Fred Astaire would not have approved. He, as his old classic tune had it, was “puttin’ on my top hat, tyin’ up my white tie, brushin’ off my tails.” He would have taken a look at standards of dinner dress at red carpet bashes now – black shirts, standard black suits, no tie at all, cowboy boots, even sequins – and shuddered in his patent pumps. Today black tie or dinner dress – only Americans call them tuxedos, and they’re wrong – has increasingly become subject to fashion, with designers giving the ensemble a makeover and wannabes wearing the jackets on X Factor with their sleeves rolled.
But for any discerning gentleman a black-tie event should be as sartorially simple as donning one’s pyjamas. There is, as is intended, little purpose or place for creativity.
The suit should be vent-free and in black wool or, better still, midnight blue with satin facing on the lapels and with braid stripes down the trouser seams. Said trousers should be suspended on braces – plain silk ones – not cinched with a belt. The shoes should be plain too, black and highly polished; the shirt a crisp white marcella, with a turn-down not wing collar. Cuff-links should be worn. The tie should be black – when the invitation reads “black tie” that is not a phrase open to interpretation – in the bow style and require tying. It should not clip on. The cummerbund, if worn – if and, you know, maybe not – should match your bow-tie, which is to say it should be black.
There is no room for novelty in black tie, no space for “personality”.
Why? Because the whole point of black tie, aside from marking respect for one’s host by dressing as requested, is to don the uniform of anonymity – to allow black tie to be, as it is, the backdrop for more glamorous fare: the ladies present, perhaps.
Indeed, properly understood, the dinner suit has barely changed since 1860, when Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, helped do away with white tie and tails – then worn by the upper classes for dinner, every dinner – by adopting a black lounge suit, which he had made bespoke by Savile Row tailor Henry Poole. The story goes that a guest of the Prince, James Brown Potter, a millionaire coffee broker, took the look back to the US. There he used it to wow his fellow members of the Tuxedo Park Country Club, from which it takes its less formal (and to-be-shunned) name.
It was another royal, the future Edward VIII, who during the 1920s added his own twists, most notably having his suits made in midnight blue fabric rather than black – because, he said, it looked blacker than black in evening light. Edward pretty much defined what would become the archetypal black tie we imagine from old movies starring Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart. Let these be your role models.
Of course, there have been fashion trends in black tie – albeit subtle ones, shifting over the decades rather than from season to season. But, if you’re buying a dinner suit – and you won’t be able to hire anything less than a classic style, if you really have to hire one at all – fashion should be handled with extreme care.
The fact is a dinner suit is typically rarely worn, but is worn over many, many years. You may feel cool in that skinny lapeled, crop-trousered dinner suit now. Next time you’ll look like an idiot. Perhaps, rather than discarding the code of dinner dress, there is only the littlest of wiggle room to play with it, with a just a touch of peacockishness: a colourful silk square in the pocket, for example.
Yet tread lightly, because it’s easy to get it wrong. Even President Obama, a man surely not short of advisers, slipped between the two tribes: traditional for his first White House black tie dinner, but not before experimenting with “President as Waiter” (a black business suit with a standard black silk tie), “President as Prom Date” (the same, but this time with the faux pas of a white bow-tie), and “President as Gangster” (the same, but with a standard white silk tie). Such errors are remembered. Make sure yours are not.
A Brief History of Black Tie
1935: Fred Astaire appears in “Top Hat” – he dances in tails to Irving Berlin’s signature song and reminds the world of what even by then was largely a bygone style. White tie is still worn today, but only in exceptionally formal occasions, like dinner at a ball. In a palace. With the Queen.
1946: Cary Grant’s black tie steals the show in Night and Day. Come 1962, with the release of That Touch of Mink, he is going off reservation. Note: it is the only Cary Grant movie in which the serial black tie maestro wears a cummerbund.
1956: So-called “supersonic separates” take over black tie dressing, thanks to an issue of Esquire that features men wearing black trousers but shiny metallic jackets in neon and ice-cream colours. It’s all very Space-Age-meets-Las-Vegas-crooner.
1960s: The swinging decade brought a need for a swinging alternative to the bow-tie, the first of its kind. Introducing the Continental cross-over tie (see above) – a silk strip that overlapped where the knot would normally be, and fastened with a button.
1964: James Bond risks serving cocktails for the night by unzipping his scuba gear to reveal his evening dress, including an off-white peak-lapel dinner jacket. The style has traditionally been worn in warm climates. That counts out the UK then.
1970s: The years of black tie rebellion. Dress Right, a best-seller of 1978, advises that as long as a guest wears something formal “black tie” actually means that the “style or colour is beside the point”. Enter Edwardian jackets, flouncy cuffs, crushed velvet – it’s all a bit Austin Powers.
Early 1980s: The return of traditional black tie, in black. But these remain the rental years, when having your own seemed extravagant and wearing a beer-smelling, ill-fitting, polyester number some other cheapskate had been wearing the night before seemed clever.
Late 1980s: A new vogue for alternative dinner dress materialises in line with men’s growing interest in style – the wing collar, skinny ready-tied bow and cummerbund appears (ideally in red), as does the Spencer jacket. It’s a tail-less tailcoat. And it looks as bad as it sounds.
2000s: Three words every tailor cringes at: “creative black tie”, found on invitations to glitzy events, most notably the Oscars. It effectively gives license to ignore the rules and find your own interpretation of “dinner dress”. Disasters follow.
2006 Onwards: Thank Bond again. Daniel Craig’s debut as the new 007 in Casino Royale requires some visual cues that Bond is back – even if he looks a bit blonde. The solution? Put him in the most classic of black tie attire. Proper dress etiquette becomes cool again.