Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
The Band Collar Shirt
The band collar
shirt with button cover was a
popular alternative at show business ceremonies in the early
However, by 1995
style arbiters were proclaiming that the band was now
The New Formal
The dress-down black-tie look (and topic) was a favorite of
GQ in the '90s. Later there was a noticeable shift to the black suit as the ultimate symbol of elegance
not only in
GQ pictorials, but also in ads for
premium goods which would have typically featured tuxedo-
in the past.
Jacket. Dinner Jacket.
Casino Royale, the hugely successful 2006 "reboot" of the James
Bond franchise not only breathed new life into the fictional spy but
also into his formal wardrobe. Brioni's millennial take on the
classic dinner suit appealed to legions of young 007
previously unfamiliar with traditional black tie.
The Millennial Waist
Satin-finished waistbands became popular
as less men opted for waistcoats or cummerbunds.
Flat-fronts were another common feature on millennial formal
Sign of the Times
Smaller weddings, scaled-back
proms and an increasing preference for suits over tuxedos at
black-tie events were all factors in the 2009 closing of one of
Canada's leading tuxedo retailers.
Similar factors played a part in the 2002 bankruptcy of
America's largest retailer, Gingiss. On a related note, E-Formal News announced in 2009 that mainstream
tuxedo makers would not be issuing any new models for
Typical formal fashions found on the Web.
The internet changed the way people
obtained information in the new
millennium. Initially, online
formal etiquette was dominated by trendy formalwear retailers and
fashion magazines. The arrival of The Black
Tie Guide in 2006 provided a traditionalist
perspective which heavily influenced Wikipedia, the
Web's most popular source for tuxedo facts.
The Black Tie Guide's original incarnation.
The Inaugural Tuxedo
One online retailer
capitalized on 2009's Obama-mania by offering
the new President's inaugural
However, unlike the foreign-made garments
available from most such retailers, Obama's tuxedo was
purchased from Hart, Schaffner Marx, an All-American
union shop based in his former hometown of Chicago.
of a lavish sweet-sixteen party
or debutante ball became
increasingly popular in America.
young girl’s traditional entourage of an escort, 14 escort couples
relatives to all dress formally.
Also bucking the decline of formal coming-of-age ceremonies was the arrival in
the UK of the elaborate US-style prom around 2007.
Millennial Era: Black Tie Optional
The time has finally
come to say that conventional black tie is dying.
There is no longer a uniform described by the
Russell Smith, Globe & Mail, December 2009
As the nineties progressed,
the power suits of the yuppie era morphed into the chinos and
running shoes favored by the young, non-conformist vanguard of the dot-com boom. At first this
trend in business attire had little impact on formal wear.
“The backlash from casual Fridays turned
out to be one of the best things that ever happened to the
formalwear business,” reported menswear trade journal Daily News Record in 1998. “It gave baby boomers
and Gen Xers the perfect excuse to splurge on drop-dead tuxedos for
their weddings, black-tie parties and those very special evenings.” The lead-up to the new millennium only fueled the black-tie
fire: in 1999 mainstream tuxedo manufacturers were reporting
increased sales orders of up to 100% over the previous year.
As with every new generation, the youth of the day were
intent on putting their unique stamp on formal wear. They first experimented with bohemian chic then, as hoodies
and cargo pants became the new haute couture, the dress-down mindset
finally infiltrated dress-up clothing.
“Creative Black Tie”
Red Carpet Black Tie
According to the Academy
Awards Web site, the term Creative Black Tie came into fashionspeak
during the late eighties as the entertainment industry began to
redefine party attire with the changing times. The
glitterati initially limited their innovations to the tuxedo’s
peripherals – a black dress shirt with a black long tie was a
favorite look – then by the mid-nineties the
most daring celebs were
reinventing the suit itself, sporting Nehru-collar jackets and coats that buttoned down to their knees. Influenced by popular telecasts of red carpet ceremonies and the
antics of maverick celebrities such as Dennis Rodman, American youth
opted for increasingly unorthodox styles. “Stop by any high school prom if you want to see outrages
(dove gray, fuschia!),” said GQ in December 2002, “and let’s not
even talk about the calamities that befall the classic at weddings
of the young and feckless. To many men in the Age of Whatever, the standard tuxedo, with
a hand-tied monochrome bow, still symbolizes stifling formality.”
