Notes On A Meeting


I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently about ‘correct footwear.’ The occasion was my brother’s recent wedding, we had changed into black tie for the evening after the wedding breakfast and he had noticed I was wearing opera pumps with what is technically ‘informal evening wear’ – ‘formal evening wear’ being white tie and tails. He had expected patent Oxfords, which I do own, and asked me why I did not conform to the age old dress-codes; “Surely, opera pumps” he observed  “are only worn with white tie?”

In the grand surroundings – amongst the gilt, marble and giant crystal chandeliers – the encounter reminded me instantly of the character of Larry Lefferts in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence;

“As a young admirer had once said of him: ‘If anybody can tell a fellow just when to wear a black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it’s Larry Lefferts.’ And on the question of pumps versus patent-leather “Oxfords” his authority had never been disputed.”

The connection was not an irrelevance; the particular antiquity and social position of this character was crucial to my riposte. A great deal has changed since the Gilded Age – some for the good, some for the worse – and the ‘dos and don’ts’ of Larry Lefferts and his ilk are but the echo of the last waltz: billionaires now wear trainers and jeans and care little for the costume-perfections of a society aping the grandeur and propriety of royalty and aristocracy. The tightrope of ‘high society’ was dismantled long ago.

Consider also PG Wodehouse’s eponymous hero, Bertie Wooster, a character who inhabits a world of relative fantasy – without the nettles of pain, hatred or betrayal – and yet one drawn from characters that the author had known as boulevardiers of the metropolis; the laissez-faire, silver-spooned ‘bright young things.’ Bertie’s social existence lacks credibility in the modern world; gentlemen’s club by day, parties by night, enormous country houses for the weekend.

And yet this was the life of many a wealthy lounge-lizard of the era. A never-ending carousel of fumbling drunkenly out of tailored tails into tailored tweed for visits to country cousins; social distinction required adherence to such dress codes. To act otherwise was to occasion shock amongst hosts. By contrast, wearing tweed and brogues to a friend’s country house today is considered ‘cute.’

The ‘correctness’ of dress is not based on an Act of Parliament but on the codes and fashions dictated by a social class. I personally follow most of these rules because I agree with them aesthetically – tweed in the countryside makes sense, it isn’t ‘just’ a rule – but some rules I defy because I don’t see the sense in being guided by them. I picked the pumps on a whim, which is how I like to choose things. Avoiding them because my tie was black and because my jacket hem did not descend lower than my thigh seems ludicrous. I am no parvenu seeking approval of superiors; doors will not be closed to me because of incorrect dress. I vow to always maintain standards but those of my own, not those of others.


  1. Hilton said:

    Apropos of tweed, I’m having a very difficult time locating a tweed sport coat of distinction in the Washington, D.C. area. Do you happen to have any advice on this matter? Thank you.

    November 3, 2010
  2. “I vow to always maintain standards but those of my own, not those of others.” I rule to live by which extends way beyond an interpretation of style and fashion in an age when our lawmakers should be changed regularly, much like nappies (dypers to the cousins) and much for the same reason.

    November 3, 2010
  3. E said:

    Sir, I like your attitude.

    November 4, 2010
  4. Roger said:

    In any case, pumps are as correct with black tie as Oxfords. They’re rare birds, but not incorrect.

    November 4, 2010
  5. Harry said:

    Good for you!

    The purpose of the “rules” today, it seems to me, is to provide a talking point or two for us gentlemen (and our ladies) when we dress up in our finery.
    (velvet vs silk black tie; shawl vs peak lapels etc etc).

    I recently wore white tie for a smart function in London with brand new, extremely patent (=shiny) Oxfords, which was generally a smarter option than most of the other male guests who sported “normal” (i.e. less shiny) oxfords (some of them with brogueing, even) with tailcoats.

    So much for rules.

    November 4, 2010

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