Contemporary Alternatives and Personalization
We now arrive at the most
precarious of all black-tie variations: contemporary alternatives.
Men seeking to add personal flair without the use of tried-and-true
classic alternatives or correct modern variations will require a
great deal of prudence to avoid sartorial disaster.
As style columnist Russell Smith explains in Men’s Style,
“A man without impeccable
taste who attempts to individualize this uniform (for it is a
uniform and its attractiveness lies precisely in its uniformity)
risks looking like a snickering juvenile. There is nothing
more pathetic than a failed flamboyant.”
Emily Post’s Etiquette agrees, advising that “Events are
formal so that a certain tone will prevail; introducing a jarring
note that calls attention to itself is what the French call
The safest route is to use
the Tasteful Personalization guidelines below to help inject some
unorthodox flair into your accessories without damaging the
integrity of the overall outfit.
The most precarious route is to opt for alternative garments
offered by the mainstream formalwear industry.
Most of the remainder of this page is dedicated to evaluating these
transgressions and explaining why they should never be seen outside
of high school dances or art gallery openings.
Finally, we will examine a new alternative that replaces the
tuxedo altogether: the black suit.
Because all of these alternatives will be reviewed in the
context of black tie’s fundamental principles, readers should be
sure to review
those fundamentals in
Lessons from the Past before proceeding any
As explained in
Classic Alternatives, although color is the simplest way to
customize a black-tie ensemble its indiscreet use is the most common
culprit in degrading the tuxedo to
a sophomoric prom costume. To avoid this pitfall, stick to the
simple guidelines offered by classic menswear authority Alan
use only one colored
use deep, rich colors
surround the color with
black (i.e. limit it to waistcoats, cummerbunds or pocket squares)
Note that the bow tie is not
included in the list of recommended colored accessories.
Despite this, matching waist coverings and ties have been a
staple of rented formal wear since the 1980s. Besides
detracting from the wearer's face, matching sets promote the role of
color from a simple accent
to a de facto third component in what is supposed to be a two-tone
scheme. Thus black tie’s
uniformity is lost as is the impact of its stark black and white
Adding a metallic finish to colored accessories has become
a fashionable option since the 1990s. Silver is a particularly
popular way of straddling the line between the current conservatism
in formal wear and young men’s natural desire to stand out from the
crowd. While too showy for traditional black-tie events, these
shiny alternatives are appropriate for the informal weddings at
which they are commonly seen. To minimize their Las Vegas
lounge nature, stick to a deep silver and limit them to a cummerbund or a waistcoat that is just
slightly taller than the dinner jacket’s opening.
Equally popular at youthful weddings are four-in-hand
ties of silver or white satin. Although they don’t
dramatically underscore the face the way a black bow tie does, they
also don’t detract from it like a black long tie does.
In addition, they serve to complement the bride’s white dress
without breaking the tuxedo’s black-and-white code.
Just make sure they are not
worn with matching vests nor are they pre-tied; if you’re old enough
to commit to a lifelong marriage then you should be old enough to
knot your own necktie.
Pattern exploded onto
black-tie attire in the late 1950s alongside vibrant colors and
metallic sheens and it remained popular throughout the subsequent
Peacock Revolution. Then the return of conservatism in the
1980s reined in the excesses of the counterculture movement and
pattern became limited primarily to accessories. These accents remain
perfectly legitimate alternatives today provided they observe a few
simple caveats to keep them true to black tie’s refined minimalism:
they are tone-on-tone or
they are limited to a
two-color design with one of the colors being either black or white
and the other being a dark hue
they do not use white as a
predominant color (with the exception of pocket squares)
Notably, pattern is one of the few appropriate means for
personalizing one’s bow tie
provided that it is restricted to a subtle white design against a
black background. The use of prominent designs or any type of
color will detract from the
wearer’s face which is the intended focal point of any refined
Striped tone-on-tone tuxedos have been around since the early
'80s but conflict with the suit's intended role as a neutral
foundation for the rest of the outfit.
Combining the rich fabric of
smoking jacket and the familiar styling of its tuxedo offspring,
the velvet dinner jacket is both alternative and traditional at the
same time. This makes it
the only acceptable modern variation of the dinner jacket.
Available in various dark colors since the 1960s it has always been
most popular – and arguably most striking – in formal ebony.
Revived from the 1970s (albeit in much more tasteful
proportions), the black velvet bow tie has been a very recent vogue on the red carpet. Like the black velvet jacket it is
very effective at adding panache
in a manner that is respectful of black tie's fundamental
principles. For best effect it should be made of quality material and the band
must hidden by a turndown collar.
