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The Foreign Language of White Tie at the 2014 Met Gala

For this year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute gala, Anna Wintour famously requested a dress code of white tie. Since most red carpet men prove over and over again that they barely know what black tie is, the idea of white tie must have been very confusing, as evidenced on the red carpet at last night’s Met Gala. If proper black tie is a foreign language, white tie is another planet.

Though a modern day rarity, white tie is the height of men’s formal attire and was once an nightly uniform among aristocrats. It’s what all the men from Lord Grantham down to the butlers wear every evening on Downton Abbey. It’s the costume in which Fred Astaire was perhaps most famous.

Today, the number of occasions in most men’s lives that call for white tie is less than one. A man could be forgiven for not only not knowing how to do it, but also not knowing where to get it. But here’s the thing: we’re talking about the Met Gala, a prom to which only the richest and most privileged are invited. For this crowd – a crowd with the money and resources to pull off almost anything – my tolerance for blowing it is less than zero.

Here’s a look at who nailed it, who failed it and who elegantly derailed it. (For clarity: the “derailers” were more Academy Awards/Cannes appropriate, but looked fabulous anyway.) All photos by Josh Haner for The New York Times, except for Leonard Lauder, which was taken by Julian Mackler / BFAnyc.com for Style.com.

Who nailed it…


I need to give a respectful nod to Andy Cohen, Colin Firth, and a handful of other men who also nailed it.

Who failed it…

Who elegantly derailed it…

Update…

Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker stopped by Late Night Seth Meyers on Wednesday night (5/7/14) to discuss the gala and to critique some of the men in light of the trouble many of them had with white tie (including Seth).

PHOTO NOTE: The glorious title photo of this article is known as “The Kings of Hollywood.” It was taken by Slim Aarons at the 1957 New Year’s party at the Crown Room in Romanoff’s. From left to right: Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and James Stewart.

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The Tie Bar

In terms of colors and patterns, I tend to walk on the quieter side, going with more subdued choices in clothing. I’m not a sartorial screamer looking to get noticed from 100 yards away. My suits are mostly dark, either in solid colors or with very subtle stripes or patterns. My dress shirt collection is mostly white with a little powder blue and one gingham.

Though I am getting more color courageous with neck and pocket wear, I generally tend to keep things pretty sober there, too. Before branching out with bolder colors and patterns, it’s important to me to cover the essential bases, which means I get the navy or charcoal suit before expanding into bolder pinstripe suits, plaids or Prince of Wales. When it comes to ties, it means I get my black silk knit or midnight navy grenadine and other ties that go with almost anything before adding to the collection with other colors, stripes and patterns.

When one is on a budget, ties and other accessories like pocket squares and cufflinks are terrific inexpensive ways to make a humble wardrobe of three suits look like many more. One of my favorite destinations for getting smart, handsome, well-made and affordable ties is The Tie Bar.

With handmade ties for $15 each, The Tie Bar has enabled me to get several neckwear essentials stylishly and affordably. I got my black and navy silk knits and my black and navy “faux” grenadines, which The Tie Bar calls “Grenafaux.” (Genuine handmade grenadines are expensive to make and go beyond The Tie Bar’s $15-per-tie pricing model.) In addition to the basics, they have an extremely impressive collection of other ties in varying fabrics, textures, weaves, colors, stripes and patterns with both bold and more subtle detail. And one of my favorite aspects of their collection is the accommodation of different widths, which range from two inches (skinny) to three and a half inches (wider).

Three of my favorites:

For those special, unique ties, I love supporting my friends over at Fine and Dandy, who have some of the greatest ties I’ve ever seen, as well as a sick collection of truly unique pocket squares, cufflinks and other accessories that can really make a basic suit sing. When it comes to affordable core essentials or other great ties that catch my eye while I’m browsing, I’m grateful for The Tie Bar.

www.thetiebar.com

A word about tie width…

My rule about the right tie width is not about what’s hot, trendy or “in” right now. The right tie width is about proportion in relation to several factors. My rule of thumb goes like this: The width of your tie relates to the width of your shirt collar, which relates to the width of your jacket lapels, which relates to the width of your face. In other words, the right tie width for two modern men is different, depending on the different physical proportions of each man.

I’m 5’10” with a slim, 150 lb. build and a medium to narrow face. My preferred tie width is 3 inches, which is also the width of my shirt collars and my jacket lapels. The skinny trend is great for guys who are actually skinny with narrower faces. Jimmy Fallon, as much as I love him, wears skinny ties with skinny shirt collars that are often much narrower than his jacket lapels and out of proportion with his face. I still think he’s the best-dressed late night talk show host, but his tie/collar/lapel proportions can be slightly out of whack. Bigger men or those with larger faces make their faces look even larger with skinny ties (and skinny shirt collars and skinny lapels). Conversely, skinny guys with narrow builds look skinnier and narrower with ties, collars or lapels that are too wide. It’s all about proportion to one’s natural face and frame.

