Capes & Canes: What Would Don Draper Do?

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When readers ask me if it’s okay to embellish their tuxedo with a cape, cane, top hat and/or gloves it’s immediately apparent that they have not yet grasped the true essence of black tie.   This is quite understandable considering that the typical man’s wardrobe today is so casual that a formal wardrobe can appear entirely unrelated.  Novices who experience formal wear only as a rented novelty available in a few specialized shops can’t help but regard it as a foreign element akin to a Halloween costume.

In my experience it was only when I purchased my own black-tie kit and learned about classic menswear in general that I developed the mindset required to view formal wear in the proper context.  Essentially I had to mentally travel back in time to the Mad Men era, the last period when men truly dressed well (excluding a 1980s revival of classic business attire).   For these men who viewed suits and ties as the norm, black-tie apparel was simply the most formal extension of their daily attire: the tuxedo was the finest suit they owned, the formal shirt was their most elegant linen, the patent leather shoes were the best of their footwear and so on right down to suspenders, cufflinks and socks.  Similarly, the more I wore suits and tuxedos the more integrated they became both in my mind and in my closet.

Once a man has attained this sartorial state of enlightenment he can answer many of his own questions about formal attire by extrapolating from his informal attire.  It’s a lot like asking yourself “What would Don Draper Do?”  (Or, if you’re not familiar with Mad Men, “what would Frank Sinatra do?”)  Framed in this context, common dilemmas such as self-tied versus pre-tied bow ties practically solve themselves.  Can you picture any self- respecting man attending (or performing in) a Rat Pack show wearing pre-tied neckwear?

Similarly, this is the mindset I employ when answering the readers who ask about the aforementioned formal embellishments.   The average middle-class male of the 1950s was not very likely to have a selection of daytime cloaks, walking sticks or indoor gloves in his wardrobe as these were the domain of a Victorian leisure class that possessed the time and wealth required to devise elaborate dress rituals that visually segregated itself from the rest of society.  Thus, donning such articles simply because it was after six o’clock would appear affectatious for the average man in the mid twentieth century, let alone the typical guy today.

Interestingly, as I researched the history of the evening cloak for a new addition to The Black Tie Guide’s Vintage section I noticed that some fashion and etiquette authorities in the 1960s tried to legitimize the cloak – previously associated only with white tie – as a black-tie accessory likely because full dress had become largely irrelevant.  Needless to say, the Austin Powers-esque look did not take hold.  This only bolsters the argument that such flourishes should be left to white tie and even then they should be used with great discretion.  Witness the end result of these two prom outfits:

Need I say more?

22 Comments

  1. Adam Williamson

    Surely a hat isn’t so aggressively ‘vintage’ as a cloak or cane.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      I agree that hats are not obsolesent but they can still be inappropriate if worn with the wrong suit. Specifically, a top hat should never be seen with a dinner jacket.

      Reply
      1. Adam Williamson

        Oh, yeah, certainly agreed. I suppose I just got a bit confused because hats seemed to drop entirely out of the post after the first paragraph!

        Reply
  2. A. R.

    With hats, one need only know the following: Formal = Top hat, Semi-formal = Homburg or Bowler (not for full-faced men. This applies equally well to day dress.

    Reply
  3. Hal

    Bowler for black tie? I know that it was acceptable in the past but I’m not sure it works today – the associations are with the pinstripe business suits and rolled umbrellas of the City business gent of days past.

    I’d be more tempted by a neat black trilby/fedora. Wearing a hat at all is statement these days and I’m not sure that the concern over undue informality exists anymore.

    A homburg would be the prefered choice I’m sure, though.

    Reply
    1. A. R.

      The trilby/fedora isn’t really accepted with black tie anymore, though it once was. Bowlers are indeed rare with black tie, and probably now fall in with trilbies, but they are still very much an option for use with black lounge/strollers. Homburgs are, however, the preferred choice in any semi-formal situation.

      Reply
  4. Rory Lowings

    I agree regarding trilbies with Black Tie/anything. I wear hats regularly but I’ve come to realise that regardless of design, felt hats can appear highly anachronistic in most settings.

    Quite apart from the difficulty of attaining a well-proportioned homburg, there’s something to be said for fedoras and trilbies, which remain the designs of choice (often rendered in plastic) for most dedicated hat-wearers today. ‘Appropriate’ cuts both ways: at some point, hat-wearing with formal clothes becomes a deliberate snub to modernity, not an item of clothing.

