Etiquette: A Formal Education

Dress changes the manners.


Prior to World War II, the average man took his fashion cues from an upper class that considered proper appearance to be a very serious matter and could afford the services of highly experienced tailors to suit their standards.  All that changed following the war as the expansion of the middle class, youth culture, popular media and relaxed social standards gradually led to a fashion free-for-all.  Society’s previous emphasis on appearing mature and sophisticated gave way to a preference for youthfulness and sex appeal.  This shift in focus has been significantly detrimental to classic formal wear which is not simply about what’s currently popular but what’s traditionally acceptable; after all, the very definition of formal is the preserving of a “form” or tradition.

Not surprisingly, many young men today crave something more substantial than the fast food, casual clothes and lax manners fostered by the counterculture revolution.  Most of them have enough awareness of formal tradition to realize that the few formal rituals they encounter – namely graduations, weddings and funerals – require them to dress in a special way.  But for the specific details of such attire they are dependent on the advice of perceived experts.  In today’s world that often means tuxedo rental companies, fashion magazines and red carpet celebrities and therein lies the rub: the clothes being hyped by these sources are primarily designed to feed America’s obsession with the next fleeting fad.  The trendy variations offered each season by upscale

designers and mainstream manufacturers may be fine for teenage proms and youthful nuptials but they certainly won't hold water at proper black-tie events where guests are expected to be adult enough to know better.

A mature understanding of black tie must come instead from an appreciation of the rich tapestry of tradition that lies hidden beneath its visible components.  Consequently this section of the Guide not only lists the garments which correctly comply with the dress code – the “what” of black tie – but also looks at the code’s etiquette and context – the “who”, “when”, “where” and “why”. 


Thanks to modern society's ignorance of traditional etiquette, the amount of detail contained in the precise definition of black tie can seem a little overwhelming at first.  It may also appear somewhat arbitrary to people born after 1980 who are used to casual eateries and casual workplaces which lack any semblance of a formal dress code.  However, once a man begins to understand the premise of an outfit being correct rather than just passable, he realizes the significant benefits of a dress code.  Acing the black-tie test has nothing to do with skill or experience; it is simply a matter of following the rules.