Of all the reasons to want to be 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy (played brilliantly by Alec Baldwin), the most compelling comes in episode seven of season one. Put-upon comedy writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is further burdened with providing jokes for a speech that she assumes is being given by Donaghy that night; when she learns that the event is not for months yet, she exasperatedly asks him why he’s changing into a tuxedo in his office. “It’s after 6pm,” he replies. “What am I, a farmer?”
Alas, most of us mere mortals don’t get to dinner suit up with anywhere near that regularity. But even if you only wear black tie once in a blue moon, you still need to be a black belt in this fanciest of dress codes. Because chances are the occasion will be seriously special: a wedding, awards do, high-stakes poker game against a terrorist financier with a deranged tear duct. Whatever it is, you’ll want to ace it.
THE HISTORY OF BLACK TIE
Eveningwear scholars have traced the origins of black tie attire to when donning tails for dinner was de rigueur. “You were expected to wear such apparel to dine every evening,” explains Simon Cundey, managing director of Henry Poole, the storied Savile Row tailor that invented the dinner jacket. (Cundey is the great-grandson of Poole’s cousin and business partner, also called Simon.) You’d swap your tailcoat for a smoking jacket in order to have a puff in the drawing room, then revert out of respect for the ladies.
In 1865, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, desired a garment to suit the more relaxed environs of Sandringham House, which was “really a sort of getaway castle” in Norfolk, England. “He would often be dining by himself and wanted something a little bit more casual and easier to wear, so he didn’t have to spread his tails every time he sat down,” continues Cundey. “He and Poole came up with the idea of cutting the tails off and lowering the front, making it a ‘dining lounge jacket’.” And “casual” in the same way as a “getaway castle”.
The penguin suit was eventually picked up by Poole-buying members of New York’s Tuxedo Club. Hence the term is an Americanism, although Cundey uses it indiscriminately.
WHAT BLACK TIE MEANS TODAY
It’s ironic – not to mention a sign of society’s declining sartorial standards – that black tie event dress code was conceived as effectively loungewear, given how it’s come to be regarded as the last word in formality (well, two words). Unless you’re a member of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, your tailcoat will likely receive a less frequent airing than your dinner jacket. If you even own a tailcoat. “Nowadays black tie is synonymous with the best chance men have to really make an effort and look smart,” confirms Cundey, “which I think is fantastic.”
The strict definition of black tie has also relaxed over the years, with an infinite variety of styles and colours available. But while black tie doesn’t have to be black (and technically shouldn’t – see below), any urge to stand out should be tempered by a regard for uniformity. “Mutual respect and refinement are what makes a black tie event,” says Cundey. “It’s like at a golf club: when the members all wear their matching blazers, it looks very smart. But when they wear different colours, it looks like a caddyshack.”
In short: a black tie event is a party where you dress fancy – not a fancy dress party.
THE NEW RULES FOR BLACK TIE
COVER YOUR BASES
“The number one thing is that if you’re wearing a waistcoat, then it should cover your trousers’ band seam,” says Cundey. “There’s nothing worse than when the trousers are cut too low, and the waistcoat is cut too high, so you end up seeing the band seam or shirt.”
If your dinner suit doesn’t boast a third piece, you may now see the point of the seemingly superfluous cummerbund – other than holding your opera tickets, that is.
DON’T ALWAYS BET ON BLACK
A midnight blue dinner jacket might seem outré in this day and age, but it’s more historically accurate. Plus, it gets darker when the sun goes down.
“Midnight blue turns very black, while black can actually turn more of a dusty grey, especially mohair blends,” says Cundey. “Midnight blue will typically look darker and richer.” (Menswear fact: black black tie only became widespread after Queen Victoria went into mourning for Prince Albert after his death in 1861.)
MATCH YOUR METALS
Your black tie-appropriate timepiece isn’t the only hardware that will require synchronisation. The trick is to marry your studs, watch and cufflinks. Oh, and your wedding ring.
