Black tie among friends

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By Tony Sylvester

A couple of weekends ago, at the invitation of photographer Jamie Ferguson and writer Aleks Cvetkovic, a few friends got together for a weekend away in the Devonshire countryside. Obviously, social invitations and jaunts out and about have been thin on the ground for the past months, and even the simple act of packing a suitcase felt like blessed relief after being cooped up in town. 

One of the first things we collectively decided was that a black-tie evening should form the centerpiece to the weekend. Jamie and Aleks had managed to book a rather grand Georgian country house for the proceedings, and it seemed appropriate to give our evening wear a much needed airing. 

Of course, 'normal' black tie invitations come with a certain level of expectation. The hosts set the tone in this regard, along with the type of event the invite promises. This weekend was nothing of the sort. In the company of friends, shorn of social responsibility, and being specifically in a group of chaps who pride themselves on how they dress, all bets were off in terms of how the rules of formal wear could be applied. 

It was fascinating to see how varied the interpretations were, and how much the fellows' personal style seeped into their ensembles. Here are four I’d like to focus on.

Benjamin Phillips

I’m sure a lot of readers will be aware of Ben from his tenure managing the Drake’s store in London. Ben’s quiet, polite demeanour creates a wonderful juxtaposition to his authoritative presence and personal style. 

After four years of flying the sartorial flag for Drake’s and wearing a suit and tie everyday, Ben’s new role managing a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy calls for a more relaxed and ‘athleisured’ approach. The black tie invite offered him a chance to both dress up beyond the remit of his everyday pursuits, and display his new laidback sensibility.

Ben wore a made-to-measure DB dinner jacket with peak lapels - in the rarely seen make up of black corduroy and matte-cotton facings. 

Made for him by Drake’s, the cut very much followed their house style: unlined with a natural shoulder, and with the smaller ticket pocket nestling in the larger patch pocket. The theme was continued with the same cotton being used in lieu of grosgrain or silk in the evening stripe of the matching cord trousers.

A lovely play on the notions of formal and informal, corduroy has a similar sheen and handle to its more elegant cousin velvet, but is of course more often used for hardy outdoor pursuits. The informality continued with a pale-blue chambray button-down standing in for a dress shirt, while a heavy jacquard-weave bow tie with a plush diamond motif from London-based maker Labowtique echoed the deep undulations of the cord. 

The ensemble was finished off with a pair of black velvet Albert slippers with the Prince Of Wales Creasy embroidered in bullion - from Broadland Slippers, with bare ankles. 

Jake Wigham

I mentioned Jake Wigham in my last column for Permanent Style. A shirtmaker based in East London, Jake has an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic Ivy/prep style and how it cross-fertilises with the British youth cultures of the 60s and early 70s - most notably in Mod, Soulboy and Suedehead subculture. 

The shirts he makes are imbued with this passion, taking the classic six-button Brooks Brothers button-down ‘polo’ shirt with its unlined collar and roomy fit and offering his version made-to-order. 

His take on black tie was full of allusions to these elements. The vintage off-white dinner jacket in a slubby tropical wool was made in the late 1940s by Burton. He paired this, perhaps surprisingly, with US Army- issued OG107 ‘Baker Boy” trousers. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, the washed olive green was wonderfully harmonious underneath the pale ecru of the jacket. 

One of his own white button-down shirts was worn artfully wrinkled and unironed (in bona fide Ivy fashion) with a small batwing bow in matte satin and matching cummerbund, there were white socks and loafers by fellow london brand Horatio, and all worn with pennies in the vamp cutout, naturally. 

What made the whole look work for me was the vintage details in the combination of youthful collegiate stylings and militaria. The overall look would not have seemed out of place in a Princeton yearbook from the 1950s, yet did not look costumey or contrived in any way. 

Scott Simpson

Scott Simpson is owner of the brand Scott Fraser Collection. Another devotee of vintage clobber, Scott came up similarly through the Mod and Soul subcultures, but his brand finds its expression across the decades. 

Scott chose the Bryceland’s white linen Farmer’s Smock for the only bow tie-less black tie rig of the weekend. By tucking in the smock’s long tails, he emphasised the dressier elements of the item, drawing on its similarities to old-fashioned formal shirts with its trapezoid bib front and soft stand collar. The black dress trousers, white socks and tassel loafers grounded the outfit and let the real hero piece sing out.

