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Dress codes: Black tie (Tuxedo basics)

April 16, 2014
Reagans with Rock Hudson

Reagans with Rock Hudson

In a bygone era of formal evening dinners for the wealthy, the dinner jacket appeared on the scene. In fact, since the 1890s the dinner jacket has remained the de facto formal standard. And, thanks to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a writer in 1800s Britain, black became the color of choice for the formal occasion. He wore black so often it caught on to solidify a look of refinement and distinction. Over the years, the combo of dinner jacket and slacks came to be known as the Tuxedo, a name connected to the upper class of Tuxedo Park in New York around the turn of the twentieth century. Some say one of the wealthy residents returned from a visit with Edward VII in Britain with a copy of his dinner jacket. Regardless of how the look migrated throughout the western world, it is here to stay.

1890s Vanity Fair cover featuring Edward Bulwer Lytton

Vanity Fair cover featuring Edward Bulwer Lytton

Edward VII

An official portrait of Edward VII of England dressed in a formal manner.

For a black tie event, you should wear only a Tuxedo. Leave your classic black suit at home. Black tie optional implies you can choose either a Tux or a dark suit, but I suggest you opt for the Tux every time. It demonstrates elegance. When you find yourself ready to don a Tux, here are several points to keep in mind:

1. The Tux must be perfectly tailored to you. Otherwise, you may find yourself taking a drink order. For more on the proper fit of any suit including the Tuxedo, read Suits 101: Elements of a properly fitting suit. I recommend having a tailor make one to perfectly fit you. For a reasonably priced one, check out

2. Black is the standard color. You will discover an assortment of colors, many of which will throw your look out of place. Stick with classic black and you can’t go wrong. If it was good enough for the rat pack to look outstanding, it is good enough for you. At some point after you have mastered the Tux, you can check out a dark blue version. This is not a time to get cute – so no camouflage, bright pink, or yellow.

3. You have three main options for the collar and lapels. While some purists say peak lapels sit at the top of the list traditionally (especially for dinner clothes), I prefer the trimmer look of shawl and even notched. While some frown upon the notched putting its place with the standard suit, you can make it your own as well. Really, choose one you like best.

4. Choose wool for the fabric. Some cheaper Tuxedos will use other fabrics, but worsted wool works so well. For summer events, you may look into lighter weaves, but with most black tie events being held in climate controlled indoor venues, a medium weight should do just fine. As it can look cheap, steer away from Polyester.

5. Single versus double-breasted. I recommend starting with a single-breasted Tuxedo with one button (or two) for a more modern look. Double-breasted can also present you in a good light and remove the need for a cummerbund. A traditionalist would tell you to leave the single-breasted unbuttoned to display the cummerbund, but it has become more acceptable in recent years to button it.

6. Wear a black bow tie. The event after all is named for the “black tie.” While a pre-tied clip version may be tempting, take the time to learn to tie your own. It presents a much better statement about your understanding of formality. And, match the tie to the lapel – grosgrain or satin silk.

7. Wear a formal white shirt. This means one with a bib front or pleats and French cuffs. Both the wing collar and turndown collars are appropriate. Make it one of high quality pique cotton.

8. Don’t leave out the cummerbund. It provides a clean transition from the shirt to the pants. The pleats should be turned upward.

9. Wear a pocket square. White linen or cotton is safe and standard, but other patterns and colors can work too.

10. Black patent leather shoes match best with a Tuxedo. If needed, you can also wear a standard black oxford. Lace-ups or slip-on forms both work.

Makers of Tuxedos have taken liberties over the years, so look closely at the details I describe above. As a Tuxedo should present you in the best possible way, focus on the details. This would be the part of your wardrobe collection to splurge on and get right.

Once you obtain that excellent Tuxedo, I would love to hear about it. Please drop a comment after your purchase.

© Copyright 2014 Fashion for the average man.

Photo of Matt Damon taken by Nicolas Genin

Photo of Matt Damon taken by Nicolas Genin

Photo of Tom Ford taken by Nicolas Genin

Photo of Tom Ford taken by Nicolas Genin

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2014 12:04 pm

    Thanks for all the good info. I’m not sure people appreciate this form of dress but I certainly do. Wish we could get back to an era when people wore beautiful clothes. I know it makes a person feel well and maybe that’s what we need nowadays!!!

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