Going Classic on a Budget

Reader Jay from San Jose, California shares the challenges and discoveries encountered during his quest to assemble a classic formal kit at an affordable cost. ensemble While many in the world associate Californians with surfing and a laid back liberal culture, my wife and I enjoy dressing up just as much as anyone else. For those rare black-tie events that I have attended in the past, I have worn a 1968 hand-me-down tuxedo from my late father with narrow notched lapels, three-button front and silk-edged pocket flaps. I was aware that it was outdated but, fortunately, the venues were poorly lit and, until recently, I was a lowly grad student and fairly young so no one likely held it against me. I have often thought of getting a new dinner suit but here in the States tuxedos are so rarely worn that there is almost a stigma associated with them. When you do wear one, people naturally assume that you must be attending a wedding or prom. If you mention that you are simply taking your significant other out for a beautiful evening, you are usually met with incredulous stares. Between this bias, the American penchant to wear jeans and T-shirts to any occasion, and the few times I was required to wear a tuxedo, there has been no real impetus to purchase an expensive new black-tie ensemble. However, when my wife and I were recently invited to the San Francisco Opera I realized it was about time to put together a right proper outfit. Since I knew that in an average year I would likely only use my evening wear for two to five occasions, I decided to set $1,000 as my initial investment.

My Research

Because I like tradition and wanted to make sure that my money was spent wisely, I decided to research men’s evening wear. Naturally, I first turned to my good friend Mr. Google and began reviewing all manner of sites purporting to offer expertise on the latest tuxedo fashions and traditional evening wear styles. The more I read, the more I suspected they were being written by twenty-five-year-olds who recently stumbled out of their college frat house with a journalism degree and had never worn proper evening wear. Fortunately, I came across the Black Tie Guide and began to learn what proper dinner dress really consists of. About the same time that I began my research I decided to stop in at one of the largest formal wear stores in San Jose. Upon entering, I was greeted by a 25ish-looking gent with full sleeve tats and an earring. I asked if the store carried any classic grosgrain tuxedos. He said “sure”, and showed me a suit that even Elvis would not have worn in his heyday. I then asked if he had any men’s opera pumps for sale. He said he had never heard of the term and instead led me to a selection of footwear that I would have found highly desirable had I been a Barnum and Bailey’s Circus clown. I thanked him for his time and quickly moved for the closest door. Needless to say, I soon realized that black tie and tuxedos have little in common. For most Americans, the word ‘tuxedo’ means a dressy black suit that many assume will look even better with a colored vest and matching bow tie. Testicle-hugging trousers and long-toed shoes as worn by Hollywood stars only seem to accentuate the modern image of the loud American tuxedo. The regal U-shaped evening waistcoats, straight-drape slacks, and grosgrain-faced dinner jackets that I had come to admire seemed to be virtually non-existent here in the New World.

