The Essential Black Tie Guide
Posted: Dec 02 2014
This blog often mentions tuxedos, both because they are prevalent in the celebrity-laden higher chambers of society from which we draw inspiration, and because they are arguably the piece of clothing that is most synonymous with elegance. Tuxedos are universally flattering, capable of making a suave gentleman out of everyone from pimply prom-goers to dusty old diplomats… and of course James Bond, perhaps the most prominent tuxedo-wearer of all time. The tuxedo’s cinematic connotations of style and charm are to no small extent responsible for making the collective female species swoon over any man wearing this timeless piece of formalwear. It is also a garment worn at few, but special occasions and so deserves to be of the highest quality and perfect fit. But how to navigate that sometimes-elusive dress code ‘black tie’? Unlike less formal dress codes, black tie is quite strict, making it relatively easy to master. Follow our guide below to get ready for your next cocktail party, gala opening, opera visit or high-speed super-villain pursuit…
The Dress Code
Black tie is for eveningwear, appropriate at dinner events. It is not technically a formal dress code, which denotes white tie, i.e. tails or national dress. Black tie is semi-formal, but it is rare for events for be more formal today (think royal weddings). Black tie means tuxedo, dress shirt and – this is where confusion arises – bow tie, not a ‘normal’ black tie.
The tuxedo (or dinner suit) is distinguished by silk-faced lapels and minimal detailing. The outfit should look ‘clean’. Following the dress code is a sign of respect towards your fellow guests, as it has been put in place to ensure attendees are on the same level. Consequently, exceptional fit and quality are the main ways to stand out.
There are still personal choices to make, so let’s figure out the various components…
Let’s start with a very essential decision for your tuxedo. Tuxedos should be of dark fabric, usually black. In recent years, midnight blue has also become hugely popular. The complete opposite, namely cream or off-white, is equally classic and appropriate for summer or warmer climates, but it is a more difficult look and you will stand out.
Most plain (no pattern), non-shiny wool qualities are suitable for tuxedos, but often people go for finer fabrics (e.g. Super 140s), as they are lightweight (which is suitable as you’ll be indoors and the jacket should not be taken off), have a lovely sheen and the luxury of them appears apt for garments used in glamorous situations. A popular choice is wool/mohair, as it has a lovely luster, even under artificial light, and is naturally crease-resistant.
The first thing to decide is single or double-breasted and number of buttons. A safe and elegant option is one-button single breast. Two buttons are fine, worn with the lower button undone. Double-breasted styles of any button configuration are appropriate, but keep in mind that double-breasted jackets add some ‘bulk’ to the body. The buttons should be fabric-covered.
Hand in hand with the button style goes the lapel. The classic, formal option is peak lapel. Shawl lapel is somewhat less formal, but perfectly suitable. Shawl has become very popular, especially in slim versions. Notch lapels are frequently seen on off-the-rack tuxedos, but this is a more casual style, which should be reserved for suits.
The jacket was traditionally without vents, to keep seams (i.e. details) to a minimum, but double vents are also acceptable, providing comfort and movement. The pockets should be straight piped (slit without flap) and there should be a breast pocket.
The trousers are ideally made without pleats or cuffs, with straight pockets following the side seam, in order to make them less visible. Tuxedos should never be worn with belts, so skip the belt loops. Traditionally one would use suspenders (braces) but side-fasteners are also a cool and convenient option for some flexibility in the waist. The front closure should be clip-only, avoiding the button. Classically, the trousers will have a satin silk stripe covering the outer side seam on each leg, matching the lapel facing. This is a lovely detail, but nowadays sometimes considered old-fashioned.
The Waist Covering
The shirt should not be visible at the waist, which calls for a something covering the gap between trousers and jacket, unless you opted for a double-breasted jacket. Traditionally, this is non-negotiable, but these days you often see people wearing no waist covering.
You either use a cummerbund matching the bow tie (a cummerbund folds upwards, for convenient opera ticket storage) or a waistcoat. For the waistcoat, there are a few style options. Often, tuxedo waistcoats will have a rounded (horseshoe) cut with shawl lapels but a regular cut waistcoat is also acceptable. The key is to go simple and match the jacket fabric, facing and buttons. The back can be wool or lining, where we’d recommend the latter, to make the ensemble cooler.
The shirt should be plain white cotton, with a few distinct features. It should have a ‘bib’ running down to front, which provides stiffness (i.e. a higher level of formality). This is made either with vertical pleats in matching fabric or by attaching a textured pique fabric, normally of a kind called Marcella. The collar can be a normal kent variety or a wing collar, which has little points turned down where the collar wings would be, but otherwise exposing the collar band. The cuffs should be double (French cuff), to accommodate cufflinks. Many people also forego the buttons on evening shirts, instead leaving holes where you can attach studs (often matched with the cufflinks).
Crucial accessory: bow tie. Plain black silk, ideally self-tied, as pre-tied ones tend to look artificial (it’s really not that hard, YouTube will teach you in minutes). With the bow tie, you could play around a little and add some subtle color, texture or pattern, but remember to pay due respect to the dress code. Pick up yours from our pure Italian silk accessories collection!
Cufflinks and studs should be simple and classic, luxury metals and mother-of-pearl or onyx insets are nice touches. The shoes should be black patent leather. The style is personal preference, with pumps, wholecuts and oxfords all acceptable. If you can’t bring yourself to buy a pair of patent shoes, make sure you spit polish your most formal black pair flawlessly. Suspenders, a slim watch and boutonniere are other possible accessories. Finish it off with a white silk pocket square. You can fold it any way you like, but we’re fans of the straight presidential fold.
That’s it, you’re ready to take your next black tie event by storm! If you have any questions or would like to order yourself a new tux, please drop us a line.
For further inspiration, see our coverage of the Cannes Festival, the Oscars and the TV show Suits, as well as the recent Bonds films Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale.