Black tie etiquette

Black tie etiquette

Q. My girlfriend gave me a very nice light blue pinpoint Oxford shirt. She wants me to wear it with my tuxedo to our first post-vaccine black-tie affair. I have never seen a blue shirt worn for black tie. What do you think? 

A. You are right; this is definitely not the right shirt to wear for a black-tie event. Still, a blue pinpoint Oxford cloth shirt is a great addition to a well-dressed man’s wardrobe. My advice: be sure to wear it for some other special event you are going to, so she knows you appreciate her thoughtful gift.  

In general, what-to-wear information for men comes under two major categories:

  1. helpful advice and flexible guidelines about everything a man wears in a variety of situations, and
  2. often called “formal dress code,” quite strict rules for both types of formalwear, black-tie and white-tie dressing.

In the first of these categories, choices range all over the map, depending on how casual or dressy the occasion is, the time of year, and the taste and budget of the wearer. Clothes may be casual, businesslike, or on the elegant/dressy side. The final choices are up to the preference of the man wearing the garments (or, perhaps his significant other). Before deciding, he takes into account how he likes to look; what image he wants to project to the world, how much clothes matter to him, and how much he is willing to spend. Some choices are better than others, but they are not usually “right” or “wrong.” They are all the wearer’s choice.

But the second category, formalwear, really is prescribed by a rather firm set of “rules.” These rules are not up for discussion, nor are they very flexible. 

There are specific correct cuts and colors for formalwear suits. And,  there is only one correct color for formalwear shirts . . . white. A blue shirt, no matter how fine the fabric, simply does not qualify. It’s primarily wrong because of the color, and also because the fabric and details on an Oxford cloth shirt are not correct for formal dressing.

It sounds as though you have the right suit. Suits are fashioned of wool. Black jacket and trousers are for white tie; the same is usually true for black tie (the tuxedo that you have), although some might wear dark midnight blue or a seasonal white dinner jacket. The suits are in one of three different collar and lapel styles: shawl, peaked, or notched. Lapels are either satin, a silk-like, smooth, glossy fabric, or grosgrain, a heavier, ribbed fabric. Along with the three types of collars, there are two types of closings – single-breasted and double-breasted. Incidentally, double-breasted jackets are kept buttoned at all times.

Naturally, the trousers of the evening suit match the fabric of the jacket (except when wearing a white dinner jacket). A ribbon runs down the outside of the trouser leg; it matches the lapel fabric. Another note on trousers: This is the one time when cuffs are never worn. Wearing cuffs on trousers originated in England; they were called “turn-ups” because men turned up the bottom of their trousers to protect them from soiling as they walked around their country estates. Thus, men wore cuffs on their tweedy suits or country flannels, but not on formal evening wear.      

Dress shirts for black-tie have French cuffs, take cuff links and studs, are white with pleats and a turned-down point collar. Wing collars are so flattering that they are often worn, but are not as traditionally correct.  

Optional black-tie items include cummerbunds and waistcoats (vests), but not both together. Belts are not appropriate with formal clothes. Not optional – but required – black-tie items include a bow tie, shiny black shoes, and classic black socks. 

While black-and-white is the correct and the most elegant look, small touches, including colored bow ties, cummerbunds, and boutonnieres have become acceptable in limited circumstances; but to be sure, count on black and white to be right.   
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