Few occasions call for formal wear, which only makes the experience of dressing up more special. Black tie has a number of rules and codes that one must know, but that is only part of the fun. As with everything, it gets more interesting the more you learn about it.
The dinner jacket, or tuxedo, was created upon a request from the Prince of Wales in 1865 by his tailor Henry Poole on Savile Row. The future king wanted an informal jacket to wear for private dinners, opposed to the usual trails and white tie of the formal banquets of the period. The tailor created a shorter dinner jacket without the trails in a midnight blue and the sartorial world never looked back. Black Tie was born.
For a prince two centuries ago, black tie was a way of dressing down. Today it is a way of dressing up and marking special occasions. Most people wear their tuxedos at weddings and new years parties, but once you discover the pleasure of dressing up you will surely look for more occasions. Hosting formal dinner parties among your friends or going to cocktail bars or cigar clubs.
Let's go through each of the elements that make up a formal black tie outfit. Traditional formal wear is meant to make all the men look the same by imposing strict codes, but you still have subtle options to make your personal style stand out.
The tuxedo jacket is the essence of black tie.
The most traditional colour is black and is what is definitely recommend for a first versatile tuxedo. The other two classic colours are midnight blue and ivory. Midnight blue can be used like the black tuxedo and looks amazing as a velvet smoking jacket which would be the perfect look for a cocktail bar. The ivory dinner jacket gives a mediterranean feel perfect for a summer evening wedding and should be work with black tuxedo trousers. Both these should either be bought for a specific occasion or as a second tuxedo to give variety.
But it takes more than choosing your colour to find the perfect tuxedo. The style of the jacket is also important. The safest choice is a single breasted, 1 button, peak lapel tuxedo in fine black wool. This is the perfect dinner jacket for any black tie event and a safe start for a first tuxedo. If you want to play with the details you have some options, which is nice if you want to have multiple tuxedos or really love a specific style.
The lapel should be in satin in the same colour as the suit and either peak or shawl. A notch lapel is not formal enough for a nice tuxedo. The peak lapel is more formal and gives a powerful look, while the smooth shawl lapel is relaxed, rare and festive.
As always with tailoring you have the choice between single and double breasted. It is really a matter of preference, but there are a few things to be said.
A single breasted jacket is more common, is flattering and more forgiving if the fit is not perfect. Because the double breasted jacket is rarer, if it is cut poorly and doesn’t fit it can look much worse. Especially because they were popular decades ago, the cut has to be modern and not too wide.
Because the double breasted jacket has a lot of fabric in the front it can look untidy when worn open, whereas a single breasted always looks clean.
With both jackets you can choose how many buttons you want. For single breasted the best option is a single button because it is more formal. For double breasted the standard is six with either two or four being buttoned.
The trousers also have some specific rules. If your tuxedo is black or white, your trousers should be black. Only if your tuxedo is of a midnight blue fine wool fabric should the trousers be in the same fabric. If you choose a velvet smoking jacket, the best trousers are still black wool.
In any case, all formal trousers have a stripe of satin along the leg in the same fabric as the lapel. Trousers with cuff looks more traditional whereas a those without look more clean and modern.
The next important part is the shirt and the bow tie. Don’t be fooled by the name “Black tie” and think a back tie is sufficient. A black bow tie is required and is far more elegant. It should match the fabric of your lapel and should not be pre-tied. Take the time to learn how to tie a bow tie. It is easy and satisfying and allows you to untie it towards the end of the evening for a relaxed look.
The shirt should have French cuffs and you can indulge with a nice pair of silver cufflinks. You might want to wear your most expensive watch, but try to avoid a watch at all. The most elegant option is a nice pair of cufflinks and no watch, to show that you don’t have to worry about time and you are there to enjoy yourself. Unless of course you are organising an event or acting as a toast master you should not need a watch.
For the collar of the of your white cotton shirt, you can choose between a wing tip or normal collar. Personally I find a normal collar more elegant with black tie because it hides the black bow tie strap around your neck and always looks clean. With white tie, the more formal version with trails and a white bow tie, the wingtip is perfect because the strap is also white and doesn’t contrast with the shirt.
The front of the shirt could be textured or plain depending on your preference. You also have the choice between hidden buttons or studs to close the shirt.
Lastly, you will need a pair of high rise black socks and a pair of very formal black shoes. Once again you have options to show your style. You can successfully wear a well-polished black Oxford shoe with black tie but if you want to go all the way formal, you need patent leather. The glossy finish makes this kind of leather appropriate only at special occasions, but here they truly shine. Still the Oxford cap toe is a great option also in patent leather, but if you want to have more fun you could try a patent loafer perhaps even with the traditional satin bow on top.
Black tie is a uniform of formal wear but as we have seen above, there are options for you to express your style. Once you have discovered the pleasure of dressing up you will surely find or create more occasions where formal wear is encouraged, perhaps even host such a party yourself.
One comment: cuffs should NEVER be worn on your tuxedo trousers because cuffs are more informal. It originated because King Edward walked his grounds in the mornings and didn’t want to get his pants leg wet from the morning dew.