III. Style Summary

As explained in the definition of black tie, the dress code's prescribed attire actually allows for a number of variations.  To best understand how the individual options impact the overall outfit we will divide them into two basic categories: classic and contemporary.


Classic Style: The Black Tie Benchmark

Ever since black tie came into its own as a distinct form of evening wear in the 1930s its definition has varied, with some elements remaining constant and others coming and going with the times.  By stripping the contemporary fluctuations from black tie's various definitions over the years we can define its quintessential or "classic" features:


1. jacket

    · black wool is the norm
    · midnight blue is equally correct

model can be:
    · single-breasted
    · double-breasted is slightly less formal

lapels can be:
    · peaked lapel
    · shawl collar

and can have:
    · satin facing
    · grosgrain facing

no vents is most formal

one button is traditional for single-breasted models

pockets should not have flaps


2. trousers

same material as jacket

single braid along outside seams to match lapel facings

cut for suspenders (braces in UK)

no cuffs (turnups in UK)


3. waist covering

waist covering is either:
    · black cummerbund made from silk to match jacket facings;

       best suited to shawl collar jacket; not particularly popular in

    · black low-cut evening waistcoat; best suited to peaked lapel


either is worn with single-breasted jacket models but not with double-breasted


4. shirt

white fabric, turndown collar

fronts can be either pleated or piqué (Marcella in UK)

shirt has eyelets for studs

French cuffs (double cuffs in UK)

wing collar is considered unflattering or inappropriate for black tie by most authorities; some allow it but only in its traditional white tie form


5. neckwear

black self-tie silk bow tie to match lapel facings


6.  footwear   

black shoes can be:
    · patent or highly polished leather oxfords (most popular)
    · patent or highly polished leather pumps (most traditional)

black silk or fine fabric hose, over-the-calf length


7. accessories

harmonizing black, gold or mother-of-pearl studs and cufflinks

suspenders (braces in UK) of black or white silk  

optional white silk or linen handkerchief as pocket square



chesterfield coat is most conventional but any other dark dressy coat is acceptable; rain (trench) coats are not appropriate

evening dress scarf of white silk with tassels

These are the attributes that have stood the test of time because they consistently make a man look his best.  The general cut of a tuxedo will vary from big & baggy to short & slim according to the whims of fashion but history has proven that as long the suit incorporates these classic features it is pretty much guaranteed to outdo any contemporary interpretation that doesn't.


Contemporary Fashion: Amending Perfection

Change for the Worse

If you are intent on modifying black tie’s classic standards, the first step is to ask yourself why you want to risk foregoing their numerous benefits.  
Since the 1960s, modernist attempts to reinvent black tie have typically arisen from the perception that it needs to be more comfortable or more contemporary.  However, proponents of classic menswear argue that its components have been perfected over many decades by the best tailors and the best dressers and that all the necessary compromises have already been made.  Says a 2004 Wall Street Journal editorial:

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.

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.  
You should also ask yourself why you want to risk degrading the black-tie experience for your fellow guests.  Making bad sartorial choices at high school proms or youthful weddings doesn’t much impact anyone but yourself.  But carrying these bastardizations into grown-up black-tie galas affects everyone in attendance by fracturing the unique sartorial uniformity that the dress code is supposed to impart.

Change for the Better: Rules for Bending the Rules

Having said all that, 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 changes to the dress code prior to the 1940s.  The critical difference between black tie’s pre-war adaptations 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. 
The first step in understanding the rules that make black tie successful is to be aware of the merits that define this success.  By closely examing black tie's historical origins and evolution as well as its classic sartorial details, the following primary merits emerge:

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 appear more refined than any other type of dress.


Black tie's unique uniformity creates a visual equality among men.


Black tie maximizes an occasion's formality.

Now that we have identified the traits makes black tie successful, we can determine the rules behind those traits:


Black tie is grounded in black.  White is always secondary and color is to be used sparsely and with great discretion.

Black tie emphasizes understated details and elegant finishes.

Black tie manifests established sartorial tradition.
Arming yourself with these rules of successful black tie allows you to now judge the potential success of modern variations.  In addition, you can take advantage of a few secondary guidelines to assess how best to bend those rules:

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 limiting 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 pull off a Nehru jacket and band collar shirt at a music awards ceremony than you would at a diplomatic reception.


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.

Proper Fit

Once you’ve decided upon the details of your tuxedo it’s time to switch from theory to practice.  Before you rent or buy anything make sure you understand that:

  1. a tuxedo, for all its fancy trimmings, is still a suit, and
  2. a suit has to fit you properly or you’ll look you’re wearing someone else’s clothing which pretty much negates a tuxedo's stylistic benefits

If you‘re fortunate enough to have your tuxedo custom made for you then a good fit should be built right into the suit by the tailor.  If you opt for a pre-made tuxedo then the process for ensuring a proper fit is two-fold:

  1. Try on the suit and assess the fit features that cannot be altered by a tailor.  If a suit does not meet some of these fixed criteria (and no ready-to-wear suit is likely to meet them all) then you will have to decide how relatively important those shortcomings are to you. 
  2. After selecting an acceptable suit based on the fixed criteria, have the alterable features adjusted as needed.
The Proper Fit page lists all the alterable and unalterable criteria that you need to know.  Read it, print it and carry it with you because you can’t count on salespeople to always put your best interests above their own.

Style: Further Reading

  • Classic Black Tie: Explores the sartorial details of each traditional component in depth by examing their technicalities and their aesthetic impact on the overall outfit and, by association, the wearer.  Readers can use this information to help determine which options suit them best (such as shawl versus peaked lapels) and to explore traditional alternatives  that can be used for tasteful personalization (such as colored or patterned accessories).
  • Contemporary Black Tie: Uses the same garment-by-garment breakdown as  Classic Black Tie to examine popular contemporary variations in the context of the classic benchmarks.
  • Suit Style: A suit’s style or cut refers to features pertaining soley to fashion aesthetics.  Use this information to determine the best match for your particular physique when choosing between attributes such as fitted versus looser cut, single- versus double-breasted jacket, and pleats versus flat-front trousers.
  • Tying a Bow Tie: Nothing separates the men from the boys – and the waiters – quite like a self-tied bow tie.  Fortunately it is the same technique as tying your shoelaces as shown in these illustrated instructions and how-to video.
  • Wear & Care: Tips for cleaning, storing and traveling with your formal suit, shirt and shoes.