Dress-Down Black Tie
Almost as soon as GQ began
featuring innovations so beloved by the glitterati, the same
magazine also began to deride them. One columnist wrote in 1995 that "the degradation of formal
dress runs to the highest income brackets in the land as the
confused rich desperately try not to be mistaken for headwaiters.
I sympathize, but black shirts, band collars, T-shirts, jeans below
dinner jackets, leather ties and what I supposed are homages to [TV
cowboy] Bret Maverick are not the answer." Such sentiments were shared by many fashion writers of the
time including the authors of Men’s Wardrobe. They recommended
leaving the more extreme red carpet trends to the celebrities in
favor of exercising restraint. "At most formal affairs it is
preferable to be quietly chic rather than stridently fashionable,"
the book counseled. "Never let your clothes speaker louder than you
Instead, style authorities
offered a relaxed look epitomized by GQ pictorials such as “Black
Tie’s New Informality” (1995) and “The Attire Formerly Known as
Formal" (1997). On the
surface these titles were highly reminiscent of the magazine's
sartorial iconoclasm of the sixties. This time around, though, the new trends respected the
traditional framework of a two-piece suit and a black-and-white
palette. Variety was
supplied by incorporating elegant substitutes from a man’s existing
wardrobe such as open-collared shirts of black or white, black
cashmere turtlenecks or, at the dressiest end of the scale, a black
four-in-hand tie. For less
casual affairs a velvet smoking jacket or even jeans were often
recommended (an increasingly popular alternative for creative types despite the initial
jackets favored by young renters occasionally popped up in the pages
of GQ in the 1990s but by the early 2000s the periodical was eschewing
them for being too business-like.
Mainstream black tie in the
millennium’s first decade was a pared-down minimalist affair. At its most classic it was epitomized by the dashing evening
suit featured so prominently in Casino Royale, the hit 2006 James
Bond reboot: a traditional peaked-lapel jacket and bow tie updated
with a hidden-button shirt and uncovered waistline. At its most pedantic, it was a glorified black business suit
typified by President Barack Obama’s two-button, notched-lapel,
single-vented tuxedo that he so frequently paired with a four-in-hand tie.
Among men who shared the new
Bond’s taste for premium dinner suits, the classic influence
remained strong. In 2006
the heads of the Canadian divisions of Oxxford, Hugo Boss and Canali
all reported that one-button peak lapels were best sellers, mirroring a
return to classic styling in men’s suits in general. Among the rest of the male population, the trend was more
mundane. By the late
1990s one- and two-button notched lapels
modeled after common business suits had become the most popular
styles of dinner jacket and
even designers as
conservative as Ralph Lauren were
including them in their formal lines.
Whether classic or
contemporary, millennial tuxedos remained acceptable in only black
or midnight blue. They
also shared a distinctly minimalist look that was fashionable in regular suits during this time, manifested in slim-fit
tailoring, single-breasted jackets
and flat-front trousers that frequently featured
side tabs instead of suspenders. Finished satin waistbands were also becoming increasingly
popular among men who liked to dispense with conventional waist
coverings, an innovation that traditionalists condemned as another
casualty of the age of convenience and little more than "a formal
version of the Sansabelt".
For sophisticated dressers
the turndown collar had vanquished the wing collar by the late
1990s, either in the traditional spread collar fashion or the newer,
less formal semi-spread style. Fashion authorities preferred the turndown for its
minimalism while etiquette authorities
favored it for its
appropriateness, citing the classic wing collar’s original role as
full-dress attire. For
the average American male, though, a flimsy wing collar shirt and
polyester pre-tied bow tie remained the standard accompaniment for
By the late
nineties some formal shirt manufacturers were including a fourth
stud opening to account for the fact that the lower part of the
shirt was often worn uncovered. This
wasn't an issue for modernists who preferred the fly-front shirt
with its covered buttons and unpleated piqué front. French
cuffs remained a must for either style of shirt.
During the nineties the
waistcoat surpassed the cummerbund as the preferred method
for adding personality to a dinner suit and paisley was the most
popular pattern on both, especially for rented formalwear. In
the following decade GQ and Details first cautioned against
flamboyant cummerbunds and vests then encouraged readers to “ditch
the cummerbund” altogether in order to “achieve a cleaner, more
modern look”. In Britain
the fancy waistcoat was a popular fad among the general populace if
not among the experts.