My Purchases

ensemble_crop During my research I discovered some interesting information about tuxedo prices. According to a few online retailers I spoke to, as well as merchants and salespeople in the Los Angeles and San Francisco garment districts, the cost to make almost any ready-to-wear  tuxedo is only about $15 to $40 in actual material and usually less than $50 in labor. As such, I found that if I was willing to purchase dinner suit models from the previous year I could often find discounts of 40% or more. After considerable searching, and some successful haggling with a Buy4LessTuxedos sales person, I ended up purchasing a 2012 Lauren by Ralph Lauren dinner suit for $229 that had formerly been retailed for $650 to $700 in a brick and mortar store or about $350 to $400 online. For this price, I received a peaked-satin-lapel, one-button, slim-fit jacket with flap pockets and a center vent along with a pair of flat-front evening pants, all in super 110s merino wool. TM Lewin Marcella Shirt For my evening shirt, I wanted something a little bit dressier than the standard pleated tuxedo shirt usually offered in American formalwear stores, and eventually decided on a Marcella shirt. I was not able to find one sold by a merchant in the United States for a decent price (Brooks Brothers does offer a pseudo-model for $135) so I turned to British retailer TM Lewin. They appear to be the only reputable clothiers who offer a spread-collar Marcella shirt for under 75 US dollars. bowtie To go with the shirt, I ordered a sized self-tie silk bow tie for $19 from an Amazon.com storefront called Silk Solutions. IMG_0302_crop During my extensive search for a waistcoat I found several beautiful examples from British clothiers but they were typically £160 to £200 which is about $280 US dollars or more. Ouch. Eventually, by doing some in-depth searching for smaller storefronts at Amazon, I located a merchant (Uniform Tux) that sells classic waistcoats for only $49. Naturally I was suspicious, but it did indeed turn out to be 110 wool with satin silk lapels. Of course, I would have preferred a classic U-shaped waistcoat but they simply weren’t available for a reasonable price. broadland_pumps Another item that took considerable effort to source was an affordable pair of men’s opera pumps. (A random observer might label me a twit for wearing men’s shoes with bows on them, but to me it is all the more emasculating to continue a formal tradition that can be traced back to 17th century court shoes.) Once again, my first stop was Amazon but the best option I could find there was a formal loafer. A little bit more searching led to a pair of Brooks Brothers evening pumps but the price was a bit more than I willing to spend. I was able to locate several specialty merchants in the United Kingdom who sold opera pumps, but they were often outlandishly priced at more than 400 US dollars. Then, by chance, I noticed that one of these merchant’s pumps were marked “Broadland Slippers” on the insole. It turns out this made-to-measure company provides many of the evening pumps for other high-end British formal stores who simply re-brand the shoes and add a hefty markup. By buying directly from the manufacturer the price was only £127 (without VAT, including shipping), which is equivalent to 208 US dollars. I placed an order with them and one month later, my custom evening pumps arrived in excellent condition and fit well. studs Thanks to Amazon.com’s system for indicating which reviewers actually own the items being reviewed (and their Amazon Prime program that provides free shipping), I was able to locate a generic but very nice set of classical black/silver cuff links and four shirt studs for only $30. I also purchased a well-reviewed white linen handkerchief from the site for only $8 and some generic formal hosiery for only $14. After receiving all of my items, my next step was to head to two local seamstresses whom I have known for many years. I made special arrangements to meet them in the evening because human body proportions shrink throughout the day due to gravity and my dinner suit would only be worn in the evening. (On average, a 20-year-old man will shrink in stature about 2/3 of one inch between 8 AM and 10 PM. Likewise, a 40-year-old man will shrink about ¾ of an inch while an 80-year-old man will shrink about 1 ¼ inch.) They hemmed the jacket’s sleeves, sewed up its center vent, took in its waist, and removed its pocket flaps, as well as hemmed the trousers, adjusted the waistcoat and took in the Marcella shirt. I also had them add shirt and waistcoat tabs. The cost for all of these alterations was $125 and they were worth every penny.

The End Result

The final tally for my outfit including shipping was:

Tuxedo – $229 Tuxedo Alterations – $110 Waistcoat – $49 Marcella Shirt – $72 Shirt Alterations – $15 Opera Pumps – $208 Sized Self-Tie Bow Tie – $19 Dress Hose – $14 Stud and Cuff Link Set – $32 Linen Handkerchief – $8

Total – $757

As you can see, I was able to gather everything I needed under budget. I can report that the opera outing went very well and that I received some appreciative looks from several people who sat nearby. At the very least, I now have a dinner suit I can feel proud of and which fits my frame correctly and appeals to a classical aesthetic.  I have since purchased a piqué full-dress shirt with detachable collar, a white full-dress waistcoat, and a cummerbund which will allow me to vary my outfit at different outings. My only disappointment is that I was unable to locate a more reasonably priced grosgrain dinner suit or a U-shaped waistcoat. After making my purchases I discovered the existence of British clothier Oliver Brown who offer both of these items for about US$1,200. If I had known about this earlier I may well have purchased them regardless of my budget.

19 Comments

  1. Duncan Pike

    Very well done, sir! All we need, now, is a photo of you in your lovely dinner suit, as I am sure you look spectacular. I will be investigating your source of both opera pumps, and bow ties. I never thought of Amazon when I did my searching, but I will now.

    Reply
  2. Jay

    I am the author of the article above and thanks to Peter’s gracious hosting and help, have been able to pass my story on to other gentlemen. Without Peter’s site or his research, I would have hard a more difficult time trying to deduce exactly what classic black tie is. With regards to your comments Duncan, I can say that of course I was suspicious of any “formal” item ordered through Amazon but with their return policy at my back, I was fairly sure I would not be badly burned. It turned several of the items I purchased were actually sold in some formal wear stores only for vastly marked up prices. For example, the cufflink and stud set I purchased on Amazon is indeed sold in many brick and mortar formal wear stores, but often in the $65 to $100 range. So simply by doing some research here at The Guide and then checking prices, I was able to put together a fairly high end setup but for very a decent price.

