Style

Black Tie: the rules and how to break them

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The Jackal’s definitive guide to mastering black tie eveningwear

I’m going to put it out there; this black tie style guide isn’t going to be conventional. I’m a geek you see, with a particular penchant for trad tailoring – and we’re quite keen on detail here at The Jackal. Dinner dress or ‘black tie’ as its commonly called, is a very particular dress code, grounded by almost 200 years of history, and we don’t subscribe to the view that you should mess around with it, like some other dispensers of style advice might.

Instead, we think it takes time to learn the rules, master them, and then – if you want to – you can bend them, just a little. Here’s how.

The black tie backstory

The first dinner suit as you’d recognise it was cut by Savile Row tailors Henry Poole in 1865. It was ordered by the future King Edward VII, who asked his tailor to create an informal evening coat that would be appropriate to wear during relaxed dinners at Sandringham. The solution was to create a ‘celestial blue’ evening coat with grosgrain covered lapels – tropes of the then commonplace white tie tailcoat, but in the style of a lounge suit jacket, which at the time was a radical move. In the 1860s, lounge coats were strictly not to be worn after 6pm.

Nevertheless, the British royals were the global celebrity style icons of their day, and following the Prince’s adoption of this radical new short evening jacket, the trend caught on. Then, in 1886, a wealthy New Yorker called James Brown Potter was invited to one of the Prince’s informal soirees, and not knowing what to wear, he visited Henry Poole and asked for a carbon copy of the the Prince’s short dark blue evening coat. When he retuned to New York, Potter wore his new rig on an evening out spent at the then legendary Tuxedo Club in Manhattan, and its members adopted it as their official uniform soon after. It’s for this reason, by the way, that Brits call it (quite rightly) a ‘dinner suit’, and Americans a ‘Tuxedo’. Neither is wrong, but ‘dinner suit’ is certainly the more traditional of the two names.

This new look was popularised in the 1910s and by 1925 Black Tie was de rigeur for formal evenings out. Within a decade, Edwardian white tie became a thing of the past.

So what are the rules of black tie?

Okay, let’s break this down.

Colour

First things first, while black is a common colour choice for the dinner suit today, you’ll have noticed that the first of the breed is recorded in Henry Poole’s ledgers as ‘celestial’ or midnight blue. If you can, I’d encourage you to seek out similar dinner suits today – black dye does not take well to woollen fabrics and often leaves them looking lacklustre. In low lighting, midnight blue wool is richer and darker than black. We’ll come to jazzier options shortly, but if it’s a classic black tie look, the smart choice is actually the darkest of dark blues.

Jackets

In terms of cut and styling, a dinner jacket is single-breasted, its pockets are jetted – that is to say they lose the flaps you’d find on a lounge suit’s pockets, because flaps are perceived to be less formal, and it’s finished with dressy peak or shawl lapels – again to differentiate it from lounge suiting. Double-breasted designs are acceptable too, and should follow the same rules; peaked lapels and jetted pockets only please. If you find a dinner suit you like with pocket flaps, tuck them into the pockets for a jetted look.

Similarly, swerve a dinner jacket with notched lapels – notched lapels are a business dress staple, so why not take the chance to wear something a little different? Peaked lapels make a sharp statement, and have a touch of art deco swagger about them, shawl collars make for a swish look.

On a classic black or midnight blue dinner suit, the lapels should be covered (‘faced’ in tailoring speak) with silk; either plain silk satin or ribbed grosgrain. So should the jacket’s buttons. Speaking of which, single-breasted dinner jackets should always have one-button to fasten. It’s the most of all button stances; two and three button jackets have their roots in riding and shooting dress – and are associated with quite a different menswear tradition.

Cloth-wise, dinner suits are conventionally cut from mid-weight wool barathea, which has a rich drape and very subtle surface texture. Crisp, sharp-looking wool and mohair blends work well, too. Gieves & Hawkes and Chester Barrie on Savile Row both cut some handsome wool/mohair dinner suits ready-to-wear.

Shirts

In the ‘90s, wing collar shirts were all the rage for black tie. Today, avoid them like the plague. They seldom stay in place and have more than a whiff of fancy dress about them.

Instead, choose a classic spread collar shirt with either a pleated or Marcella cotton front bib. Either is acceptable, and you can choose them with a covered placket, or with buttonholes to take dress studs. If you wear dress studs, always buy them with matching cufflinks.

Budd and Turnbull & Asser both make beautiful dinner shirts. Turnbull has also excelled itself in offering a range of ‘alternative’ dinner shirts of late, including cream and navy spun silk versions. More on those later.