By the end of the 2000s
several etiquette authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were
advising that waistcoats and cummerbunds had become optional. Conversely, traditionalists such as Esquire stuck to their
guns and insisted the waist remain covered
either with one of the conventional accessories or with a
Millennial Ties, Shoes and
The formal four-in-hand tie
first introduced in the mid-nineties as an alternative option for
Creative Black Tie became increasingly popular until GQ announced in
2004 that, like it or not, “it’s here to stay”. The magazine advised that such “straight ties” should match
the width and material of lapels and always be black. The bow tie was by no means out of the picture though. GQ continued to give it equal coverage in its pictorials
while the more conservative Esquire maintained that it was the only
neckwear appropriate for black tie.
Other formal trends favored by modernists were slip-ons
instead of pumps, well-polished calfskin shoes instead of patent leather
and silk pocket squares instead of linen (although an empty breast
pocket was preferred by most minimalists).
The New Alternative: The
The tremendous surge in
tuxedo rentals just prior to the millennium was accompanied by a
similar explosion in rentals of three- and four-button black suits. As the years progressed, these suits were added to more young
men’s wardrobes and became as popular in the office as they were in
the night club. By 2003
they were a common enough sight at formal events to be included
in the etiquette book A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up under the heading
“The Other Black Tie”.
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.
The book explained that the
black (or midnight blue) suit should be cut in an understated,
classic style and accompanied by a simple white dress shirt with a
turndown collar, an elegant tie in a solid color (“a silk crepe in
black, dark blue, or silver works well”), freshly polished smooth
shoes and dark, un-patterned socks. GQ’s initial forays into the black suit alternative
recommended that “you must trick it out” with standard black-tie
fixings but they later
dropped the faux-formalwear approach, proposing
a more business-like look including a black four-in-hand
instead of a bow tie.
Presidential White Tie
The venerable full dress rig
also suffered its share of ignominy during this dress-down era,
primarily thanks to American presidents. During the first decade of the millennium President Clinton,
President George W. Bush and future President Obama all appeared in
distinctly long-waisted tailcoats which, while not incorrect, were
certainly inelegant particularly when considering that all three
wore waistcoats that extended even further below.
trousers were slung so low they appeared to be weighed down by a
holstered six-shooter.) This sartorial solecism was mild compared to Bush's and
Obama’s choice of a black-tie turndown collar and, on one occasion,
Obama’s blatant omission of the mandatory
white waistcoat. Esteemed
purveyor of classic American men’s clothing Ralph Lauren also
contributed to white tie’s woes by
one but four styles of notched-lapel tailcoats in the 2000s.
Fortunately these formal
transgressions were largely limited to the former colonies as
European heads of state ensured that the Old World maintained a firm grasp on the
subtleties of full-dress elegance.
Millennial Etiquette: Road
Two Views of Classic
While the creative black tie
trend of the nineties faded into history just like the peacock fad
of the sixties and seventies, the dress-down movement was more
similar to the casual innovations of the thirties in that they
became an accepted part of the formalwear canon. However, there were notable differences between the latter
two trends. The garments
introduced in the golden age were all unique to formal wear and were
limited to less formal summer affairs. The notched lapels, uncovered waist and long ties of the
millennium, on the other hand, were drawn from business attire and
their formality was a matter of debate.
Traditionalists who defined formal wear as clothing that
maintained convention and upheld the highest standards
naturally viewed the trends as an erosion of formality. Conversely, modernists who interpreted formal wear simply as
conservative clothing viewed the changes as an update of formality,
not a downgrade of it.
The modernist camp was
championed by GQ which repeatedly described tuxedos with notch
lapels, center vents and flap pockets as “timeless” and “classic”. This fallacy perpetuated the impression among inexperienced
formal dressers that the tuxedo was essentially just a black suit
with shiny lapels; for young men
more concerned with familiarity than formality
modernists assured them they were one in the same.
Diluted Dress Codes
The Black Tie Optional code
which had previously received little attention from etiquette
authorities became a going concern in the mid
nineties as it appeared on an increasing number of invitations. The expert advice offered to guests ran the gamut from always
wearing a tuxedo to never wearing one. The only
consensus was that considerate hosts should avoid the term at all
costs precisely to prevent such confusion.
