Black Tie versus Tuxedo: Worlds Apart
Because the black tie dress code requires wearing a tuxedo, novices may assume that wearing a tuxedo means being dressed for black tie. Fifty years ago that assumption would have been correct but today it could not be farther from the truth. The difference, for those seeking the CliffsNotes version of this Guide, is that black tie is a grownup’s tuxedo.
When the terms white tie and black tie were introduced to the public lexicon in the 1930s they were simply catchy synonyms for formal and informal evening dress. It was implicitly understood by polite society that formal evenings called for a tailcoat with its specific white accessories while informal (or “semi-formal”) evenings required a tuxedo and its black accessories.
Then came the post-war burgeoning of the middle class, increased availability of ready-to-wear clothing and a global fascination with modernity. A proud and confident America was particularly eager to promote its youthful and individualistic values in light of its remarkable military success against much older world empires. These concurrent trends meant that the tuxedo was now affordable for a large new segment of the population but that this segment was mostly unfamiliar with or uninterested in tradition. When colored dinner jackets were introduced to this demographic in the mid-1950s they were such a significant departure from convention that the tuxedo could no longer be considered necessarily synonymous with the black-tie dress code. From this point onwards the two would be distinct entities.
Over the following decades designers created formal fashions that deviated ever further from tradition. These have proven to be especially popular with teenage prom-goers and young bridegrooms who view formal wear as a rented polyester novelty. They appreciate its association with entry into adulthood but at the same time rob it of its adult traits by reinventing it to convey their youthful individuality. Furthermore, the groomsmen who routinely wear their tuxedos at afternoon weddings blatantly contradict its longstanding role as exclusive evening attire. Thus it is now impossible to define the tuxedo any more precisely than as a formal suit.
Conversely, during this same period of fashion and social upheaval the accepted definition of black tie remained largely untouched. The people responsible for maintaining the traditional interpretation of the tuxedo include men successful enough to represent their corporation at gala fundraisers, cultured enough to regularly attend opening nights or connected enough to socialize in circles that celebrate special occasions in high style. These men are intrinsically aware that for such prestigious after-six occasions no other form of dress can compare to traditional evening wear’s ability to make a man look handsome, sophisticated and powerful. With this knowledge comes the self confidence to move beyond juvenile attention seeking and instead focus on showing consideration for the evening’s host, the women on their arms and their fellow guests.
Just as important as what divides the two camps is what doesn’t divide them: money. A tuxedo that follows the rules costs no more than a tuxedo that doesn’t. And since those rules are clearly laid out in this Guide, the only real difference between looking like a CEO and looking like a waiter is personal preference. If you prefer the grownup option you’ve come to the right place.