Bow ties and cummerbunds

A few things to keep in mind here. Bow tie and cummerbund should always match – be sure to buy them together. I know there’s often a temptation to do something ‘fun’ with your bow tie, but coloured bow ties invariably look cheap. Find a good quality black silk bow and stick to it – nothing gimmicky. You should try to match your bow and cummerbund with your jacket’s lapels too; if they’re faced in grosgrain then the accessories should be grosgrain too. If the jacket has satin covered lapels, then follow suit with your tie and cummerbund.

DO NOT wear a pre-tied bow tie. Yes, they’re convenient but they always look naff and they always end up coming loose. There are a million you tube videos on tying a bow tie, take 20 minutes out on the run up to your next shindig and watch some. I think this one’s quite useful.

The rules around cummerbunds are curious, historically it was considered vulgar for a gentleman to reveal his trouser waistband (what next, I ask you, a flash of ankle?) so cummerbunds are de rigeur with a single-breasted dinner jacket. If you’re wearing a double-breasted dinner suit, you don’t need to wear one – the traditional assumption being that you’ll keep your jacket fastened all night (regardless of how impractical this might be) so you’ll not reveal anything beneath.

The cummerbund should always be worn with the pleats facing upwards, double-check this before you whizz out the door. Historically they were used to hold ticket stubs for the opera or theatre.

Trousers

Classic black or midnight blue dinner trousers should adhere to a couple of rules. First up, a dinner trouser’s outside leg seams should be taped with the same silk as the jacket’s lapels. Next up, they should under no circumstances be finished with turn-ups – plain hems only for black tie. See the trousers on this handsome Connolly double-breasted dinner suit (above) for guidance. Again, turn-ups have their roots in equestrian riding and shooting tailoring, they’re not from the same tradition as eveningwear.

If you’re in the mood to really cut a dash, try and find trousers with a mid or high rise, and wear them with white barathea or silk moire braces. Braces help trousers to sit comfortably on the hips, and to drape properly. They’re also great for parties because invariably some member of the opposite sex will want to ping them during the evening.

Shoes (and socks)

Patents are the traditional choice – either opera pumps or plain Oxford lace-ups. Don’t ask me why, they just are. No suede, no boots, no brogues – you’re dressing for dinner, not a country walk.

Always wear fine over the calf socks for black tie, nothing dispels the illusion of a well-dressed than short socks and a flash of hairy shin. New & Lingwood and Budd Shirtmakers both offer superfine over-the-calf cotton socks that are perfect for eveningwear. Black is the safe choice, but dark Burgundy can look nice too – in fact that’s just about the only touch of colour I’d recommend in a trad black tie look.

Them’s the rules – get comfortable with these before you start to experiment. Once you have, it’s time to read this next part…

So how do I break the black tie rules?

While I’d encourage you to experiment with dinner dress sparingly, there are ways to stand out from the crowd in the right way.

Smoking jackets and silk jacquards

If you’d like to make something of a statement, you can also explore the arcane world of the velvet smoking jacket. Smoking jackets are a Victorian invention; traditionally a gentleman would change out of his tailcoat and into a velvet smoking jacket after dinner, before retiring to the smoking room. The velvet jacket would soak up the smell of his cigar, rather than tarnishing a formal tailcoat. A smoking jacket might not serve the same purpose today, but it’s still a handsome choice, and closely connected to that very first celestial blue evening coat that began the breed.

Bottle green, navy and burgundy are classic choices, but chocolate brown and charcoal look thoroughly sophisticated too. Avoid light colours if you’re thinking about a velvet jacket. Lurid shades of pink or leaf green will stick out like a sore thumb in a room filled with dark, elegant tailoring.

The same applies to silk jacquard. Some luxury brands (notably Gieves & Hawkes, Favourbrook and Tom Ford) offer a silk dinner jacket or two each season. These bring a whole new raft of colours and textures to the table for the confident dresser, but need styling conservatively. If your jacket is patterned or bright, your shirt, bow tie and trousers should confirm to convention. Black silk and white cotton only, please. No one likes a spiv.

Waistcoats

If, like many men, you’ve an aversion to strapping on a cummerbund, an evening waistcoat is a sharp alternative. A low-cut single-breasted waistcoat with slim silk-covered lapels can really help to elevate an otherwise conventional two-piece dinner suit. Don’t wear a silk brocade wedding waistcoat, or something you’d wear to the races – that defeats the point. Choose one in black, ideally cut to match your suit. If the budget stretches, Budd’s black silk backless waistcoats lift a formal look brilliantly.

Trews

Now, this perhaps more than any other suggestion I’ll give you needs careful consideration. You can, should you so choose, swap out plain dark evening trousers for tartan trews. It’s a preppy look that Mssr Ralph Lauren (pictured above) is particularly partial to. By all means experiment with tartan trews but don’t choose anything too loud. Traditional navy and forest green Blackwatch is a smart choice, and so is lesser known Brownwatch tartan – the maroon and navy cousin of Blackwatch.

