Classic Alternatives: Tasteful
to dressing well is to find freedom within the rules.
Anyone can be completely different, since it’s easy to be
outrageous. The trick
is to be just that bit different.
Elegance: A Guide to Quality In
For those readers who have
reached this page after learning the Etiquette, History and Classic
Components of black tie, it will be readily apparent that tinkering
with the conventional formal wardrobe is akin to tampering with
perfection. However, perfection is a relative concept which means
that there is always room for reinterpretation.
The key to tasteful
personalization is recognizing that the difference between
skillfully bending the rules and ineptly breaking them lies in one’s
knowledge of their underlying principles. Men who wish to
experiment with unproven black-tie variations should maximize their
chances for success by first learning these
fundamentals. Others who prefer to take advantage of
tried-and-true options can simply choose from the following
sartorial precedents favored by some of the most stylish dressers of
the twentieth century.
Discretion is an important
factor in assembling an evening kit that is distinctive without
being distasteful; the adage “less is more” couldn’t be better
suited to customizing a wardrobe that derives its primary appeal
from its refined simplicity. Therefore, when choosing among the
following classic alternatives it is best to limit yourself to one
item at a time.
Also be aware that a man’s
age and an event’s formality will impact the appropriateness of
these alternatives. Check out the
Rules for Bending the Rules to see how these factors affect the
propriety of a variation.
While color is the simplest
way to customize a black-tie ensemble, its indiscreet use is the
most common culprit in degrading the tuxedo from elegant formal
attire to a sophomoric prom costume. In Dressing the Man, classic
menswear authority Alan Flusser offers some basic advice for
avoiding this pitfall:
use only one colored
accessory: “Injecting more than one contrasting accessory into the
two-color format fragments its formal integrity into smaller, less
surround the color with
black: “By limiting your selection to only those components
predominantly bordered by black, such as the waistcoat, cummerbund,
dress shirt or pocket square, you have ensured that this single
dollop of dissonance remains part of the whole.”
use deep, rich colors: “The
tonalities capable of enriching this already dramatic, high-contrast
composition are those registering an equal degree of pluck and
richness.” Plum, bottle green, deep gold and dark red are
The cardinal rules for
alternative jackets is that they are appropriate only for less
formal occasions, such as a private party at home or at a private club,
and that all other aspects of one’s ensemble comply with the rules
proper black tie. Even then, advises menswear author
Nicholas Antongiavanni, they “should be approached with caution for
they do not command universal respect.”
As the inspiration for the
original dinner jacket, the smoking jacket remains a popular
alternative to the traditional black-tie coat. Although
fashioned in many
different styles it is always constructed of colored velvet in dark
hues usually of green, violet, burgundy or blue. The most
authentic types of smoking jacket can be either double-breasted or
single-breasted and have frog closures in place of buttons as well as
a self-faced shawl collar. Classic
variations popular in the 1930s were velvet hybrids that featured
standard buttons and had self-faced peaked lapels on the
double-breasted models or silk-covered shawl collars and cuffs on
More contemporary iterations
are simply tuxedo jackets in every detail except for the velvet
fabric. English haberdashers often include these designs in the
smoking jacket category while North Americans are more likely to
refer to them as velvet dinner jackets. The American moniker may
better describe the garment's appearance but the British terminology
reflects its suitability for informal lounging
rather than formal dining. These pseudo dinner jackets are
discussed further on in
Odd / Separate Dinner Jacket
In the summer a tan colored
jacket is a conventional alternative to white or off-white.
Glenn O’Brien, GQ’s Style Guy, also recommends resurrecting
the early ‘30s white
civilian mess jacket but you’re on your own
with that one.
First and foremost, do not
wear waist coverings and bow ties made out of matching colors or
patterns. The black-tie outfit is close enough to a uniform as
it is and accessories should be used to avoid a pre-packaged look,
not to encourage it. As A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up so aptly puts
it, “a gentleman’s pocket square, tie, and cummerbund were never
intended to share the same gene pool.”
Odd Waistcoats and Cummerbunds
Waistcoats and cummerbunds
are the most common method for adding color and pattern to black-tie
but, once again, discretion is essential to maintaining the
integrity of the formal ensemble. As mentioned previously, stick to
deep, rich colors that harmonize with the existing black and white
ensemble instead of bright, loud colors that detract from it.