Adding to formalwear
uncertainty during this time was the appearance of the even more
ambiguous Creative Black Tie code. Authorities generally defined this as the replacement of a
standard black-tie article with a more casual or whimsical
ranged from prom-night tacky (colored and patterned waist coverings
and/or bow tie) to L.A. chic (black long ties or black open-collared
shirts) to thematic twists (cowboy boots
and bolos for a western night
or red and green accessories for a Christmas party).
Muddying the waters even
further was the period tendency for men to show up at traditional
Black Tie events dressed in a common black suit.
In the mind of Canadian style columnist Russell Smith, this
development had rendered the dress code virtually redundant:
The time has finally come to
say that conventional black tie is dying. There is no longer a uniform described by the phrase: So many
variations on the dinner jacket have become popular that the whole
point of the outfit – uniformity – is lost. If black tie means a black suit and a regular black long
necktie, then the distinction between it and the business suit is
erased, and there is no longer any reason to insist on any
particular form of dress. As a result, inevitably, there will be fewer and fewer
parties that demand the conventional costume.
By the 1997 edition of the
Emily Post series, society balls were the only occasions that still required
tuxedos simply by implication.
All other formal affairs required black tie only if
specifically stated on the invitation and such invitations
were increasingly rare in the new millennium. In 2001 the tragic events of 9/11 severely dampened America’s
desire for elaborate celebrations. Then in 2008 the "Great Recession" drastically curtailed
spending on weddings and proms. As a result, several formalwear retailers closed their doors
while their suppliers also went bankrupt or merged with longtime
competitors to stay solvent.
Even when invitations did
call for black or white tie a growing number of people chose to
ignore the dress code.
Most famously, British MP Gordon Brown arrived at his first Mansion
House white-tie dinner as Chancellor in 1997 wearing a suit and
refused to dress properly right up to the 2007 dinner, just seven
days before he took the reins as Prime Minister. That same year The National Post reported that in Toronto
The notion of dressing for
an occasion is one people are choosing to ignore more and more . . . Many events are explicit, black tie and long dress, and
still attendees don’t clue in. Some guys, especially younger fellows who feel they’re really
successful, take pride in flouting dress codes and showing up in
business suits, often not dark, and without a tie.
On the brighter side,
although President George W. Bush’s distaste for formality put an
end to the traditional White House reception for the diplomatic
corps – one of the last remaining full-dress affairs in Washington –
the First Lady managed to convince her husband to honor
Queen Elizabeth II with a white-tie state dinner in 2007. Similarly, Gordon Brown finally overcame his insolence a few months
after becoming Prime Minister and purchased a $3,000 Savile
Row dress suit (tailcoat) which he first wore to a state dinner at
The Story Continues
And so we arrive at 2011.
Will this millennial era will prove to be the tuxedo's final chapter as it
quietly fades into obscurity? Or will it reinvent itself yet
again to suit the new reality? Follow the ongoing saga in real
Black Tie Blog.
Apple's "I'm a Mac" ads contrasted Gen X
business casual with Gen Y all-purpose casual.
Academy Awards broadcasts
- the most conspicuous formal event in the world - fueled the
rise of "creative" black tie trends.
A 1993 band collar shirt
"worn the modern way -
sans bow tie".
By the late '90s notch lapels were the most
popular style. 3-button jackets were also trendy with young
The millennial interpretation of classic black
tie: slim 1-button peak lapel jacket with bow tie.
The millennial suit-style tuxedo: 2-button, notch lapel
jacket with flap pockets and long tie.
Covered-button shirts and uncovered waists
were popular with upscale dressers.
Shawl collars and white dinner jackets
were stylish millennial alternatives.
Black suits became popular evening
alternatives for men inexperienced with conventional formal
Barak Obama at the 2008 Gridiron Club dinner with an oversized rented tailcoat, informal turndown
collar and missing waistcoat.
The formality of the suit-like tuxedo was
a matter of debate for millennial stylists.
Suggestion for warm-weather black tie from the
April 2008 issue of Details.
Black-on-black was a popular interpretation of
Creative Black Tie.
Out of ignorance or indifference, Barak Obama broke
the cardinal rule of black-tie by wearing a white bow tie to his
U.S. President Bush (shown) and British Prime Minister
Gordon swallowed their obstinacy to don white tie for dinner with