    Reply
  3. Jay

    Apologies for the typos above. Should have said, “would have had a more difficult….” and “It turned out that that several of the items…..”

    Reply
  4. Hal

    Sounds like you got yourself some excellent bargains there.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that the difficulties you encountered would be any different anywhere in the world and the level of formality in dressing to go out might well often be greater in the US than, for instance, the UK (where a kind of smart casual is the go to look for any occasion). If you are getting to wear you dinner suit perhaps five times a year I think you are getting more wear out of it than many of us!

    Reply
  5. Brandon

    For anyone looking for a classic style, low-cut tuxedo waistcoat, I recommend this slim-fit model by Charles Tyrwhitt, which is a very affordable $139 (or less if you wait for a sale or coupon).

    http://www.ctshirts.com/Slim-fit-dinner-suit-vest?q=usddefault|Dinner-suit|dj037blk|||||||||||||

    Reply
  6. omschiefslr

    Well done! I embarked upon a similar project under Peter’s guidance in San Jose about four years ago. It was fun and now I am a regular reader and blogger on The Guide!

    Believe it or not, Jos A. Bank has a nice looking Grosgrain peaked lapel one button DJ with pleated matching pants. I got them for $229 off a sale rack. Their quality is not the best, but with a good tailor and higher quality accessories I put together a nice classic kit.

    If you get hooked on the project like I did, you will add a shawl collared DJ. You can add an Ivory DJ for cruises and warm weather outings. It is also fun to mix-and-match your marcella shirt alternating with a pleated one. Try using gold bordered studs with a gold watch and then silver bordered studs with a silver watch.

    It is also fun to pair your grosgrain accessories together and your satin accessories with the appropriate DJs.

    Reply
  7. d4nimal

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I wish we could see some fit pictures on you as well. Interested to see what those flap pockets and center vent look like and how they affect the overall look.

    Reply
  8. wdwright77

    Jay, I think you did extremely well. I have used Buy 4 Less Tuxedo for nearly all of my Formal Wear purchases for the last ten years or better. I quite literally stumbled on to them while browsing the net, and the first thing I ordered from them was a dress shirt for the tail suit I owned at the time. I outgrew the suit but the shirt is still wearing fine. Since then, I have added at least four tuxedos to my wardrobe as well as a rainbow of bow ties and cummerbunds, dress hires, and formal jewelry sets. Most all of my recent purchases bear the proud name of Cardi. In case you have not met him on line yet, Chris Cardi (yes he’s the owner) will bend over backwards to get you what you want in every way. Also, the point I make here is you might need to make any and all excuses to wear the tuxedo. If your city has a Symphony orchestra, wear it to those concerts, wear it to chamber music concerts,if in doubt, wear it anyway. You can never be too over dressed. What usually happens with me is I get complemented about how nice I look and that (in cases of women) I wish my husband or boyfriend wasn’t afraid to wear his tuxedo. {Personally, I abhor the casual look even in daytime (unless of course, business is not involved) as I think this country has taken the idea of no tie to a new extreme. So, most times, while it may not be a tuxedo, you will fin dI wear at least a dress shirt with French Cuffs as well as a bow tie in everything I do, which these days is mostly job hunting.} The interesting and funny aspect in your story is how your final total wound up being a Boeing Airplane number: 757. That does not always happen. So, my heartiest congratulations on a kit well assembled and I hope you get to wear it for a long time to come.

    Reply
  9. Jay

    @Brandon – Thanks for the link, I almost ended up purchasing my marcella shirt from C. Tyrwhitt. They do appear to have nice items.

    @omschiefslr – I did run across the grosgrain tuxedo you note after I had purchased my items. Can you describe a bit more when you indicate, “Their quality is not the best …”?

    @d4nimal – I have considered (and talked it over with Peter) posting some pics, but due to privacy concerns, for now I prefer to remain anonymous. I mean no disrespect to those more daring souls who proudly display their fine evening wear.

    @wdwright – I was wondering what the Cardi stuff was about. Thanks for filling me in. Part of the reason that I passed this article on to Peter was that feeling as I assembled my own clothes, that many men’s wear merchants simply try to overcharge those seeking evening wear. For example, at one site I ran across dozens of cuff link and stud sets priced from about $250 to $3500 US dollars. I truly don’t get who would shell that out when other equally or more classy items can be had for a fraction of the cost. The same was true for many of the merchants who sold genuine opera pumps, often for $400 US dollars or more. Even if I controlled all of North Korea and had an illicit net worth of 10 billion US dollars, I don’t believe I would pay $650 for a pair of evening pumps to be used twice a year. Perhaps I am just a bit too tight or what not, but I see pricing like that as simply nouveau riche waste.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Being an owner of said JAB tuxedo I would argue that its quality is good but its cut is horrible. So many of their suits seem to be using a boxy 1980s silhouette with shoulders like an NFL linebacker. However, I have successfully had the suit taken in by a tailor and am very happy with it now.