“Don’t mix gold and silver,” warns Cundey. “If you’re wearing black onyx studs edged with silver, then you want to wear a watch with a silver case; if you’re wearing mother of pearl studs edged with gold, then you want to wear a watch with a gold case.”
PLAY A TEAM GAME
Unless your invitation says ‘black tie creative’ – or ‘Ballon d’Or’ – then withhold the individual flair.
“What makes a dinner suit is the cut and fit,” says Cundey. “It comes down to the proportion, the balance and putting together of the complete outfit, getting the perfection in it. I don’t think a tux needs to be flamboyant. A mid-blue silk with a red facing will make you look like a band leader. You might as well go to dinner carrying a trumpet.”
CRUSH IT IN VELVET
The smoking jacket favourite is breaking out of the drawing room. As well as being “advantageous for less formal events, and more fun,” as with cocktail attire, Cundey also points to the spectrum of styles that can work in a more formal rig.
“For example, you can have almost a ‘dress blazer’: button-one fronted with a shawl lapel in a facing of velvet instead of silk,” he says. “Then it goes the other way where you can have all the regalia and the frogging, but in midnight blue so it’s very understated.”
GIVE HOLLYWOOD A PASS
To paraphrase Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in Casino Royale: there are jackets, and there are dinner jackets. Black tie is not the same as a black suit. Or a black tie. “There’s nothing worse than seeing chaps slouching around in an evening suit when everyone else is wearing black tie,” says Cundey. Apart from a visible trouser band seam, obviously.
A dinner suit jacket will feature contrast lapels, while the trousers have ribbon down the leg – both will usually be made from a lustrous material such as satin, grosgrain or faille.
BUTTON YOUR FLYWAY
Some like to show off their waistcoats, but as with any tailored jacket, you should fasten it up unless seated – and just the top button if there are two (which there should be).
This custom is also supposedly an invention of the Prince of Wales, albeit an unconscious one. Legend has it that he couldn’t do his waistcoat up all the way after overindulging; so as to flatter – or not offend – him, his companions undid theirs.
BREAK WITH TRADITION
It goes without saying that you’re not a character in Downton Abbey. Fashion has moved on since 1865 and we now live in a world where Ralph Lauren can pair a dinner jacket with jeans and Pharrell can (depending on your point of view) pull off shorts.
Arcane style rules are meant to be broken by trailblazing mavericks – but there’s a time and a place. Make sure that you’re going to that place at that time before you ‘disrupt’.
BLACK TIE: THE KEY PIECES
THE DINNER SUIT
Poole’s original dinner suit recipe was a three-piece, button-one front (two buttons with the bottom left undone) design with a peak lapel. “It gives you that elevation, that upright feel,” says Cundey.
The first incarnations were silk before Poole moved to wool barathea, with contrasting corded silk, which is more matte and looks blacker than shiny satin.
Jetted pockets (a narrow slit similar to an inside breast pocket), as opposed to a flap version, streamlined the silhouette further, as did the unvented back (although slits are now common). Poole goes as far as to not to put hip pockets on the trousers, but likes to add a compartment in the bottom right of the jacket for a cigar.
“At Poole, we recommend a Marcella pique-fronted shirt [a texture that resembles the dimples of a golf ball], fastened with studs,” says Cundey, who is “not a great fan” of (perfectly passable) pleated versions.
An on-point black tie shirt will also have a turndown collar rather ‘wings’, which are traditionally for tailcoats. “Often you’ll see people try and make it look like an Edwardian thing by wearing a wing-collar shirt with a dinner suit, which [in my opinion] doesn’t really work.”
Your shirt should also be double-cuffed and secured by cufflinks, not buttons. You could get away with an ordinary white shirt in a wardrobe crisis, but you’ll look distinctly less studly.
THE BOW TIE
Tying a proper bow tie is practically impossible when you’re following line-drawn illustrations, but surprisingly simple when watching a quaint video tutorial by a southern gentleman’s outfitter. You can then show off your newfound knowledge by wearing it untied at the end of the evening, shortly before reaching into your secret cigar pocket.