Entire tuxedos made of black velvet have also been showing up on
the red carpet as of late. To avoid being too much of a good
thing it's essential to keep the accessories traditional; adding
color or pattern will push the outfit into the realm of the
Mix & Match Formality
retailers have discovered an ingenious method for offering gullible
young customers unique alternatives: mix and match their existing
inventory. Sartorial classicist Nicholas Antongiavanni
explains the implications of such customization:
One way the English upper
class maintained the distinction between servant and served was by
forcing the former to wear correct attire in incorrect combinations.
Thus butlers wore black tie with tails, clerks long ties with wing
collars, and footmen bow ties with morning coats and even striped
trousers with tailcoats. Though butlers and footmen are rare
today, they still dress like this; and no one who is not one wants
to look like one.
Other experts provide
similar warnings about integrating formal and informal attire.
Russell Smith asserts that the current vogue for combining a tuxedo
with a long tie “will make you look like a drug-addled actor who got
lost on his way to the Academy Awards” while the authors of A
Gentleman Gets Dressed Up warn that when a man mixes a dinner jacket
with blue jeans for a hip personal style “he runs the risk of
suggesting that only half his suit was returned from the dry
Three-Button Dinner Jacket
Three-button jackets are for
business attire, not formal attire. Their shorter lapels are
not substantial enough for sweeping shawls or stately peaks
making them appropriate only for the relatively modern notch style.
They also cover up more of the shirt than one- or two-button models,
thus robbing the outfit of much of its dramatic black-and-white
contrast. In addition, the
extra buttons and buttonholes create visual clutter that is at
odds with the jacket's intended refinement.
three-quarter-length formal coat – known as a Prince Edward coat in
the UK – is a variation of the Edwardian formal day garment known as
a frock coat. Despite its incompatible pedigree, many
celebrities adopted it as evening wear during the “Creative Black
Tie” trend of the 1980s and '90s and the fad soon caught on with
teenage imitators. Almost
invariably constructed with notched lapels and paired with a long
tie it is entirely inappropriate for traditional black-tie
Nehru / Mandarin Collar Jacket
Another product of the
creative formalwear fad of the 1990s was the revival of the 1960s
Nehru jacket, now re-christened as the “mandarin collar coat”.
Like the three-quarter-length coat, this alternative model’s
popularity has declined significantly in recent years but is still
available from some formalwear retailers.
Although it incorporates the
minimalism and predominance of black associated with black tie it
lacks the dinner jacket’s elegance and tradition.
Without faced lapels and the exposed V of white shirt there
is no emphasis on a narrow waist and wide shoulders.
Add to that the lack of bow tie and there is also no
uniformity amongst formally dressed males.
Barring a legitimate claim to
the Nehru as article of one's national dress, it would be best to
leave this style of jacket to less formal affairs.
Spencer / Eton Jacket
In the 1790s the second Earl
Spencer removed the tails from his tailcoat and the eponymous
fashion was taken up by the English elite.
In the following century the style was adopted by England’s
prestigious Eton College which mandated a single-breasted version of
the waist-length jacket for its junior students.
The style was so admired that the so-called Eton jacket
became standard dress clothes for young boys on both sides of the
The spencer was also the
jacket of choice for the British military in 1845 when it introduced
evening dress for use at formal mess hall functions.
Re-christened as a
mess jacket, it was later instituted by
armed forces in other Commonwealth countries and eventually in the
United States. In the early 1930s the white version of the
mess jacket was adapted for civilian semi-formal wear (see
History) although the fad was short-lived thanks to its rapid
adoption by waiters and jazz bands.
In the 1980s the spencer
jacket reappeared in layman formal wear and this time it was made of
black material with satin facings, had a slightly longer cut and was
usually worn buttoned. While the trousers could be matching or
separate, the choice of cummerbund and bow tie accoutrements and
shawl or peaked lapels maintained the tradition of the previous
civilian mess jacket.
The contemporary spencer jacket remains a formal alternative today
although it suffers from the same stigma as its martial
predecessor: known in the hospitality industry as an eton
jacket, it is the standard uniform of bellboys and cruise directors
and thus holds little appeal for discriminating dressers. (A
notable exception is the Scottish variant called the Prince Charlie
jacket which is a dashing and integral component of
Highland black tie.)
Band Collar Shirt
The band or mandarin collar
shirt was originally introduced in the 1960s in conjunction with the
similarly styled Nehru jacket. Its popularity peaked during
the Creative Black Tie fad of the 1990s when it was often paired
with regular dinner jackets. Even though the shirt usually takes
studs and pleats, its short and virtually bare collar cannot
frame a man’s face as stylishly and formally as a traditional collar
finished off with a black bow.
