Rule 6: Black tie should follow the rules
In my previous post, one reader commented: “You did a good job of pointing out common ‘sins’ of black tie attire, yet I feel you could explain better why these things are sins.
“I understand that you might call tradition the entire point of black tie, but I’d be interested in hearing what the actual downsides of breaking these rules would be.”
This is a great point. Yes, to a certain extent tradition is the point of black tie. It is one of the few last bastions of dictated dress, where an actual sense of propriety bounds one to wear certain clothes.
Beyond some award events, balls and Ascot, nowhere is the modern man more restricted to one particular mode of dress by his fear of offence.
Whether that is good or bad is debateable. But like all the rules I have described in this series, the rules of black tie are there for practical reasons.
Black tie aims at two things. First, make the man look as smart as possible – to be appropriate to the importance of the occasion. Second, create contrast in material and texture – to create striking effects in dark rooms or under bright lights.
So what makes a man look smart? Well, custom has always been that a shirt is less smart than a jacket. And you can see why: thicker, less crumpled material in a darker colour.
So keep the amount of shirt on display to a minimum: keep your jacket on and wear a waistcoat or cummerbund to cover the triangle of shirt material that appears below the button.
This is also because the messiest part of a man’s shirt tends to be around the waist, where it untucks, and the untidiest part of the trousers is the waist where they fasten.
It is hard to dispute that a long, clean silhouette created by a waistcoat and trousers is smarter than one without the top half.
Other things that make a man look smart are a stiff shirtfront (stiff being smarter than soft) and calf-length silk socks (a smoother texture and no wrinkles).
The second aim of black tie, to create contrast in texture, is achieved by a matte finish to the suit and trousers, contrasting with shiny lapels, trouser seams, bow tie and shoes. Hence the reason for patent pumps or Oxfords.
(Also note that the seams to the trousers are covered as this is considered smarter: reveal as few of the fastenings and workings of a suit as possible. This is also why the buttons are usually covered in the material of the suit.)
As to my second sin, notch lapels, this holds no practical purpose other than to distinguish black tie from the lounge suit. It is sharper and more rakish. I think it is worth maintaining these differences, but worth recognising that there is less practical reason for it.
So when you break the rules of black tie – by leaving the cummerbund at home for instance – you should now be aware what you’re lacking in the overall sharpness of the look.
3 Guest Comments »
Thanks Simon – I have enjoyed both articles immensely. Just a thought – is the concept of a firm and inviolable black tie tradition somewhat suspect when it owes its current form to a sensation caused by Lorillard in 1886 when he broke emphatically with tradition? And thus – given the presence of notch lapels with their fuss-free lines on evening wear since the 1960’s, and their acceptance by very traditional people (www.blacktieguide.com/Contemporary/jackets/2005_portrait.jpg)- isn’t hanging on to this one a tad precious?
But this is justout of curiosity – I have as I say enjoyed the articles.
Comment by Paul Hardy — May 6, 2009 #
This article, as well as the former has been quite interesting. My reading of it was also laced with a hint of humor, being able to view an add for “After Six” immediately beside such an explanation of proper black tie.
Comment by Chris — May 7, 2009 #
Black tie was really cemented in its current form in the 1930s, so it’s a little more recent but I take your point.
I don’t believe notch lapels are any less fussy than peaked and they have another historical association (though again, this is not a practical reason): the peaked lapel is a direct descendant of the tails worn with white tie, and harks back to that. The shawl collar, by contrast, echoes the soft lines of a smoking jacket or dressing gown.
One last reason for me to always avoid notched lapels: the prime reason they are spreading today in black tie is not because people choose to wear it that way out of a desire for personal expression; that I could respect. Rather, it is because makers of black tie are lazy and cutting corners, making black tie on the same patterns as a lounge suit and just putting satin on the lapels.
Comment by Simon Crompton — May 8, 2009 #
I like your posts. They seem to convey what I want to say much more eloquently. God is in the details, and people don’t realise this. Also, people also don’t realise many things we take as the norm have a reason behind it, as you explained with waistcoats and cumberbunds etc.
It will be much appreciated if you have a link to a larger picture. Thank you.
great blog, I just found it – and I enjoy it very much.
May I ask a question?
I have an appointment for my first bespoke dinner jacket next week and I am still undecided. In the long run I like to have to TWO different, so I am trying to figure out two nice combinations between the options 1) SB / DB 2) midnight blue / black 3) peak / shawl. I figured out that peak lapel and SB is probably a bit more formal than DB or shawl – have you any thoughts on the colour? So far I’d go for a black SB peak and the later for a midnight blue DB shawl….
And excellent website. I might add there is another dimension to the strict rules on the tuxedo, the semi-formal suit. It is such semi-formal occasions invariable are social and include the wives. The strict convention of the tuxedo is also meant for the men to disappear vis a vis the wives who are wearing the gowns, their chance to shine in public. Tuxedo events are usually for the women.
