Wristwatch rules for black-tie attire

Wristwatch rules for black-tie attire

Q. I have always heard that a gentleman wearing black-tie attire never wears a wristwatch. Yet I have seen models in men’s magazines dressed in formal wear and sporting wristwatches. What is correct? Is an antique pocket watch with a chain a bit too much?

A. It has never been considered proper for a man who is dressed in black-tie formal wear to wear a wristwatch because it was considered too businesslike. Apparently, a man who is dressed for a formal/social event should not be paying attention to time or schedules.

On the other hand, there are a few reasons why you might see men these days wearing a wristwatch. One is that some of the old rules of etiquette may seem out-of-keeping with today’s faster–paced lifestyle, which has led to the relaxation of the rules. For example, if a businessman is dressed for a formal night out, he still might have to get up early the next morning for work, and, thus, might want to keep an eye on the time. 

Another reason you see men in magazines sporting wristwatches with formal wear is that many young photographers and photo stylists who choose the clothes the models wear are totally unaware of the “old school” rules of clothing propriety. They have no idea that the combination of a casual watch (or, in fact, any watch) and black-tie attire is, or ever was, considered “wrong.”

A more likely reason is that magazines are not above compromising their principles for the added revenue from watch manufacturers’ ads. In the past, reputable publications prohibited any overlapping between the interests of the editorial and the advertising departments. In recent years, this clear-cut separation has disappeared, or at least has been blurred.

Perhaps another reason is ego. Men who are collectors of luxury watches (translation: really expensive watches) don’t want to pass up an opportunity to wear them.

As to your question about whether an antique pocket watch with a chain would be too much, it depends on the man who is wearing it. Some men have the savoir faire to pull off styles that the average guy would feel uncomfortable attempting. Such possible fashions include everything from the most ordinary style (wearing a silk handkerchief in one’s breast pocket), to a more dapper style (a monogrammed shirt or patterned silk braces/suspenders), to an offbeat sophisticated style (such as black-and-white spectator wingtip shoes à la Fred Astaire). These require varying degrees of self-confidence. While one man can do so and look – and feel – cool and sophisticated, another man might do so and look – and feel – silly. 

I do rather like the dash of a pocket watch and chain with elegant black-tie attire (even though I still somewhat question its correctness). It seems distinctive, but not too dandyish. 

Of course, today, many men are wearing smart watches, and they find that extension of the inseparable cell phone hard to go without. The problem there can be that not only is it a watch that generally is inappropriate with black tie, but it’s an even less formal one. Just as women have special evening handbags, some men own “dress watches” that they wear in the evening. Smaller (and less showy) than sport watches, these usually have tasteful black leather straps rather than chunky metal ones. But even these are not considered “correct” formal wear by strict traditionalists.

Please send your men’s dress and grooming questions and comments to MALE CALL: Lois.Fenton@prodigy.net

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