      Reply
    2. wdwright77

      Jay, as I understand it from Chris Cardi himself, the family has been involved in Formal Wear for at least three generations. The sons finally talked their father into starting a company with the family name and all the sons developed in other areas of business which finally several years ago developed into the first web store called Millennium Tuxedo that launched in 1998 or 1999 I believe, and then that evolved into The Buy 4 Less Tuxedo site and the whole purpose of it was to deliver Formal wear for all of us at decent prices. And they have for me! From there, the family evolved into founding a company with the family name so all the family could be involved; from warehouse to design and sales. Owning a number of the shirts they make, I find them to be equally as good as any of the big name formal dress shirts now available. I believe you can find out more by visiting http://www.cardiinternational.com. if you are interested. Google it to be sure. But I do agree with you: prices for mens wear especially Formal Wear seems to be a siren call for the companies to raise their price and of course, ship the manufacture of mens garments overseas to areas like Vietnam and one or both Koreas. Of course, you still have to find a local tailor to alter the tux once it arrives, but that’s a moot point when you get the garments from Buy 4 Less for a great price. I finally found a local store with a guy as manager in Spokane that discounts heavily if you’re buying. Cody has been an absolute joy to work with, but for stuff he can’t get, I always fall back on Buy 4 Less and wait for it to arrive. Anyway, my last tuxedo was an Oscar that cost me in the end with four new shirts, bow ties cuff links and studs etc. a grand slam of $350, and that isn’t bad for a formal set that would have cost me well over $775 had no discount been taken. My last suit (an Italian cut) that I purchased just four weeks ago ran me $338 and that included alterations as well as a new gold bow tie (I call it gold, but it’s more on the softer side of the color). The seamstress was excellent,and she even pointed out how well the suit should fit with French Cuff Dress Shirts. She even wound up calling me to make sure all was right with all her markings, but she had indeed marked it ok, so the call was unnecessary. She didn’t know this until I came back down, dressed up, ready to fit. I do think that if you are going to buy mens wear locally, you should go in dressed up, so that all the measurements can be taken accurately. Anyway, the point here is that buying a high quality tuxedo should not cost us a year’s or more wages so we can look our finest. As to you wishing to share your actual photo, that’s entirely up to you, but it would be nice to see how well the tuxedo looks on you.

      Reply
  10. Jay

    After speaking with Peter, I believe I will try to get a few shots of myself from the neck down to help give an overall better view. Hopefully, by this weekend I can find a bit of free time, and Peter will help me get them posted.

    Reply
    1. Duncan Pike

      We look forward to seeing how great you look! I know just the feeling of satisfaction, dare I say triumph, of putting together a Black Tie rig for such a reasonable cost. It makes it all the more exciting the day that final piece arrives, and you can put the whole outfit together, and look in the mirror, isn’t it?

      As to opportunities to wear it, whenever I’m in a Black Tie drought, I plan an evening in with my wife, sometimes as a surprise, if she’s been stressed. I highly recommend this to everyone. In fact, if you don’t take advantage of this possibility, you really are not getting the full value from your Tuxedo!

      I especially recommend this tactic to one, Mr. Taylor. Just sayin’.

      Reply
      1. wdwright77

        I am not married myself; but anytime that you can take a woman out dressed in your absolutely best suit as your tuxedo is bound to be, then you are going to be rewarded with a partner who will be ever grateful that you have taken time to dress your best, that you have taken time to plan an evening out and that both of you will feel so much more relaxed over. The truth of this matter is that very few men will take tim ego even acknowledge that the wife/girlfriend has had a stressful week too. Going out in your tux will let her know that she matters to you and that you are a gentleman who will go to great lengths to make her totally happy, even going beyond what she would normally get from you. So, gentlemen,go get dressed in your tux, plan an elegant evening and make that woman’s eyes sparkle with joy over a night out with you and you alone.

        Reply
  11. omschiefslr

    The Jos. A. Bank quality is overall ‘good’ on all of their menswear. Their Signature line is the best and that is how they have marketed the single-breasted, one button, peaked lapel Dinner Suit with grosgrain detailing. The pants are very thin. I have been told the jacket construction is done with glued lining rather than stitched lining.