The black shirt is yet
another of the formal variations offered up by Hollywood in the
1990s, albeit one with more staying power. This fashion may
seem to adhere to black tie’s classic black-and-white palette but in
fact it replaces the two-tone arrangement with a monochromatic
scheme. Just like the
Nehru jacket, it strips the traditional outfit of the V-shaped patch
of white shirt that serves both as a striking contrast and as a
visual illusion of a narrower waist and broader shoulders. The end
result is an ebony monolith that transforms a man into “a head
bobbing on a full hand of black cloth” in the words of The
Aesthetics of the Tuxedo. Attempting
to compensate for this sartorial black hole by adding a white
four-in-hand tie only gives the impression that the wearer is
attending a mafia wedding.
Black Cashmere Turtleneck
A much more refined take on the black-on-black look is the ebony
cashmere turtleneck, perfect for a Creative Black Tie outing.
Using this garment to replace the traditional shirt, necktie and
waist covering all at once has a couple of advantages over the black-shirt-and-tie option. First, it comes across
not as tepid
tinkering but as a calculated break from convention. Second,
it substitutes all the pleats, bows and buttons of the black-shirt
variation with an uninterrupted expanse of a luxurious wool-cashmere
Pastel-colored formal shirts appear from time to time but they
are unsuitable for even the most informal of black-tie occasions.
Unlike accessories, shirts display color in multiple locations
(bosom, collar and cuffs) which completely throws off the
Continental and Western Ties
Introduced in the
1960s, continental ties are only rarely seen now. The
crossover version of this tie is simply a strip of satin fabric that
overlaps under the throat where it is held together by a pin or
snap. While it lacks the
personal touch of a self-tied bow, its understated and unique design
makes it passable at less formal occasions.
less common is the V-shaped version of the tie which is basically a
pointed satin choker that fastens behind the neck. When
decorated with a small white pin in the center of the exposed front
it can be as elegant as the crossover style. When embellished
with a more elaborate pin or broach it approaches the worst excesses
of the 1980s New Wave look.
Continental ties are
primarily found at western-themed formal shops today, along with
formal string ties and bolo ties which should be reserved for
black-tie rodeos. And even then, stick to black colors and
turndown collar shirts unless you're serving fried chicken at the
Tuxedo Alternative: The
Funeral Suit (Black Suit & Tie)
"There always have been –
and probably always will be – men attempting to pass off a black
suit as 'formal wear', said GQ in 1972. “Such gaucherie is
obviously its own reward.” Apparently,
the reward was substantial because this has become a familiar sight
at black-tie events in the new millennium.
A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up explains why:
It is preferred by younger
men likely for economy, style and familiarity.
Economy because instead of renting tuxedos each time or
buying one that is rarely ever worn, a black suit can be used not
only at formal evening functions but also at informal day and
evening functions. Style
because it mirrors suit styles and is therefore seen as hipper and
more modern than the century old tuxedo.
Familiarity because they are unfamiliar with details like
shawl collars, satin facings, waist coverings, wing collars, bow
ties and can feel intimidated by them.
While there is no dress code
or tradition that governs how the suit should be worn, GQ offers
some sound advice:
It’s got to be the right
black suit. It should be perfectly tailored, and it should be solid
black—not pin-striped, not charcoal gray, not navy blue. Also,
remember to have your suit pressed or dry-cleaned before the big
day. It should look as crisp as possible. You want people
complimenting you on your suit instead of asking why you’re not
wearing a tux. Don’t try
to fool people by wearing a bow tie with your black suit. Go with a
straight black tie instead—satin or silk, no patterns or prints.
Raise the profile of your suit with a beautiful French-cuff
shirt. It’s worth the splurge
Admittedly, in the hands of
the ignorant, the tuxedo is often its own worst enemy.
Compared to an ill-fitting rental with a tacky pre-tied bow
tie and flaccid wing-collar shirt, a black suit and tie is
inarguably a superior choice.
However, compared to a properly tailored dinner jacket with a
self-tied bow tie and elegant turndown-collar formal shirt, the
black suit is utterly pedestrian.
For reasons explained in preceding pages, the common suit
lacks traditional black tie’s aesthetic advantages (maximizing a
man’s physical stature and drawing attention to his face),
sartorial benefits (imparting sophistication and swank) and its tradition.
Obviously a man has every right to deprive himself the
tuxedo's aesthetic and sartorial benefits but choosing to do so at
an event that specifically calls for black tie has more far-reaching
implications. His self-centered decision to break with tradition not only insults his hosts by
ignoring their wishes but also disrespects his fellow guests by
depriving them of the code's special uniformity. When hosts state
Black Tie on an invitation they expect the men to show up in
tuxedos, not funeral attire.