Classic Tuxedos (Dinner Suits)
The dinner jacket is the foundation of the black-tie ensemble. The model, style and facings chosen for the jacket set the tone for the formality and swank of the remaining attire. It also embodies the refined minimalism that sets evening wear above a simple suit through the clever concealment of each garment’s working parts.
Jacket Model and Style
The original and most formal model of dinner jacket is the single-breasted model. Unlike regular suits it has only one button which allows the front to be cut in a deep “V” shape that mimics the ideal male torso. Because the single-breasted model is often worn unbuttoned (see sidebar) it requires that the trousers’ exposed waistband be covered by a cummerbund or waistcoat. This in turn provides more opportunities for versatility in a man's formal ensemble.
The double-breasted model became accepted as an informal alternative to the single-breasted in the 1930s and is now considered equally correct. This model looks better buttoned when the wearer is standing so there is no need for any sort of waist covering. However, because men usually prefer to unbutton their jacket when seated the double-breasted option could be considered less convenient. This type of jacket traditionally has four buttons and fastens with either the bottom row (known as 4-on-1 style) or both rows (4-on-2) depending on the cut.
The peaked lapel and shawl collar are equally authentic and correct.
The peaked lapel is derived from the tailcoat and for that reason it is considered the more formal of the two styles. The upward and outward sweep of this style also serve to emphasize height and shoulder width. The shawl collar, on the other hand, is influenced by the smoking jacket and conveys a softer image than its angular counterpart. Considered less formal due to its origins, it nonetheless appeals to urbane dressers due to its after-six exclusivity. The shawl collar is also the style most popular on warm-weather jackets and other alternative dinner jackets.
Although the notched lapel is by far the most popular style today and proponents point out that it has made occasional appearances since Victorian times, the style’s derivation from the common lounge suit has traditionally limited it to a fashion-forward alternative. It was not until the late 1970s that etiquette and style experts began to consider it to be correct for formal attire and even then its acceptance was limited. Therefore this style is covered in the Contemporary Black Tie section.
The original dinner jackets were made without vents then later offered with side vents. While side vents provide easier access to trouser pockets and are more comfortable to sit in, they can also make the jacket less slimming and somewhat compromise the intended formality of the tuxedo.
The center (aka single) vent is unacceptable not only because of its sporty pedigree (it is a horseback adaptation much less refined than the tailcoat's) but also because it opens up when a man reaches into his trouser pockets thus exposing the seat of his pants and often a white patch of shirt to boot. Despite its inappropriateness, the single vent is becoming more common on dinner jackets as mainstream manufacturers save money by patterning their tuxedos on standard suit styles. Fortunately, a good tailor can convert these jackets into ventless models by closing the vent.
Ever since the British perfected the process of making and tailoring cloth, refined dressers have harmonized their clothing with their environment. This is seen in the customary association of of dark finished worsteds with urban settings, earth-tone coarse tweeds with the countryside and pale lightweight fabrics with the summer months. Thus it is only logical that the darkest and most refined materials would be reserved for after-dark socializing.
Besides its natural association with night, the deliberate use of black for traditional evening wear has two distinct aesthetic advantages. First, it imbues the wearer with an aura of dominance and power. Second, when worn with a white shirt and accessories the juxtaposition of black's complete lack of color against white's complete spectrum of color creates the greatest contrast possible. “If the topic was printing rather than formal dress,” observed the author of The Aesthetics of the Tuxedo, “classic black tie would be the equivalent of putting words in bold.”
While black is the norm, midnight blue is also a classic. This extremely dark hue of navy blue achieved its popularity in the 1930s due to its ability to retain its richness under artificial light whereas black fabric is generally more reflective and can sometimes give off a greenish or grayish cast, particularly if the cloth is not brand new. For this reason midnight blue is frequently described as being "blacker than black" although "richer than black" would be a more accurate definition. Similarly, midnight blue has the upper hand at parties that start prior to sunset because black has a tendency to appear dull and lifeless in daylight. Sadly, such a garment is rarely offered in the ready-to-wear world and usually has to be obtained on a made-to-measure basis.
A white dinner jacket may be worn in warm weather but only under certain conditions. See Warm-Weather Black Tie for complete details.
Formal suits are typically made from finished or unfinished worsted wool (a type of yarn that produces a firm, napless fabric). Because tuxedos are worn far less frequently than business suits and don’t have to stand up to the same amount of wear and tear over time they can be made of a much finer wool than their everyday counterparts.
