Classic Black-Tie Shirts
A Tale of Two Collars
Once upon a time the dinner jacket was born as the informal offspring of the majestic tailcoat and had no accessories to call its own. For many years it borrowed the stiff-front wing-collar shirt from its full-dress parent. Then the jacket came of age in the glorious sartorial days of the 1930s with a unique dress code that included a soft-front shirt with a turndown collar. This soon became the standard black-tie shirt and remained so until a very dark time known as the seventies when an evil imposter appeared.
The Full-Dress Original
With its tall, starched wing collar and stiff, plain bosom, this classic shirt radiates the elegance and gentility of a nobler era and imbues the most ordinary of men with an aristocratic air. Complete details of this princely garment can be found in the White Tie section.
Despite being rarely seen with black tie since the 1940s, some sartorial authorities such as Alan Flusser and Nicholas Antongiavanni advise that this option remains perfectly acceptable today, although it should be limited to the very formal single-breasted peaked-lapel jacket.
Other pundits argue that the wing collar should remain the domain of white tie for aesthetic reasons. Etiquette maven Miss Manners is one of those who feel that while the bow tie’s uncovered band is fine in a white-on-white scheme, “gentlemen with their black ties exposed all around their necks look silly.” Canadian style guru Russell Smith agrees, finding the visible metal clasp of the tie band to be particularly unattractive. He also notes the fact that “the wing collar’s height pushes against a double chin and makes a full-faced or overweight man look constrained and puffy.”
The Modern Reinvention
In the 1960s American manufacturers created the attached collar version of the wing-collar shirt. At first it maintained the traits of the original but by the late 1970s it was featuring soft pleated fronts with miniscule wings. This modern and much maligned incarnation is described in depth in the Contemporary Black Tie section.
Popularized in the early 1930s by the future Duke of Windsor, turndown-collar dinner shirts offered a more comfortable and practical alternative to the cardboard-stiff full-dress model in that they were softer, did not require extensive starching and laundering and could be buttoned in front instead of in the back. Initially considered too informal for any occasion outside of summer, they soon became the black-tie shirt of choice following the war.
The body of a soft evening shirt is typically constructed of a thin fabric that provides maximum breathability such as fine broadcloth, poplin, batiste or voile. The turndown collar can either be spread or semi-spread as shown in the pictures to the right. The spread version is more formal and because its tips are hidden under the jacket lapels it is well suited for the streamlined shawl-collar. The sleeves of soft-front shirts always carry French cuffs (double cuffs in the UK).
The final visible portion of the shirt, the bosom, is a bib-shaped or vertically rectangular double layer of fabric unique to formal shirts. The bosom is traditionally decorated with pleats or piqué. For the first option, wide or “box” pleats were the most common style during the 1930s but the narrow pleats that are so popular today have been around since the 1940s. A dressier alternative was devised by London shirtmakers of the 1930s who decorated the bosom, cuffs and collars with the piqué normally associated with the full-dress shirt. This combination is commonly known as a marcella shirt after the British term for the birdseye pattern that is used in the piqué.
Black-tie shirts are traditionally closed with two to three studs depending on the wearer’s height although it should be noted that some classic etiquette authorities limited studs to stiff-front shirts only and prescribed pearl buttons for soft-front models instead. Bosoms can be unstarched (“soft-front”) or lightly starched (“semi-stiff”). In the latter case, the bib should end above the waistline to prevent it from billowing out when the wearer sits down. And to keep either type of shirt front from pulling out of the trousers when the wearer stands up, higher-end models will have a tab that attaches to a button on the inside of the trouser waistband. Like the bottom of the shirt’s bib, the tab is hidden by the formal waist covering.
There are no pockets on formal shirts as they are not considered dressy and would interfere with the reinforced bosom.