    I have a grey trilby for work and a black trilby for Black Tie/formal. And even that’s pushing it on the modern Don Draper scale.

    Reply
    1. A. R.

      Plastic hats? I’ve never heard of anything quite like that. I wear a Homburg on a fairly regular basis, and a fedora or trilby the rest of the time. I hardly think that daily hat wearing is anachronistic, though that may depend on your location.

      Reply
  5. Joe Zasada

    Such accessories should be used cautiously. Authentic or proper choices can add a finishing touch. Cheap imitations or improper choices will lower the bar quickly.

    e.g. a black silk topper worn with white tie whilst on the way to an event would raise the bar; assuming the hat was checked with the coat once arriving at the event.

    compare that to wearing a polyester topper during dinner.

    The black homburg is a versatile choice of hat that can be used in an informal or semiformal context day or night. The bowler is limited to daytime use as it doesn’t look quite ‘right’ with black tie but works with black lounge or a business suit.

    As for gloves… well, that’s a different thing entirely…. ;-p

    Reply
  6. Skimmer

    Let’s not forget black tie’s summer headgear, the straw boater hat.

    Reply
  7. jovantheun1337

    The young man on the right just GETS it. Very well done.

    I wore white tie… sort of… to my prom. The tail coat and trousers actually looked good for a rental, but I screwed it up by wearing a pleated front wing collar shirt, white silk bow tie and five button waistcoat, and black studs.

    Reply
  8. doug

    i actually think the guy on the left is pulling his outfit off a lot better than the guy on the right. it doesn’t help that one is much more staged while the latter seems very candid, but the man with the hat is just oozing swagger and confidence. he is WEARING that tux and he bloody well knows it. the guy on the right…he put on a tux; he followed the ”rules” very well, but he’s not making it look nearly as good. he’s in the tux, but he’s not wearing it, if you know what i mean to put it another way: the guy on the right has it down to a science; the guy on the left has it down to an art.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      All opinions are welcome here but this is not the place to perpetuate misinformation. The men in the photos are wearing tailcoats, not tuxedos.

      Reply
  9. PeterH

    How do all, a slightly related question. I have recently bought a tailcoat for a white tie event, which went very well. I have an upcoming dinner in black tie. Would it be acceptable to wear the tailcoat with a black waistcoat and bow tie? Or should I stick to using a dinner jacket et al? Any help would be most appreciated.

    Reply
    1. Hal

      I’m afraid that wearing a tailcoat with a black bow tie is a no-no. At best, people will think you’ve made a faux pas; at worst, someone will ask you to serve the drinks. Servants and staff aside, the evening tailcoat is only worn with a white bow tie.

      Your options are, therefore, either dinner jacket and black tie or tailcoat and white tie. As a more recent blog post pointed out, Jeeves recommends the wearing of full evening dress, even when the dress code only requires black tie, when the wearer is need of a boost.

      As for waistcoats, you can wear your black waistcoat with a white tie outfit, apparently. Once it was common but these days rarely seen.

      Reply
  10. PeterH

    Ah, righty-ho. I’ll go with my dinner jacket for this dinner and keep the tailcoat for white tie events. It would be interesting to use a black waistcoat with white tie – if just to see what it looks like. I am of the opinion that bowtie and waist covering ought to match. In the early days when black tie was bearing its head, I would imagine that some of the components would have interchanged a bit. Coincidentally I have been watching a bit of the old J&W recently! Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie did an excellent job in bringing the books to life.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    In white tie ensemble, a cane may be replaced by an umbrella?

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      If it’s raining, yes.

      Reply
  12. Anonymous

    Here an example of that, what do you think:
    http://love2smoke.co.uk/gents-formal-umbrella-with-chrome-handle

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Looks like a very elegant way to keep dry.

      Reply
  13. Chris

    I don’t understand why top hats are so unacceptable with black tie… I happen to think it looks pretty good (as long as your dinner suit is as smart as possible). What am I missing?

    Love the website,
    Chris

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      The principle behind this convention is that tall hats provide a visual counterbalance to long coats while low hats harmonize best with short coats. Also, their long standing association with extremely formal white tie (i.e. highly distinctive coat model, starched shirt, stiff wing collar, white waistcoat & white tie) makes top hats incongruous with the significantly less formal black tie (i.e. common suit jacket model, soft shirt, soft turndown collar, dark waistcoat & dark tie).

      Reply

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