The one item that brought exclamations from the rest of the guests, Scott’s choice of a vintage wool kimono-style wrap jacket was bold and adventurous. 

This extremely rare piece of men’s leisurewear was made by the celebrity designer Oleg Cassini. Cassini is remembered primarily for his womenswear, making gowns for Jackie Kennedy when she was First Lady. Scott stumbled across the piece while searching for inspiration for his range of Italian knit shirts. 

What made the rather eccentric kit work for me was the simple colour palette of black, white and jewel-tone red, lending the outfit the formality of an officer’s mess rigout.  

Tom O'Dell

Perhaps the most conservative look of the weekend, Tom’s choice will resonate with more traditional readers. 

Its simplicity and single-minded smartness showed Tom’s personal style to a tee. Tom works primarily as a stylist and dresser in film production, and while knowledgeable about period detail and dress, I would say his personal look falls somewhere between heritage brands and more contemporary looks - so perhaps mixing Barbour jackets and gun-check overcoating with Margaret Howell knitwear and Paraboots. 

Like Jake, Tom went for a vintage cream shawl-collared tuxedo jacket but, until Jake's take, let it ring clearly with more classic companions: black dress trousers, a white dress shirt with black studs on the placket, a medium-sized black satin silk bowtie with pleated velvet cummerbund, again handmade by Labowtique, white silk pocket square, black socks and loafers. 

Understated, elegant and straightforward. 

‘Creative black tie’ is a phrase that can really raise the hackles. It conjures up nightmarish visions of the gaudy and the garish, embodied by the horror that accompanies seeing photos of the Met Gala every year. Black tie’s key function is that of a ‘great equaliser’ - a failsafe benchmark to be adhered to for both convention’s sake and the tried and tested code of what ‘works’. 

But there are those of us of a more extravert demeanour who enjoy butting up against that with a gentle sense of brinkmanship. Deviation, to my mind, should be approached with caution and mindfulness. With experience and confidence, you can take the essence of what you find comfortable and resonant in your day-to-day wardrobe and also apply it elegantly to formal wear. 

Now what the hell am I going to wear to the cocktail party on Saturday? 

 

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P.A.

Hi Simon,

Interesting article, which I am sure will be very divisive among your readers. I myself can’t decide what to think of it.

I’ve never been invited to a black tie event, and I can’t see it changing any time soon considering my social circles.

On one hand, I think black tie events should be adressed as you call “the great equaliser” ; that is the very point of black tie.

On the other hand, I also think having a more playful approach, especially among friends, is a way to keep it fun, and not just spend the night in sneakers and jeans like most people would on a weekend out. I particularly enjoyed Benjamin Philipps’ outfit, and I could see myslef wearing something of the sort, if the occasion were to present itself.

However, some of those outfits felt “costumey”, and even with as much justifications as one can find, I don’t see the difference with horrendous outfits that one may see at the Met gala. Trying to be so much more original than everyone else that it becomes ridiculous.

P.A.

Absolutely, and I guess that if those guys were invited to a proper formal black tie, they wouldn’t show up with OCBDs and white socks. Regarding Scoot and Jake’s outfits, I just find it odd to call it black tie when none of the rules of black tie are actually respected. Which leads to the question : what is black tie? Which will get you all sorts of answers.

Michael

…it might be slightly less controversial if it were called „formal dinner“ amongst friends (who all happen to be interested in clothing as well as fashion) instead of „Black Tie“

Karol

Cool outfits everyone, though Scott’s is probably the best. Red/white/black in evening wear appeals a lot.

Gary

Its a case of ‘each to his own’ I guess but for me I am left a little ”WTF were they thinking”?. (Tom not included in this). Be a boring world if we all thought the same though.

Voisy

My sentiments exactly….

CJ

An interesting read Simon; I don’t think it needs to prompt any radical conclusions other than an appreciation that amongst friends and away from the normal shackles of a black tie event one can take the definition, whilst still remaining sartorially on point, into more diverse options.