If you insist on pre-tied, then find one that’s not too perfect – the slight unevenness will fool others into thinking that you’ve tied it yourself – and one with an adjustable neck to ensure it sits securely in the collar. Whichever bow tie you opt for, ensure that it’s proportionate in size to your jacket lapels, shirt collar and head.
Your clodhopping office footwear might just about work, but it won’t look the absolute business. “Your shoes should have a finer line than a standard Oxford or lace-up,” says Cundey. “They should be more of a pump or a low-cut dress shoe: sleeker.” Not ‘sneaker’.
Some insist that wet-look patent leather is really for tails, but it’s not a black mark with black tie. Velvet slippers are another viable if impractical alternative, although traditionally they were reserved for ‘at home’ invitations, and according to etiquette guide Debrett’s, “more often found in the country”. Stow a pair at your getaway castle.
The Rolex Submariner that Sean Connery wears with his white dinner jacket in the opening sequence of Goldfinger is almost as out of place as the fake duck on his head. “For me, wearing a sports watch with black tie is a faux pas,” says Cundey. “You want the Jaeger-LeCoultres or Cartiers: those sort of things are much more elegant than a big old Omega.”
It’s not a question of brand name however but the DNA of the timepiece, which should consist of a matching black leather strap, slim profile and classically minimalist face.
THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF BLACK TIE ATTIRE FOR MEN
DO: ADD SOME COLOUR
Be it in your bow tie, pocket square or cummerbund. It’s even possible to opt for a burgundy or dark green dinner jacket without going all Eggsy in Kingsman 2.
DON’T: EXPAND YOUR PALETTE
When in doubt, always heed Debrett’s: “A matching tie and cummerbund in a non-conventional shade (pastels rather than burgundy and black) should be treated with caution.”
DO: BRACE YOURSELF
As well as taking the post-dinner pressure off your waist, if you’re wondering why or how to wear suspenders, they smooth your trousers, elongate your legs and help prevent that pesky shirt from poking out.
DON’T: BELT UP
“A tux should never have a belt,” says Cundey. “Even if it’s fashionable with some celebrity or whatever.” The trousers shouldn’t have loops, come to that.
DO: THROW ON A SHAWL
Like velvet, the shawl collar originated on smoking jackets, and is on the casual side when compared to a peak version. And also like velvet, it’s an acceptable way to stick your neck out sartorially.
DON’T: TAKE IT UP A NOTCH
Many (untraditional) dinner jackets have lapels like those on traditional suits. But if the occasion is a personal or professional high point, then rise to it.
DO: APPLY A TOP COAT
That’s to say, a tailored wool overcoat, in a dark colour. Anything more casual will kill your vibe when you make an entrance or exit.
DON’T: SOCK IT TO THEM
You can feel free to wear hosiery of any hue as long as it’s black. No novelty socks. Or bow ties. Or shirts. Or cufflinks. Or novelty anything. Ever.
DO: TIME IT RIGHT
Black tie is traditionally only supposed to be worn after 6pm. (The clue’s in the alternative name ‘eveningwear’.) White jackets are for warmer climes, not the day.
DON’T: WATCH THE CLOCK
Most agree that if the occasion starts before 6pm, then the fashion police won’t be called. For example, both George Clooney and Kanye West got married in the day wearing black tie.
DO: OPT IN
‘Black tie optional’ is misleading. Your hosts will be wearing it, and would probably like you to as well, but don’t want to force you. Take the hint.
DON’T: COP OUT
Why fudge a dress code when you can nail it? As Cundey says, “It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.” Owning your own dinner suit helps.
Once tailored, a dinner suit will fit like a glove (velvet or otherwise), look more expensive than whatever it cost, and pay for itself after a couple of wears.
Unless you’re never, ever going to wear it again, then hiring a DJ is a false economy. And if it’s a special occasion, you want to look – and feel – right.