One thought on the fit of trews. High street brands today tend to make tartan trousers quite skinny. This is a mistake. A bold, large-format check needs plenty of room to hang and drape correctly without the pattern distorting. If you want to wear trews well, make sure you find a pair with generous, flowing legs. Failing that, order a pair wide good wide legs made-to-measure, this doesn’t have to break the bank and they’ll be the best fitting trousers you own. You could even wear them on the weekends with a rollneck and a navy blazer too.

Turnbull & Asser silk shirt

Silk shirts

These are unconventional, but can help to elevate a very straight black tie look. Again, most of Jermyn Street’s choice shirtmakers stock at least a few silk evening shirts, including Emma Willis, Budd and Turnbull & Asser (pictured). The latter has been experimenting recently with fine cotton voile and spun shirt evening shirts in navy and cream. Try the navy with a midnight blue dinner suit and bow tie, and the cream with a dark velvet dinner jacket.

Silk scarfs

If a silk shirt’s too much, an evening scarf can work just as well. You’re looking for something short in plain cream silk – nothing patterned, nothing loud. The introduction of a touch of cream to an otherwise black and white look can help soften the contrast between suit and shirt, and it adds a breezy, easy-going edge to a formal look.

Velvet slippers

Velvet slippers are an easy alternative to patent dress shoes. Best to stick to plain black or navy, unless you can match them to a velvet smoking jacket. It’s also best to choose a pair that has a dark lining, rather than anything too bright. I’m not a huge fan of embroidered slippers but they can be a useful way to inject some personality into your black tie. Initials are common, but there are some fun little motifs out there too. I like Foster & Sons’ slippers with a martini glass on one foot and a cocktail olive on the other.

Thought that was it? Sorry, here does not endeth the lesson. If you’re tackling eveningwear during the warmer months, that’s a whole new ball game to consider.

Sean Connery white dinner jacket, black tie style guide

How do I wear black tie in summer?

In warm weather, black tie becomes a little less practical for obvious reasons. Tailoring is seldom a go-to choice in hot temperatures, and black barathea (which absorbs sunlight like nothing else) can be particularly uncomfortable.

Thankfully, there are a few hacks to keep you cool, calm and collected when the mercury rises. The first is to find a dinner suit cut in either midnight blue or black ‘tropical worsted’ – a lightweight wool suiting cloth woven with an open structure that breathes in the heat. Various designer brands dabble with lightweight dinner suits in summer, but failing that, you’ll find tropical worsteds are an affordable choice of cloth at most made-to-measure or bespoke tailors.

If you want to push the envelope a little further, a white or cream tropical worsted jacket is a sleek option; think Brian Ferry’s Another Time, Another Place album cover, or Sean Connery’s DJ in Thunderball. Some ready-to-wear brands offer white dinner jackets with white silk lapels, but self-faced lapels are infinitely more sophisticated. Lightweight wool is conventional but brave dressers (with deep pockets) might even choose a raw shantung silk, à la Tom Ford, but be warned – it’ll look very shiny.

Failing plain white, have you heard of a ‘Burma’ dinner jacket? They were big news (briefly) in the mid-to-late 1950s and ‘60s. A Burma DJ is a conventional summer dinner jacket cut not in white, but in an earthy shade of beige or buff; with a shawl collar, self-lapels (lapels that aren’t faced with satin or grosgrain) and self-covered buttons. You won’t find one of these ready-to-wear, but if you’re going for a made-to-measure suit, a Burma jacket looks distinguished and distinctive without looking shouty. The jacket’s neutral colour will flatter most skin tones too.

Final thing; if you’re wearing a white or Burma shade dinner jacket don’t do a Timotheé Chalamet and go all-white – keeping everything else conventional: black or midnight blue lightweight dinner trousers, white spread collar evening shirt, black satin bow, matching cummerbund. Add a white linen pocket hanky if you’d like to, but that’s it.

Tied and tested

Black Tie has been around for approaching 200 years, and it’s changed very little during that time.

In other words, it’s a recipe that works – don’t try to rewrite the rulebook at your next formal event – it’s a futile effort. Remember you’ll be in a room with dozens of other conservatively dressed men; you will stick out for all the wrong reasons if you’re not careful.

I find it useful to play to one rule: you’re allowed one quirk only, no matter how large or small. If you wear a pink pocket hanky instead of plain white, that’s it – that’s your wacky choice. If you wear tartan trews, or a silk dinner jacket, or a waistcoat, everything else should be absolutely on the line. Anything else unconventional and you’ll be venturing firmly into ‘show-off’ territory.

When all’s said and done, black tie events are an opportunity for you to enjoy socialising, look and feel great, and to enjoy being ‘dressed up’. The time and effort spent investing in a black tie look, and knowing that you’ve got the format right will always pay dividends. Here’s hoping that this guide has helped you – even just a little bit – too.

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