I enjoy your blog immensely, Simon, and am catching up on its older articles. It’s a pity you omitted in this one to mention that black tie essentially originated from the creation in London of Almacks club by Beau Brummell at the turn of the eighteenth century – it was he who stipulated that all men attending his snobby, exclusive aristocratic club in St James’s had to wear only black and white. The move was a reaction against the flamboyant colours and make-up worn by the young ‘Macaroni’ gents who had picked up their colourful attire from French and Italian influences: the aim being to defer to the ladies who could show off their dresses without competition from the men, and to let the men, all similarly dressed in more sombre colours, demonstrate their difference by cloth, cut and detail. Allowing the ladies to be admired without competition from the men also helped guarantee that the club would be attended by the most beautiful and elegant women of the day, thus marketing the club as the most fashionable venue in town (entry, of course, being dependent on cosying up to Brummell himself). That emphasis on a limited colour palate for the men has been the essence of English formal and business menswear ever since, the only modern twist to the latter being the recent habit of allowing some dressing down. It’s interesting also to reflect how wives and girlfriends still hate going to an event and finding another lady attired in the same outfit – another continuation, perhaps, of those 18th century sensitivities.
Hi Simon,one point worth mentioning about notch lapels which I have’nt seen mentioned on this question is the notion of the bespoke notch.When people criticize this style they have in mind a RTW jacket which can look pretty awful with this lapel.However,a bespoke tailor can produce a notch that works with formal attire.If the tailor decreases the angle of the notch between the lapel and gorge the overall effect is subtle but noticeably different from a standard lounge suit.If you marry this with grosgrain facings,longer lapel length and one button fastening with an extra shank button you have an excellent look.Hope you can understand my description!
I think I do Harry, yes. Like a frogmouth notch, or Camps de Luca/Smalto one?
Yes Simon,like your grey Camps de Luca suit.I should also add that the grosgrain facings extend on the diagonal line from the notch in a triangulated fashion ending near the tip of your collar.
Merry Christmas ,Harry.
Please could you add, Simon, a link to a pic of the suit Harry refers to so we can better understand that specific notch look.
Sure, will do later when not on my phone. Just searching for ‘Camps De Luca’ will bring it up though. I only have one piece from them
This recent post in the Guide to Tailor Styles shows that notch well:
Thank you for still bringing great articles to the table.
I’m getting married this year, and are having a bespoke tux made. I have swatch books available from most of the cloth makers in the UK, as well as Drapers in italy.
I am having some trouble choosing a classic and timeless fabric. I like a fabric with some weight to it – live in Norway so doesnt need to be to thin. I was also thinking of heavy fresco.
Any suggestions? reference to cloth numbers would be appreciated.
I am getting married in a weeks and am currently in the process of having a bespoke black tie suit made. The event was originally supposed to start in the evening which was why I opted for a black tie outfit, however, due to planning conflicts it is now starting in the afternoon and the ceremony is outdoors in broad daylight. This has made question whether black tie would be appropriate and I would like your opinion on the matter. It is too late to opt for a different suit and I am thinking of maybe just wearing the tuxedo but instead of a black bow tie wearing a regular wedding silver tie instead ;perhaps the POW check. Thoughts are welcome.
If it’s too late to change the suit, I would stick with black tie. There’s too great a risk that you’d end up looking like half of one, half of the other. Particularly good to play safe if you’ve gone to the effort to have the suit made bespoke.
Hi, Simon. I am looking to buy some accessories for black tie. For studs/cufflinks, it seems to me that onyx and rhodium is the most formal, being the coldest combination. Would yellow gold and smoked mother of pearl be too showy? Also, is there a difference in formality between oxfords with a more square or rounder toe?
I think you’re looking at very fine detail here, particularly when others may well be wearing purple velvet or a coloured bow!
Seriously, as long as the studs and links are subtle and finely made, they’ll be lovely. I have these from Kirby Allison, for example, and they’re great.
With oxfords, don’t worry so much about the toe, just make sure they have no broguing and are nicely polished
Am going to a renown hotel upstate New York in the Adirondacks for a few days. Dress code for dinner is “jacket and tie required.” What does this actually mean? Obviously jacket and tie, but are we talking blue blazer and cream or gray trousers? Or a dark blue or gray suit? Sincere thanks!! Will
I think it means anything is fine, as long as you’re wearing a jacket and tie. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a suit or blazer. So let your taste run wild!
Quick question: Cotton or silk handkerchief for black tie? I only have a cotton one, so I am wondering if I need to buy a silk one. I think I don’t, but would appreciate your opinion!
I prefer linen, but ideally linen or silk, cotton is a little poor as a material. Not really a big issue though