?

      This article is not questioning the rules. Let me distill it for you:

      A long time ago, the trend of tailless coats and black tie began as a more flexible option to white tie. Quite a bit of variety was seen.

      Fast forward 100 years, and people find themselves in a situation that calls for black tie, which is much rarer now than it was even a few decades ago. There exists the time-honored canon of semi-formal dress that is known only by those who frequent them or menswear/historical buffs. I wear it and encourage it, but am not doltish enough to assume that the majority of people really care if it’s “correct” since hardly anyone knows or cares about the particulars, and anyone who insists upon them is laughably and stubbornly living in a time that no longer exists.

      Again, for those who can’t afford or don’t have time: If you wear really nice black 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 will assume you are wearing a tuxedo.

      And if someone wants to spice things up and tastefully thumb his nose at stuffy people, like they did all the way back in Tuxedo, NY, then I say go for it.

    • Gentleman’s Gazette is rubbish and if you read that you need to get off SF and be with your people.

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