In his book Dressing the Man, classic couturier Alan Flusser provides sage advice on the benefits of discretion when choosing a fabric finish:
Like the tailcoat, dinner clothes are trimmed in facings of varying degrees of luster; therefore, so as not to overstate the sheen quotient, the dinner jacket’s base cloth should be in a dulled or matte finish. Subtle textured weave effects such as baratheas and mini-herringbones, or quiet variegated effects avoid affectation while adding surface interest to the formal ensemble.
This recommendation applies more to North Americans as British tailors generally consider barathea to be the norm for eveningwear wools and silks.
Despite what some salespeople will claim, there is no such thing as a year-round weight for suit material. However, since formal affairs almost invariably take place in climate-controlled environments, experts concur that a 9-10 ounce fabric (300-340 grams/square metre) is the most practical choice.
One of the most distinctive traits of a tuxedo jacket is the decorative covering on the lapels known as facing. This not only provides a jacket with an elegant flair but also emphasizes the “V” effect created by peaked lapels. The best facings are made of pure silk, while less expensive ones contain a synthetic component. The silk can take the form of smooth satin or the dulled ribbed texture of grosgrain. Although the former is much more common in North America – and particularly well suited to the shawl collar – the latter, according to Flusser, is preferred in England due to its association with custom tailoring.
Be aware that the facing chosen for the lapels will determine the type of material used for the bow tie and cummerbund and possibly the waistcoat. Here too, grosgrain may be seen as preferable because it permits some variation in textures for the bow tie while satin facings require the neckwear to match which may result in an affected look.
With a midnight-blue dinner suit facings are typically black.
Classic sartorial pundits strongly recommend that all dinner jackets have a working buttonhole on the left lapel for a boutonniere (buttonhole in UK – the literal translation of the French term). Ready-to-wear jackets may have to be taken to a qualified tailor who will know where to locate the hole and how to skillfully add it to the silk-faced lapel. Custom-made formal jackets will also sometimes have a stem holder on the reverse side of the lapel. This is typically a small cord that keeps the stem in place so that the flower does not fall out of one's lapel over the course of an evening of dining and dancing.
The double-besomed jetted (slit) hip pocket is the only style understated enough to complement the dressy dinner jacket. Flap pockets are not appropriate for formal attire’s refined minimalism due to their busier and bulkier design and are simply an attempt by tuxedo manufacturers to save money by using standard suit patterns (although sometimes they will trim the edges of a flap pocket so that the flap can be tucked in or removed if desired).
Besom welts can be of self fabric or trimmed with the lapel’s silk facing, though classic menswear scholar Nicholas Antongiavanni suggests that for the English this latter touch “is a sure sign of hired clothes”.
The dinner jacket should also have a welt breast pocket to hold a pocket handkerchief. Ticket pockets are for functional day suits and would only create unnecessary clutter on a dinner jacket.
The jacket’s sleeves should be finished with four buttons with their edges touching, just like the sleeves on the tailcoat and better business suits.
All of the jacket’s buttons can be plain black or covered in the lapel’s facing.
Black-tie trousers are made of the same fabric as the jacket.
The waistband is meant to be covered either by a cummerbund, waistcoat or closed double-breasted jacket so it is essential that it sits high enough to remain hidden throughout the evening. Men with a trim waistline and an expert tailor can accomplish this by means of custom-made trousers with adjustable side tabs. Everyone else will require trousers cut for suspenders (braces in the UK). Belts are out of the question as they add bulk to the waistline and will invariably become exposed as the trouser waist gradually creeps downwards.
A trimmed waistband is a relatively recent invention designed to replace the cummerbund but its inability to cover the shirt's waist makes it a poor substitute.
The side seams of formal trousers are also covered. Employing a technique common to military dress uniforms, they are concealed by a single band of facing that is either satin or grosgrain to match the jacket’s lapels. In the past braid was also used for this purpose but today the term is often used generically to refer to the more common silk stripe. This elegant detail also serves to emphasize the suit’s vertical lines thus enhancing the wearer’s height.
The formal trouser’s minimalism is rounded out by strategically placed side pockets and the absence of cuffs. Side pockets are usually cut on the trouser’s side seam making them virtually invisible and more easily accessible, particularly when wearing a cummerbund or waistcoat. Trouser legs are always plain because cuffs (turn-ups in UK) are too casual (they originated as a mudguard) and would interfere with the side braid.
The absence or presence of pleats is a matter of comfort and personal preference and does not impact a dinner suit’s formality. For further information see Style Basics.