Gary

On reflection, answering myself, that was a little unfair. The outfits look fun, well put together and hopefully matching the personalities….. I just dont see why they called it ‘black tie’. Maybe I am too conventional.

Nigel C

It is nice to read this as it is a topic close to my heart. I like to make an effort from time to time and to have a reason, because you do need one, to dress up.
My wife and I organise a New Year’s Eve dinner each year in our home – twelve of us -and we make it a black tie event. Everyone loves it, they say it is nice to dress up. It feels more special and people behave differently too; strangely people are more relaxed and it is a fun event.
My usual gripe about nice dinners or other events is that women make all the effort and the guys too often just turn up in a shirt and neat jeans. The point about the great equaliser for me is that it puts that right too and we’re all making the effort.
Do other readers do this type of thing? As an occasional event it even feels appropriate – it does not feel artificial. It’s not exactly pretend Downton!
Best wishes N

Gary

Absolutely! We celebrate the Battle of Britain with a dinner when black tie or uniforms are the order of dreas

Stephen

Totally agree. I host a Burns supper every year at home and it’s always black tie. An appropriate occasion to wear one’s trews too. People making an effort is a nice thing. As you say, the mood is just different.

Stephen

Hi Tony,
An interesting perspective on black tie as an equaliser (levelling up I hope!) and an enjoyable subject to finish the week. Quite agree on the fashion car crash of the Met Ball – with its arguably attendant hypocrites.
Shame to see Ben has left Drakes.
Best Stephen

Tony

Thank you Stephen, knew this would be a contentious topic, and I am very glad to see such a variety of opinion on the matter.
As someone has already pointed out, it would be a very boring world if we all agreed.

Karl

I wish the photos weren’t so dark. Very hard to make out the detail.

Aaron

Same here, particularly of Ben Phillips. If the text didn’t say the jacket was corduroy, I would have no idea. It sounds good to me but it’d be nice to be able to see it.

zo

Thank Tony, I beg to differ, I think the looks here do look constumed and contrived – maybe more Met Gala Lite. Perhaps not to you because you were in the company of menswear enthusiasts and creatives. In any other black tie settings, most of these looks will look out of place. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think there are some great ideas here. For example, I love Scott’s outfit, and would love to recreate that in a similar shirt and a more toned down wrap-around shawl collar jacket.
Looking at some other photos, I can see two of the bigger (politest way possible) men in the company both wore double breasted jackets. I believe there is a ‘rule’ that double breasted jackets tend to accentuate larger frames, while single breasted are slimming. Perhaps you can tell us if that is something you considered and deliberately disregarded (quite successfully) and why.

Jason

DBs not being for ‘large men’ is a huge misnomer.
As you point out in your excellent article, it all depends on the cut.
In fact, it can be a very good choice.

Alan

Great post and I’m sure it will be divisive! Personally I think there is room for creative black tie, it just depends on the occasion. At a state function anything other than classic black tie will look out of place and tasteless. Whereas a cocktail party with friends, especially ones with an interest in style, is a perfect opportunity to be creative.

I like some of the individual pieces (particularly the black corduroy dinner jacket) from the first two outfits but to me the overall combinations are a bit too much to work. They feel too much like a mishmash of casual and formal pieces to me. In the first outfit for example I feel like the denim shirt distracts from the beautiful jacket, whereas a more traditional shirt would let it be the centrepiece of the outfit. The third outfit looks good, though more as a creative smart outfit than black tie (which it technically and literally is not anyway).

Of course this is just my subjective opinion as a reader. I would still rather see creative black tie outfits like this than people insisting that the only way to wear black tie is to rigidly adhere to rules set over 100 years ago.

Kali

What a great idea Simon. Enjoyable read and thanks for sharing.

Noel

What about your version Simon?!

Jason

You didn’t go ?
At the outset of the article you claimed to be excited to be packing !
What went wrong ?
Anyway – what were the ladies wearing ?

Dan Hawes

A very interesting factor. I say this with humour ( please take it that way) but wasn’t it a bit “sausage festy”? After you’ve discussed your clobber and had a few drinks what do you chat about for the next few days? If your all close pals fair enough but if not I reckon i’d want to slide away after a night.

