‘Black Tie’ Attire Dilemmas Solved

As December and the shiny new year approaches, some men will be looking to dust off their old tuxedo. And so, whether your tux is old, whether you plan to ‘get by’ with what you have or are considering splashing out, this advice is for you.

The times, they certainly are a changin’. And the rules of evening dress are certainly losing rigidity. Some friends of mine were invited to a smart dinner event on New Year’s Eve last year in central London. The dress stipulation for men was ‘Hollywood Black Tie’. When one of my friends telephoned to confirm what this was, the organiser snapped; ‘No bow, just a tie.’

And so in a grand Victorian ballroom, my friends arrived to the sound of Viennese waltzes played by a string quintet, in outfits that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a wet Wednesday in a crematorium. They told me afterwards that the stipulation for gentlemen didn’t quite fit the grandeur of the evening. Here they were, dressing like modern Hollywood stars, when the splendid evening itself made them feel like noble scions of grand English families.

Not to beat about the bush, I believe the suggestion for Hollywood black tie by the organiser was completely inappropriate. However, my point is not that one style of evening dress should always be worn. Those starched days of extreme formality are, sadly for me, certainly over. My point is that there should be different approaches for different functions. If it says ‘Black Tie’, or ‘Tuxedo’, and the event have a particular theme or style, then these modern years give you room to experiment.

Always remember the rule that men wear black to form the background, the canvas against which the women, in all their finery, dazzle. Liberace-style glamour is not respected unless you happen to be a significant VIP, and even then it is ridiculed or frowned upon. Here are some hopefully useful suggestions for ‘black tie’ event which should keep you looking demure, but also noticeable.

What shoes to wear?

Patent evening shoes (pictured) have long been associated with evening dress for gentlemen. They will distinguish one as a person who has truly arrived into the world of black tie; for to spend a decent amount of money on a shoe only used for formal occasions is a sign of taste and distinction. If spending almost £200 ($400) on shoes one will use very few times a year seems too much, wear black Oxford shoes if you can. Slip-ons and loafers are just not done, and certainly no other colour should be worn. A well polished decent pair of non-square toe lace ups are an acceptable alternative to splashing out on patent shoes.

Cummerbund or waistcoat?

The important thing to remember at evening functions is how comfortable one will be. Adopted by British military officers in India, who borrowed the word from the Hindi word kamarband, the cummerbund (pictured) was worn in warmer temperatures when the waistcoat was an extra layer, likely to make the gentlemen perspire even more in the non air-conditioned dining and ball rooms of colonial India. Therefore, my policy has always been to wear a waistcoat in winter and a cummerbund in summer. The reason? I think waistcoats are still smarter, and though the cummerbund is now more popular I would rather have the extra degree of elegance, individuality and warmth that a waistcoat affords.

Does ‘black tie’ always mean black?

Try as I might, I just cannot contemplate wearing a coloured bow tie for evening dress. Normally, I am open to experiment and to play with colours and styles in an outfit. However, this is something I could not advise. If you wish to brighten up the monochromatic appearance of your attire, you should experiment with brightly coloured pocket squares instead; reds, white and gold are classic, however you could try purple, green and even pink for that touch of eccentricity.

In terms of one’s collar, although many still wear the turn-up winged collar of yesteryear with tuxedos, the turn down collar is now de rigeur. The Marcella (dimpled fabric) material (pictured) is normally favoured over the pleated shirt, however the latter looks well in a ‘casual’ black tie outfit of a velvet jacket, and floppy bow tie for the ‘dishevelled fop’ look.

Lastly, if you are wearing a bow tie, always make an attempt to tie it yourself. It is an art that gives every man who wears one a visible mark of personality; as each one is unique. My rule of black tie is that the subtle, smaller touches will make the greatest impression.