    The alternatives in higher quality would cost many hundreds of dollars more. I plan to be very careful with this Dinner Suit and I hope it will last quite some time before needing to be replaced. As mentioned above, I rotate my kit and do not wear just one dinner suit.

    It is interesting that Jos. A. Bank being a discount menswear retailer would produce maybe the most conservative and formal Dinner Suit. I feel very lucky to have found it. It is my favorite now. The only other grosgrain appointed dinner suit I could find on line had notched lapels and retailed for $1100. Like Peter, I am adamantly against a Tuxedo with notched lapels. Notched lapels belong only on regular suits. What makes a Tuxedo special is the Peaked or Shawl collar.

    You will find Jos A. Bank suits very boxy in the shoulders and they fit large. The Grosgrain Tux is a 42 R. Everything else I own is a 44 R.

    Like wdwright above, I am finding a least 5 occasions a year to wear my dinner suit! I think I will have six occasions in 2014! Have fun!

    Reply
    1. wdwright77

      Never having lived there, I won’t comment too harshly about the California lifestyle. Yet,somehow we who love to dress up find ways to do it (and without complaining I might add).
      What I wanted to comment on here is I have been a somewhat loyal customer of Jos. Bank for many years and in fact four of their tuxedo shirts are in my rotation, along with many of their bow ties and cummerbunds. In fact the Jos. Bank silk bow is my go-to bow tie for practically all of my events. I Always get complemented on it. I also own two of their Traveler series white French Cuffs an dI really want to secure a couple more along with a blue one. All of these shirts are French Cuff along with a spread collar (I love how it lays behind a bow tie) and I sear I’d use one as a tuxedo shirt if it was not for the pocket on the left side. I think pockets on a dress shirt are so unnecessary. I ruined many a fine dress shirt in high school (we could not show up wearing t-shirts with awkward messages) because I put a stupid pen in the pocket and it would leak ink. (Bic pens were notorious) But, no matter what someday think, I find Jos. Bank quality to be impeccable and if it had not been for my purchase of a tuxedo last year from my local tuxedo store, I would have been down there at my local Bank being fitted for one of theirs. It might still happen too. So, keep in mind that all quality is not shown, but can be felt. The big reason for going to Bank in place of some other on-line is due to the ability to carry it out with you in the bag. The other reason (at least for me) is the staff. One guy in my store taught himself how to tie a bow tie and wears it daily, and one young lady who saw me wearing my Traveler shirt with a bow tie said it looked smashing and she says that bows are indeed a great thing to wear, tux or not. But above all it’s the service they deliver. Only if all spots were like this. But this type of service is what I want to have when buying a tuxedo or any men’s clothing at all. The clerks will tell you exactly what will have to happen to make it work. So, rest assured, we are not totally left to chain stores like Kohl’s or Macys (not knocking them) or the like. Like the tuxedo we wear, ee have to go looking for the quality we want.

      Reply
  12. omschiefslr

    Yes, the Jos. A. Bank Signature formal shirts are nice! I have the Marcella Shirt and the Pleated Shirt. Once again, they carry what we are all looking for. The Shirts were very large in the body, so I had both shirts altered. Their Grosgrain cummerbund and tie set was polyester so I couldn’t have it. I ordered my silk Grosgrain set from Robert Talbott.

    Reply
    1. wdwright77

      The Jos. Bank shirts are very nice and it’s great if you happen to have one of their stores where you live. If you have a situation where something is too tight, or has been worn enough to show age (and a tuxedo shirt will show all of this, believe me) you can usually find a replacement without resorting to the tuxedo rental shop who would seek you the cheapest fabric shirt that will not hold up for a long haul. As to the grosgrain set of polyester, that was th biggest reason I rejected it about six weeks ago; that and the fact I do not have grosgrain lapels and trim on my tuxedos. I always prefer satin and silk in my material as it looks extremely nice .

      Reply
  13. wdwright77

    (continuing) under low light, which is usually the setting one finds himself in a Black Tie event. And that includes the Symphony, or Chamber music concerts which is where I wear my Formal Wear a great deal of the time. When I do happen to wear it to a party or two (my Public Radio Station’s holiday parties) the satin or silk flows together like it should and there’s no tell-tale break as there might be if material isn’t the same. On the other hand, if I wear other colors, then I try to be sure they will work in the context of the tuxedo lapel and not stand out other than color of course.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>