(Not So) Well Suited:
Learning from the Past
While the formalwear industry may have
stopped selling the ridiculous tuxedos featured in this ad many
continue to sell the ad's equally ridiculous notion that a tuxedo
should be anything but traditional.
► Don't Mess With Success
Check out commentator
David Mitchell's humorous take
on how the average bloke loses out when pretty boys mess
with black tie's perfection.
The current chapter in black tie's history is a
relatively conservative one. Many recent men's style books have
toed the line on strict formalwear protocol and modern black-tie
fashions tend to at least stick to
the traditional black-and-white palette.
► Red-Carpet Black Tie
Academy Awards, 2010
After its heinous invention of "creative black tie" in the
Hollywood has been
returning to its senses and rediscovering the timeless
merits of proper black tie. Visit the
Red Carpet Black
Tie page to learn from the stars' shining examples
. and their godawful mistakes.
Brooks Brothers tasteful update
Traditional designers such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger
and Brooks Brothers are usually more respectful of black
tie's fundamental principles when creating modern variations.
► Tasteful Personalization
If you want to add personal
flair to your outfit without sacrificing integrity,
Classic Alternatives and
Contemporary Alternatives for
suggestions and prudent precautions.
Lessons from the Past: Style above Fashion
Risking Traditional Benefits
Young men choosing a tuxedo
for the first time have many choices today. They can opt for
the celebrity styles seen on the red carpet, designer creations
featured in fashion magazines or the latest trends promoted by
formalwear renters. With all of these modern alternatives what
guy would want to wear a tuxedo like his grandfather’s? The one who
knows a good thing when he sees it.
Since the 1960s, modernist
attempts to reinvent black tie have typically arisen from the
perception that it needs to be more comfortable or more
proponents of classic menswear argue that the formula has already
been perfected and tampering with it is not only needless but will
invariably mar the outcome. Black tie’s components “have been perfected over many decades
by the best tailors and most astute dandies,” says traditionalist
Nicholas Antongiavanni. “All
the necessary compromises have already been made.
To press further is to lapse into vulgarity for the sake not
of comfort but of fashion.” A
2004 Wall Street Journal editorial concurs:
This is the power of the
traditional costume--it is at the same time aristocratic and
democratic. The very uniformity of the tuxedo makes it socially
leveling. And whereas most instruments of democratic equality tend
to lower all boats, the tuxedo levels up. Would-be improvements
invariably throw the aristocratic-democratic balance out of whack.
Change for the Worse
For the most part, history
has validated the traditionalists’ argument.
Ever since the rise of the
baby boomers in the 1960s, attempts to replace black tie’s
convention, maturity and conformity with modernity,
youthfulness and individuality have almost always failed, often
spectacularly. To wit: men
who opted for traditional black tie in the forties and fifties look
like Cary Grant or Frank Sinatra in their prom and wedding pictures,
the epitome of cool. In contrast, their sons who viewed
themselves as infinitely hipper in the 1970s ended up resembling
Lawrence Welk band members in their own portraits. Their subsequent
self-assured offspring who also chose trendy fashion over
traditional style later found themselves cringing at photos of Duran
Duran wannabes. And now
Generation Y males, convinced they’ll never look as ridiculous as
their predecessors, are smugly dressing themselves as black-suited morticians for
their own big day.
As botched as they may have
been, past generations’ misguided choices of prom and wedding formal
styles impacted no-one but the wearers.
By the time the perpetrators were old enough to attend proper
black-tie functions they had usually learned their lesson and
realized the numerous benefits of following the dress code’s
customary interpretation. However,
many of today’s young men – particularly in the creative industries
– have decided to carry their indiscretions beyond the wedding hall
and into the realm of formal galas.
Here their choices also impact those around them because they
diminish the sartorial uniformity that lies at the heart of the
Black Tie dress code.
The poor choices of the past
fifty years have been abetted, if not directed, by the rise of
equally poor influences. The
dearth of sartorial role models in the modern world begins at the
top of the fashion pyramid with today’s trendsetters: pop-culture
idols. When debonair movie stars and performers like Clark
Gable and Cary Grant used to walk the red carpet they could be
always counted upon to epitomize black tie’s understated elegance
and uniformity. Today, however, Hollywood fashions are often
influenced by young celebrities who have little or no understanding
of the principles of men’s formal dress and view it primarily as a
tool for attracting attention.
fashion industry is no better a teacher because it is largely
composed of the same stylists that feed the witless celebrity mill.
While menswear magazines and high-end retailers once educated
readers on the etiquette and elegance of conventional evening wear,
they now spotlight designers’ frenzied attempts to catch the
public's fleeting attention. Couture’s practice
of constantly trying to reinvent fashion may be fine for everyday
wear but it is anathema to attire named for its role as a preserver
of traditional form.
