Plaid Tidings: Holiday Black Tie

The holiday season is upon us which means it’s time for dressing up.

Not only do black-tie charity galas peak around this time of year but it’s also become the last bastion of private black-tie parties.  This became apparent as I was researching historical menswear magazines and noticed that as the century progressed formalwear articles which had once been year-round staples gradually dwindled down to annual features in special December issues.

The season seems a natural fit for formal parties as the cool weather brings socializing indoors and the decorated homes and festive spirit provides the perfect excuse for dressing to the nines.  The height of this magical confluence of merry-making and elegance is captured in the pages of the latest Brooks Brothers Holiday Gift Book.  Not being a member of the privileged classes I can’t say whether this depiction is genuine or a Madison Avenue fantasy, but I can always dream.

It is notable that the gentlemen are sporting tartan accessories as plaid has added tasteful flair to less formal black-tie occasions since the 1950s.  In this case the dark red and green designs are a smart nod to Christmas tradition. 

However, the gentleman in red plaid illustrates why restraint must be used when incorporating unorthodox alternatives in order to separate tasteful accents from contrived uniforms.   The mixing of two patterns in the bow tie is too much at odds with with formalwear’s understated simplicity as is the exposed band which should be hidden by a turndown shirt collar.  Matching cummerbunds should be avoided for the same reason; a man should choose one or the other, keeping in mind that a cummerbund will be hidden when the dinner jacket is buttoned (as a suit jacket should always be).

Of course it goes without saying that your bow tie must be self-tied.  Pre-tieds are more apt to convey a prom night sophomorism than the intended Yuletide sophistication.

Season’s Greetings!


  1. Ned L. Nix, D.D.S.

    Nice job on the blog! I am happy you have done this. Is it true that you have suggested an odd waistcoat or odd cummerbund, but recommend the tie stay black?
    Best, Ned

    1. Peter Marshall

      Nice to hear from you again Ned. Yes, an odd waistcoat or cummerbund would be worn with a standard black bow tie.

  2. Joseph S

    You might be interested to hear that at Cambridge University (which is, I believe, one of about two places in the world where there are still some people who wear black tie on a weekly basis), it is considered very normal to wear a bow tie in college colours (e.g. red and black for Jesus College) as an alternative to black.

    1. Peter Marshall

      Yes, I’ve heard from Cambridge and Oxford students and faculty about such traditions. However, I hope they are limited to official university functions. Wearing coloured bow ties at other black-tie functions not only distracts from the wearer’s face (the intended focal point of any good suit) but also interferes with the traditional black-and-white uniformity among male guests.


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