Dan Hawes

I certainly think a group of males can have interesting discussions. I myself have been known to partake in a discussion or two with several male friends in the past! I suppose my point was that it wasn’t clear if these chaps actually knew each other before the meet. I have attended watch collector meet ups where all we have in common is a love of watches, our attitudes to other things often differ and an hour or two of pleasant conversation about watches is enough. I wouldn’t dive into a long weekend with them.

Dan Hawes

No In fairness it was my fault. I was rush reading whilst quaffing wine on a Saturday night. I am a fool. Forgive me. Makes sense now.

Noel

Interesting outfit idea. The only do it I’d have is if a black roll neck with black velvet wouldn’t be a bit too much black.

Jamie Berry

The big question Simon: what were you wearing?!

Lucas

When is a chair no longer a chair? When is ‘black tie’ no longer ‘black tie’?

Simon Gentleman

These are a mess. I was especially disappointed with the ‘mod’ guy! No actual mod could be that scruffy. I get the I want to be a rebel/individual is the theme, but black tie is not the place for it. You can customise with accessories and have some sublety. That these people are in the rag trade, beggars belief. I will check out jack’s shirts though.

Tim

Bing Crosby did it better.

Stephen

Hi, I forgot to ask in my earlier comment. Does Tony write elsewhere? I always find his pieces interesting.

JJ Katz

I always prefer to praise what I like than criticise what I do not. However, I must confess that I found many of the images in this interesting piece rather disappointing.
We are looking at a group of fellows who no doubt have the knowledge and materiel to put on some variation of ‘classic’ black tie. They have the occasion, etc. What do we see? One fellow in black tie, two wearing such idiosyncratic variations that one might question whether it is black tie an lastly an elegant man wearing a sort of short kimono.
An opportunity lost, IMO.

heart's beating like a drum

I thought this was an interesting and provocative article. I do like the push to get into the spirit of black tie. What I think is really interesting is how differently people interpret that spirit. I am intensely relaxed on breaking the formal rules of black tie (who cares). But I am very very interested to see how people dress in the spirit of it. Might not like all of it or even agree with whether it is in that spirit but it is fascinating.

R Abbott

I don’t mind a bit of whimsy – as Simon mentioned in another post, you have to dress for the occasion (and with an understanding of what sort of people will be attending), but I find several of the looks downright bizarre – especially the one with the red kimono.

Although I appreciate creativity, there has to be a purpose behind it (that is apparent to the observer), and it seems to me that too many people in the menswear world fall into the trap of trying too hard to appear “different” or “artsy.” You see the same thing in the food world, with restaurants mixing together bizarre or exotic ingredients in an apparent attempt to get their Michelin star. (It’s no longer enough to serve outstanding dishes, they have to be “unique”).

Aside from the kimono outfit, I really don’t like the chambray shirt paired with black tie. It just doesn’t work. Although the “high-low” look can be fun when done well, there’s just too much of a disparity in formality between the DK and the shirt. The impression I have is that the guy thought to himself, “what can I do to be different this time around,” rifled through his closet, and haphazardly selected the chambray shirt.

Tom

I enjoyed reading this. The various outfits, whilst they would mostly look insane in any other context, strike me as thoughtful attempts to address appropriately for the given occasion.

It’s a pretty unique occasion though. Which leads me to ask, Simon, what lessons (if any) can a PS reader take away from this article? Or should it just be taken at face value?

Felix

Very, uhm… flamboyant.

Steven

Kudos to Mr. Wigham for absolutely nailing the unlined Brooks Brothers white OCBD I was told to buy when I showed up for work at a NYC bank in 1981. Just curious as to where he sources that somewhat slubby cotton.

Adam

This is like the sartorial version of a Magritte painting. Ceci n’est pas un smoking.

And

To be very honest, the guy in the red kimono looks like he is playing some ancient Roman consul in a reenactment.
Besides that, the outfits could be nice, I just don’t see the point in calling it black tie if everybody is free to do as he pleases, I would just call it “cocktail attire”.

Sam

Scott nailed it, in my opinion. The others appeared as if they were trying too hard to subvert it (understandable, given how deep they are in menswear) and lost the essence of it. It’s good to try and push the boundaries though, so I cannot fault the attempt.

zo

Definitely my favourite look. i love how its a tie-less formal outfit and one that looks super relaxed, and it works really really well.

