As I explain in the introduction to The Black Tie Guide, the site originated with preparations for my first cruise in 2004. I wanted to be sure that my tuxedo purchase would be suitable for formal nights on a very traditional ocean liner but found there was scant information available about the etiquette of evening wear. I eventually succeeded in my quest and from the moment I first donned my outfit aboard the ship I realized the integral role that proper formal wear plays in elevating the pleasure of formal affairs and I was hooked. As soon as I returned home I began to seek out more information on black tie and more opportunities to enjoy it.
Flash forward nearly nine years later and I found myself once again donning my tuxedo for formal night aboard an elegant cruise ship. The parallels triggered a distinct sense of having come full circle in my black tie adventure and prompted a personal reflection on the intervening years. For starters, the small web site I created soon after my original journey has grown in leaps and bounds, evolving from a tentative consolidation of third-party opinions to an authoritative original work drawing over 75,000 visitors a month. On a more personal level, I have evolved from a novice formal dresser just hoping not to screw up his outfit to a seasoned veteran who feels more at home in a dinner jacket than just about any other clothing.
The best part, though, is that experience has not dulled the excitement. By its very nature black tie is associated with exclusive special occasions which means that my tuxedo has come to symbolize visiting elegant venues, meeting interesting people and enjoying delectable meals. Regularly adding new accessories to the outfit also helps keep my black-tie experiences unique and exciting. In fact I finally got a chance to sport my first white dinner jacket on this most recent outing.
What a great journey it’s been so far. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
I would definitely recommend Holland America Line for those seeking a traditional formal cruise. Readers who are unfamiliar with cruising might presume that this type of tradition is standard on any ship but the fact is that different cruise lines offer very different experiences. Cunard’s ships, for example, feature tasteful décor, cerebral activities and personalized service that recall the glory days of ocean liners. Consequently you will find that their passengers love to dress up for formal nights, particularly on transatlantic crossings.
On the other end of the scale is Carnival Cruise Lines which prides itself in providing an experience akin to Walmart on a barge: gaudy décor, sophomoric entertainment and a clientele obsessed with getting as many freebies as humanly possible. The “formal nights” on my Carnival cruise were notable for golf-shirted men guzzling bottled beer and waiters singing from table tops. In fact, Carnival has subsequently ceased using the term “formal” in favour of “cruise elegant” (whatever that means).
The Holland America experience definitely leans towards the Cunard end of the scale. This is particularly true for their newest ship the Nieuw Amsterdam on which I sailed. Not coincidentally, passengers on this line skew older and that was certainly the case on my cruise due to a huge seniors’ group booking. This very well may have been why 20-30% of men wore tuxedos on formal nights even though the dress code allows for suits.
Cruising may be the last occasion that calls for black tie by tradition rather than being dictated by invitation. But like opening night galas and New Year’s Eve extravaganzas before it, this tradition is fading as people opt for increasingly informal alternatives. Thus the century-old shipboard convention of set seating times and communal tables is rapidly giving way to the restaurant-style practice of impromptu reservations for tables for two. Like so many other activities the notion of dinner as a social occasion is becoming ever more rare.
In a similar vein, many people on cruise discussion forums love to complain about the inconvenience of packing anything more than swimsuits and T-shirts. For them a vacation is all about putting in as little effort as possible. But for me the extra effort is an integral part of what makes a cruise unique from any other type of vacation. Anyone can pack flip-flops and head to the beach but there’s something immensely civilized about boarding a ship with a skillfully packed wardrobe extensive enough to allow for the complete gamut of leisure and social activity.
Keep in mind that a tuxedo is not just dinner wear, it’s evening wear. The higher-class cruise lines will in fact request that guests remain in their formal attire for the duration of the evening “in order to complement your fellow guest” as Holland America’s literature so nicely puts it. In fact, this post-dinner socializing is what I enjoyed most about my most recent formal nights at sea. Taking in the after-dinner theatre show, strolling the moonlit promenade deck and even playing an impromptu late-night game of shuffleboard would no doubt be enjoyable in a golf shirt and blazer but in a dinner jacket and bow tie the experience was elevated to the level of the sublime. At moments like this the idea of basing one’s cruise experience on packing as lightly as possible seems like wasting a rare opportunity to get the most out of life.