These capricious designer and celebrity
trends then filter down the fashion pyramid to influence the
of the mainstream “formalwear” shops that cater to the vast majority
of the tuxedo wearers.
Consequently this industry’s salespeople are more likely to be
trained as specialists in inventory turnover than experts in
traditional etiquette. It is much easier, after all, to sell a
young man on the latest vogue then to take the time to explain the
sublime advantages of a century-old tradition.
Change for the Better
Despite the grim track
record of the past fifty years, history has also proven that not all
change is bad. In fact, what we define as classic black tie
today would never have come into existence if it were not for
change: soft-front shirts with turndown collars were considered the
height of informality when they began appearing with tuxedos in the
1920s and traditionalists of that era were equally reluctant to
accept the double-breasted dinner jacket or cummerbund as anything
but casual summer alternatives.
The critical difference
between black tie’s pre-war modifications and the ones that came
later is that the original changes were introduced by men with an
impeccable sense of style and a thorough familiarity with the
purpose of formal attire. In other words – and this can’t be
emphasized enough – the only people who can successfully bend the rules are the ones who
truly understand them.
Having established that
seeking guidance on black tie from today’s most common tuxedo
trendsetters is akin to obtaining writing instruction from an
illiterate, where do we find teachers who genuinely understand style
and tradition? Well, a man can look to style and etiquette authors,
celebrities with a proven penchant for classic styling, experienced
tailors and knowledgeable black-tie partygoers.
Or he can educate himself and become his own best mentor, a
process made ridiculously simple by this very Guide.
The Fundamentals of Black
An effective self-education
in the fundamentals of successful black tie begins with a review of
the key components of this site.
In particular, the basic definition and role of proper black
tie as spelled out in the
Etiquette section, the
History of black tie’s evolution and the specific details of the
Classic Black Tie.
Out of this review emerge
the fundamental merits of black tie:
Black tie's specificity creates a uniformity and therefore equality among men.
Black tie maximizes the
masculine ideal by making a man look taller, stronger and younger
than any other type of dress.
Black tie makes a man look
more refined than any other type of dress.
Black tie maximizes an occasion's formality
These merits are achieved through a few fundamental rules:
Black tie manifests established sartorial
Black tie is grounded in
black. White is always secondary and color is to be
used sparsely and with great discretion.
tie emphasizes understated details and elegant
Rules for Bending the Rules
Once armed with the “rules”
of successful black tie a man can join the ranks of
those qualified to judge the potential success of modern variations.
In addition, he can take
advantage of a few secondary guidelines to assess how best to bend
Try it on. The fact
that a new trend looks good on a professional model or popular
celebrity means nothing unless he’ll be the one wearing it for you.
Similarly, you can’t truly weigh the visceral appeal of current fads
against the subtle nuances of traditional style until you have worn
the latter as well.
Keep it low key. A
variation that is subtle and respectful of the remaining
fundamentals is only bending the rules; a transgression that
blatantly contravenes numerous principles is definitely breaking the
rules. Play it safe by leaving the dinner suit untouched and
the modern twists to its less visible accessories.
Pace yourself. Include no more than
one unorthodox variation at a time, particularly if it’s an
especially conspicuous bastardization.
Know your audience.
Remember that Black Tie customs vary according to geographic region,
social strata and relative formality of the affair. You will
be much more likely to get away with a Nehru jacket and band collar
shirt at a music awards ceremony than you would at a diplomatic
Act your age. Younger
men can get away with a lot more than other guys. So can much
older men, for that matter. For all the rest of us it’s best
that we accept our limitations.
If by this point you are
still undeterred from tinkering with black tie’s time-honored standards
then it's time to take a look at popular contemporary variations in the context
of those benchmarks. After
that you should finally be ready to assemble a modern ensemble that
won’t make you cringe at the evening’s photos ten years down the
Following the lead of the best dressers of
the 20th century is sure to guarantee success.
Oblivious to history's failed experiments, each new generation seems
convinced that they can improve on the classics.
Today many men choose their formal attire based on the influence of
poorly dressed celebrities walking the red carpet. . .
. . .and
on the marketing campaigns of a formalwear industry that often treats the
tuxedo as a novely costume.
Countering the poor influences pervasive in today's world are such
refined dressers such as
George Clooney, the modern Cary
Couture sensation Tom Ford has reintroduced Hollywood (and the rest
of America) to the peerless merits of traditional black tie.
Samuel Jackson demonstrates how to
skilfully bend the rules . . .
. . .while Tim Burton shows how to crassly break them.