Black Tie Guide
-by Jovan Gauthier
Many menswear traditions have been left by the wayside with the advent of modern fashion. Yet standing tall, immune from the moral erosion of fast fashion and jogger pants is Black Tie. The enigmatic dress code that brings with two simple words an incredibly strict, yet elegantly timeless image. The ensemble is often referred to as a tuxedo in North America, though Europeans refer to the same as a dinner jacket (or less often dinner suit). Call it what you like, but refrain from saying “tux” or worse yet “monkey suit” — such terms are unbecoming of someone who has taken time to assemble a perfect evening kit.
Henry Poole reportedly made the first dinner jacket in Savile Row for Edward VII. Later, it received its American debut at the Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, New York. Originally it was a bit of a rebellious move by its wearers, an alternative to white tie attire which later all but replaced it as the icon of formal wear. Since then, there has been some natural evolution but also confusion about what is and isn’t acceptable.
First, let’s get something out of the way. You do not need to match your date. In fact, I’ll be firm here: Don’t. Leave the bubblegum colored ties, vests, cummerbunds, and pocket squares out of the equation entirely. Instead, stick to the classic color combination of black and white. It is time-tested for a reason and will look far better looking back at photos.
Black or midnight blue dinner suit, white shirt, black tie, black shoes. Blue tuxedos may seem like a passing trend, but what many of these designers and fashion writers refer to as “midnight blue” is actually royal blue or navy. True midnight blue will look darker and richer than black under artificial lighting. After all, this fashion originated in the 1920s when candlelight became all but obsolete.
In comparison, black wool can take on an undesirable hue of green or brown under indoor lighting. You can wear everything you would with a black tuxedo since it’s intended to pass as such. Barring some exceptions, the facings are usually black since silk does not reflect light the same way. It also reduces legwork on the buyer’s part since midnight blue silk ties and cummerbunds are difficult to come by.
Let’s talk details. This is where it gets a little more particular. The dinner jacket in its most classic form has a single covered button and shawl collar or peak lapels, peak being the more formal of the two. Many makers are now peddling tuxedo jackets with notch lapels, but these fail to ascend beyond a regular old black suit in terms of formality. Purists may claim that only non-vented jackets are proper, but many clothing aficionados and tailors have been more lenient about double vents in the last half century. Know your audience to make this judgment call.
Single vents are to be avoided, they look too sporty. Pockets should be sans flaps since they’ll distract from a dinner jacket’s clean lines. These are an even easier fix than the single vent: Tuck them in and look perfectly in code. Furthermore, don’t get a dinner jacket with hacking (slanted) pockets or a ticket pocket. Those details are far too informal for black tie’s elegance. Black horn buttons are just as acceptable as silk covered buttons, so let your own tastes guide that decision.
The trousers are not as complicated. Flat front or pleated? Let’s not get into any huge debate here. Either choice is perfectly valid. I prefer flat front and suspect most of the younger crowd does as well, but pleats remain in good taste regardless of current fashion. If going for the latter, forward-facing pleats are best since they hang better than the common reverse pleat. But never, under any circumstances, have a belt holding up your dinner trousers. It looks amateur at best. Use button-on braces (white or black with corded ends) or get trousers made with side tabs. (Strap and buckle or “Daks top” button type are the best.) Belt loops can be removed, though usually when a tuxedo has dropped to that level there’s not much else going for it. It should go without saying, but no cuffs on the bottom ever. Like the single vent they are too relaxed in appearance.
The lapels, pocket jettings, buttons, and trouser stripe are usually faced in silk satin, but can also be faille or barathea. Faille (a fabric with pronounced ribs) is often considered the most formal and barathea (similar to hopsack with a more pebbled appearance) less so, about the same level as satin.
All your silk accouterments should match. For example, satin facings demand a satin bow tie and cummerbund.
Cummerbunds or waistcoats (vests) are considered de rigueur by black tie purists. Their purpose is to cover the waist and keep the shirt from blousing out. This is why all men wore three piece suits once upon a time. Generally speaking, cummerbunds go best with shawl collars and waistcoats with peak lapels since they compliment each others’ shapes and formality levels. Cummerbunds don’t vary much in style, but ones that are curved to follow the body and include a button loop to secure it in place are generally of higher quality. The aforementioned better examples may include a slot for tickets. This is why they are to be worn with the pleats facing upwards, echoing a time when dress trousers didn’t have pockets and theatre patrons would stow them there.
The only other guideline is to have them match the facings of your tuxedo and bow tie. Waistcoats will have some more restrictions but also variety. For example, suit-style waistcoats with five or six buttons should be skipped. They smack of manufacturers who can’t be bothered developing a different pattern. Proper evening waistcoats will fasten quite low and have only three or four closely spaced buttons. Some may even lack the points at the bottom. They will have shawl lapels in a round or angled shape. The opening will differ as well, from the common “V” to the more exotic “U” or shield shape. All of these variations are equally correct though. Backless waistcoats that fasten like cummerbunds are ideal for warm weather, but it helps to have a shirt with a loop under the back collar to secure the neck strap. If possible, purchase a waistcoat as part of a three piece dinner suit. Failing that, try to get as close a match as possible on the facings and body fabric.
The black tie as the dress code is named after is a bow tie. “Tuxedo neckties” are a sartorial oxymoron. Just because it’s black and satin doesn’t mean it’s appropriate — they’re no different from a necktie you’d wear with a business suit. The black bow tie is a big part of what gives the dinner suit it’s unmistakable appearance. Wearing a necktie is the easiest way to demote it to a glorified black suit. While we’re on the subject of neckwear, only use a traditional self-tie bow. No prefab ones that clip in front. They may be easier to use and more uniform in appearance, but these questionable advantages are mitigated by practice and how much more refined a self-tie looks in comparison. How many grown men do you see wearing clip-on neckties after all? Same thing. Tying a bow tie is not that hard. Many just assume it is an insurmountable obstacle before being shown. With practice, you can tie a bow as easily as a four in hand knot.
So how about the shirt? White. Unless it’s your band uniform, stay far away from black shirts like you see on the red carpet. With everything else being black, you’ll look like a floating head. Don’t even think about reversing the traditional color scheme unless you’re a Broadway extra. With that out of the way, stick to semi-spread and spread collars. They frame a bow tie perfectly and look fresher than a wing collar. (But if you must wear a wing collar, ensure it has a high stand with wide swept wings.)
The front of a formal shirt will either have pleats or a gracefully textured marcella (piqué) bib, collar, and cuffs. The marcella shirt is slightly more formal, but not as prevalent as pleated evening shirts. It’s common for either type to have a removable button strip for studs to be worn instead. Generally, studs lend a more formal appearance but using the buttons is just as correct. Some shirts will have a covered placket instead. This is a newer style, but one that’s been embraced along with double vents as a tasteful update to black tie. Buttons or a covered placket are best if going sans waist covering. It looks haphazard to have four studs and then a solitary, out of place button below them.
In Summary, the ultimate black tie ensemble consists of:
- Jacket – Single button, peak lapel or shawl collar, no extraneous pockets, satin facings
- Pants – Pleated or flat front, no belt,
- Shirt – Pleated or marcella bib front. Spread collar preferable to wingtip.
- Tie – self tie bow tie in black
- Cummerbund – black, pleats pointing upwards
- Studs – Optional, but go with solid black (onyx) set in silver if you do wear them.
- Shoes – Plain toe oxfords are ideal, in patent or polished calf leather.
Keep to these guidelines and you’ll look head and shoulders above the rest of the men at your semi-formal gatherings.