LAStyleGuy

Since I have nothing substantively different to add to this fine discussion, I’ll weigh in with a delightfully small point: I believe this is the second post on PS that has referenced Jake Wigham’s “classic six-button Brooks Brothers button-down polo shirt.” I treasure a number of solid white and blue BB oxfords that I purchased decades ago—long before the store lost its way and its soul. And I’m intimately familiar with their look and construction (re the latter, mine are old enough that they were actually made in the USA).

Having established my credentials as an aficionado of these shirts, allow me now to offer that they have a seven-button front, not six. So, making the heroic assumption that I know how to count, do I untie this sartorial gordian knot by concluding: a) “classic” was only meant to refer the style, but with Jake’s own wider six-button stance (unlikely, since it sure sounds like someone thinks that six buttons were part of the classic look, b) Jake says he copied the Brooks Brothers shirt, but miscounted when it came to the buttons and no one to date has caught his unforgivable one-button omission, or c) (and I’m stretching here), I’m including the button at the neck and the writer isn’t.

Such an unimportant, yet perplexing first-world mystery to be pondering.

Steven

May I ask how you had the foresight to keep your worn and frayed BB shirts? I tossed mine, along with my scratched Miles Davis vinyl…

Max Meyer

I honestly find this a bit silly

This is a perfectly nice and fun getaway with friends; friend who all dress a bit better than most others, but it certainly isn’t a „black tie“ event

If you rocked up to a real black tie event in a red bathrobe or an wrinkly chore shirt and pants to do gardening in you would probably be most friendly shown the door. So why call it that?

Russ

I enjoy black and white tie events and find the negative comments on here depressing. The history of black tie is one of evolution from white tie and white tie itself evolved in regency London as a reaction to the ‘macaroni’ flamboyance of eighteenth century dandies, with feathers, gold and embroidery worn by men who were influenced by baroque Italian style. The reasoning behind a move (largely spearheaded by Beau Brummell) to all the men at a formal event dressing similarly in black and white was that the men’s dress should not overshadow that of the women, and that men’s style should instead be shown by the subtleties of workmanship, quality of cloth and fit.

I think these outfits, worn at a chaps only get-together, where any risk of overshadowing ladies is not a worry, are entirely in keeping with that heritage of subtle combination, and show flair and ingenuity.

I’m relieved that no one went to the extreme of one outfit I saw at our alma mater, Simon, where a perfectly attired Oxford student wearing traditional black tie at a party then turned round to reveal the back of the trousers and jacket, expertly cut away, with a ladies’ bra and pantyhose clearly displayed beneath!

Brian

The idea to do Black Tie is a good one. Execution is personal taste. I am a classicist myself but to each his own. Most important is the friendship , beverages and food. I will say from my experience everything tastes better when you are dressed to the nines.

Zed

Black tie is in that sense the great equaliser: a failsafe benchmark to be adhered to, or in rarer cases for those of an extravert demeanour, butted up against with a sense of brinkmanship.

Black tie’s key function is that of a ‘great equaliser’ – a failsafe benchmark to be adhered to for both convention’s sake and the tried and tested code of what ‘works’. But there are those of us of a more extravert demeanour who enjoy butting up against that with a gentle sense of brinkmanship.”

Is this almost-but-not-quite repetition in the third paragraph and the third- and second-to-last paragraphs intentional or an oversight in editing?

Barry

I’m only an occasional visitor to this site, but regular follower of Tony Sylvester’s social media. I am entertained by some of the more reactionary responses in the comments below, as clearly the point of the event was for each to reimagine what ‘Black Tie’ meant – as others have said a term that is always evolving. But some responses seem downright discourteous from people apparently concerned with standards and decorum. Especially as Tony takes such care to explain the details, provenance and effect of each decision. The event put me in mind of the attitude, and indeed rakish style, of the suave pioneers of the Mens Dress Reform Party, who met such opposition when suggesting shirts could be worn open necked, with sandals, or kilts! But this was nearly a century ago. What little progress has been made in some circles? Do be careful where rigid adherance to tradition leaves you, and what new pleasures it avoids.

Jim

I enjoy the spirit of all of these, and there are some great pieces included. I’d have to contend though that there’s “butting up against the rules” and there’s “disregarding them entirely”; but how to determine one from the other is subjective, of course.

David

As I read this, knowing that it would be contentious amongst your readers, Simon, I must say that I, for one, feel that Black Tie is Black Tie is Black Tie. Think I agree with a comment below that, perhaps, it should’ve been called something other than what it was. Having educated myself over the years, Black Tie IS the Great Equalizer; the point is that the men look relatively the same, so the women would stand out. Now, this was a gathering of male friends, and their takes on the tradition of Black Tie are not only interesting; they are quite good, IMHO. Yet I, for one, stand in the line of tradition: Black Tie, velvet jacket with tuxedo pants; white dinner jacket as worn above, or just a straight tuxedo, ( I own several; one, a DB, made on Hollywood Blvd. in 1938!) with a white shirt (ruffles if I feel adventurous, a la George Lazenby in “OHMSS”,) and a tie-it-yourself black bow tie. (Gotta be able to undo it at the end of the night and look like Sinatra!!) Just don’t think I’d ever deviate from those styles at something calling for Black Tie. But that’s just me. I’ll call upon Mr. Cary Grant to advise…thanks for these pictures, though; very entertaining!

Nico

Yes, after going through the comments it becomes apparent that all has been misled by the title, to the point that all opinions, for and against, seem equally fair.

Which is not aimed at putting a blame on you Simon, but to interestingly point out how easily debates get twisted today.

Ben Frankel

Good to see these stylish witty choices. But no Nehru jackets.
I’ve found my black version made in India works very well, also an Issey Miyake version bought decades ago in a Japan.

Brendel

Very well written

Lewis

Very interesting and nothing like I was expecting. This month’s ball is my first foray with a (very) midnight blue suit rather than the plain black one I had tailored in Chennai almost 20 years ago. I rather like it, and would have assumed myself quite rakish if I hadn’t just read that article!

Gavin

A lot of people seemed unhappy / dismissive about the choice of clothing in a supposed “black tie event”. Whether I like the chosen styles or not is beside the point. In the article, Tony set the stage saying “all bets are off” and up to the attendees to decide how to be playful with traditional black tie dress code, in an intimate setting amongst friends just having a good time. I see no harm in doing whatever the heck you want under this premise, because the whole point is to be free from rules. Would I wear the same things as these gentlemen? No. But if the attendees all decided to wear traditional James Bond-ish black tie attire for a fun “friends get together”, it is rather boring / restrictive / yawning, wouldn’t you say?
Why call it “black tie” you might ask? Simple – to set some premise on overall style, otherwise you could show up in your pajamas thinking it’s a PJ party.

Dolfone

Hi Simon,

interesting story.

I have a somewhat similar question: I am hosting a sort of high-tea piano afternoon at our tennisclub, a get-together for members.

Now, I am wondering what to wear: go fully casual with shirt and lambswool jumper? Put a hacking jacket over it? Wear a grey/navy blazer combo with or without tie? Or a dark suit with shirt and with/without tie, as I would wear to a concerthall?

I find arguments for all of the above, but what do you and your readers think?

Raff

Hi Simon,

I would appreciate Your thoughts about vents in Velvet dinner jacket. I’ve recently bought a bottle green Velvet dinner jacket made by Douglas Hayward. The jacket is single breasted, one button, has cuffs on sleeves- and a center vent!? Now, to be honest, I didn’t expect it and didn’t even notice untill after I bought it and went to my tailor for minor adjustements. I thought- not a big issue- easy fix, just close the vent and make it ventless- my tailor on that point said that its ok to have a center vent. That sparkle my interest, as I always thought, that ventless dinner jacket/ black tie is a must( or side vents are ok), never center vent. So we start a discussion about right or wrong in vents issue. She also have a bespoke studio, so I know she is not unexperienced tailor, but her opinion is center vent being ok for this jacket, my opinion is that is not. I know You are not a fan of ventless jackets but in this case what would You do? Is a center vent a mistake? Your opinion would be much appreciated.

Thanks
Raff

Raff

Thank You very much for clearing this for me( or for my tailor :)).

Best regards