While colored and patterned
waistcoats inherently diminish the formality of the tuxedo, the
white piqué full-dress waistcoat actually elevates it. This
posh variation – best paired with the very formal wing-collar shirt and
peaked-lapel jacket – was common in the 1920s and 1930s and was
prescribed by Emily Post for the most formal of black-tie occasions
right up until the 1970s. Today it remains a stylish
alternative for many dapper dressers. Full
details can be found on the
page in the White Tie section.
Silk dress shirts have long
been accepted as a luxurious warm-weather alternative to cotton.
There is one very simple
rule for replacing the black bow tie: don’t.
Regardless of how commonly
this sartorial gaffe appears at formal functions, it is still a faux
pas. While it is true that matching ties and cummerbunds were
recommended by even the most esteemed etiquette and fashion
authorities from the 1960s through the early ‘80s, since that time
there has been a return to classic standards which dictate the solid
black bow tie is the only correct option with the black dinner
This is not simply a matter
of changing fashions but, rather, a reflection of timeless style.
Unlike the waistcoat, cummerbund or handkerchief, a contrasting bow
tie is not framed by a dark color and therefore stands out as a
glaring distraction. It has the effect of gift wrapping the
neck and detracting from the face which is supposed to be the focal
point of the suit.
And don't even think of
substituting a white bow tie. Just as with the evening
tailcoat, the full-dress bow tie is never meant to be seen outside
of a white-tie ensemble and its appearance with a tuxedo is
considered a grave solecism.
The (Sole) Exception
The only exception to the
black bow tie rule is limited to classic
warm-weather kits due to their inherent informality. In
the 1940s in particular, matching sets of maroon cummerbunds and bow
ties were a popular alternative to black. (Midnight blue ties
were also allowed when worn with trousers of the same color.)
Today, the only hope that a grown man has for pulling off this look
is to follow the classic warm-weather rules to the letter: jackets
should be off-white, shirts should have turndown collars, the set's
color must be a genuine maroon and, most importantly, ties should be
self-tied. Wearing a pre-tied scarlet bow and cummerbund
set with a modern wing-collar shirt and bleached white coat will
virtually guarantee that you spend your evening taking other guests'
drink orders or being asked what time your band starts playing.
The classic alternative in
black-tie footwear is the elegant evening slipper. Also known
as the Prince Albert slipper, this soigné accent is made of velvet
with leather soles and features a grosgrain bow or a motif or the
wearer’s initials embroidered in gold. These slippers share
the same dark colors as the smoking jacket with which they make a
perfect pairing. Like the smoking jacket, they are appropriate
only for private occasions.
Formal hose can have a clock
design that is either self-colored or of a contrasting color to
match another accessory. However, the latter option should be
used with discretion.
Because you would never be
so uncouth as to remove your jacket at a formal event your
suspenders will never be seen by anyone other than your intimate
companions. Consequently this is a perfect opportunity to go
ahead and indulge yourself.
Like formal hose, cufflinks
and studs are another option for subtly enhancing a color that has
been introduced by another component in the formal ensemble.
Handkerchiefs in dark colors
make for a natty touch, especially with warm-weather attire.
Just be sure not to wear a colored boutonniere at the same time.
If you're really daring you could revive the 1930s vogue for blue
Semi-Classic: Plaid Variations
While not technically classic, the 1950s
origin of plaid alternatives can justifiably categorize them as
at least semi-classic.
Jackets and Waist Coverings
The understated blue and green tones of the
Black Watch pattern are particularly well suited for dinner jackets
and waist coverings. (Most tartan patterns can be worn by anyone
but be aware that it’s bad form to wear
ones that are reserved for the use of a
specific family or company, such as the British
royal family's Balmoral
pattern.) Tartan coats traditionally take shawl collars
faced in black silk but otherwise all details are the same as for
standard dinner jackets.
A red and green plaid is a fitting touch for a less formal
Christmas party as long as precautions are taken to minimize its
distraction from the overall outfit:
- the colors should be tastefully dark
- the bow should be self-tied
- the band must be hidden by a turndown shirt collar
- it should not be worn with a matching waist cover
In addition, the tie should be constructed of silk as per
standard formal bow ties.
Most tartan bow ties are sold in the same wool used to make kilts
but their rough, unfinished texture makes them inappropriate for