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Two for the Road (1967)

Today would have been film legend Audrey Hepburn’s 85th birthday. Everyone loves Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Funny Face, My Fair Lady, Sabrina, Charade and Roman Holiday (for which she won an Oscar). I love all of those movies, but my favorite Audrey Hepburn film remains wildly underrated and under-appreciated.

Two for the Road (1967) arguably produced Audrey Hepburn’s best, bravest and most mature performances ever put on film, and yet it is one of her least famous movies.

Original poster for Two for the Road (1967) © Twentieth Century Fox
Original poster for Two for the Road (1967) © Twentieth Century Fox

Directed by Stanley Donen, who also directed her in Charade with Cary Grant, and also starring a young and handsome Albert Finney, Two for the Road is the story of a marriage told through the travels the couple makes together through Europe over the years.

Mr. Finney and Ms. Hepburn play Mark and Joanna Wallace, who meet while hitchhiking around Europe. The movie unfolds out of order, with pieces of their relationship brilliantly patched together in non-linear form, going back and forth on the timeline of their lives together, from that hitchhiking trip all the way through Mark’s rising success as an architect and through the birth of their first child. The non-linear device was very unconventional for its time and was used to glorious effect.

Also unconventional for the time was the film’s raw honesty about one couple’s journey through a relationship. It’s the kind of movie that could make couples nervous because of its brutally honest portrayal of love, romance, resentment, infidelity, estrangement and reconciliation. Some people, consequently, find the movie hard to see, while others have privately thanked Mr. Donen for creating such an honest portrayal of love and marriage (especially for 1967). I can only imagine that Two for the Road never got the publicity it deserved because it made studio executives (and probably critics) uncomfortable.

Henry Mancini composed the score. Like Ms. Hepburn’s performance, Mr. Mancini’s brilliant work on this film remains largely unsung and eclipsed by other, more widely known works like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther.

My father was a huge romantic, and this was one of his favorite movies. He bought a Betamax copy and I became smitten with the movie myself at age 12. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, since I find Two for the Road one of the most honest romantic movies I’ve ever seen.

Watch the trailer:

WARDROBE NOTE: Two for the Road was the first movie in a long time where Ms. Hepburn’s wardrobe would not be a couture collaboration with iconic fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy. Stanley Donen felt – and rightly so – that a wife in this marriage would be in ready-to-wear clothing. As one can see even in the trailer, the director’s choice worked beautifully.

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Kill It on the Red Carpet at the Tony Awards – 2014 Edition

As I’ve said in previous editions of this piece, Hollywood stars command bigger paychecks and higher profiles than their Broadway counterparts. The money and visibility gives Hollywood more access to designers and well-paid (and often overpaid) stylists to help them pull together a look for red carpet affairs.

The good news about black tie is that it’s not complicated. The bad news is that – even with all the money and resources at their disposal – so many manage to blow it.

Well-executed black tie comes with basic rules and constraints to assure that a man will look his best. This isn’t about making a big red carpet splash like Alan Cumming, whose style is a well-earned signature that should not be attempted by amateurs. No. This is about exercising the refinement, restraint and rules of time-tested black tie. There is a reason Bradley Cooper, Jon Hamm, Daniel Craig or anyone dressed by Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren or Tom Ford make the best-dressed list among all the other handsome movie stars: they don’t mess with the constraints of solid, well-tailored, bulletproof black tie. And neither should you. (Unless, of course, you are Alan Cumming or someone aspiring to be the male red-carpet equivalent of Cher.)

Here’s the rundown:

The Tux

Wearing a custom Essential Dinner Jacket Tuxedo from Indochino. Photo by Billy Powers.
Wearing a custom Essential Dinner Jacket Tuxedo from Indochino. Photo by Billy Powers.

Keep it simple. A single-breasted black or midnight blue dinner jacket with peak satin lapels or a satin shawl collar will serve you well on Tonys night and every other black tie night for the rest of your life. Double-breasted is a great option, too, for men of the lean and tall persuasion.

Other characteristics of a timeless formal jacket include a single button closure, as opposed to two or three buttons on regular suits (two can actually be fine, but certainly not three). Dinner jackets can have a single or double vent in the back, and they are the only jackets where one could go without a vent at all. Pockets without flaps are preferable.

Pants are basic: flat front (no pleats) with a satin stripe down the side.

Tailoring is what separates the men from the boys here. The jacket should be snug in the shoulders with a lean and clean fit that conforms to the body without squeezing it. The length of a jacket should cover your ass and reach your thumb knuckles with your arms relaxed at your sides.

Popular shorter jackets of now just cut you in half, pronounce your ass and – if you aren’t built like a lean model – make you look like you have child-bearing hips. Although current trends push this super-short, super-tight tailoring… don’t. While I’m certain some of the younger slaves to trends will show up wearing a sausage casing with lapels, I would strongly suggest just sticking with tried and true honest tailoring that gives you structure and stature without squeezing you.

The jacket sleeves should expose one-quarter to one-half inch of shirt cuff, and the pants should have a gentle break that just kisses the top of the shoe.

Here are some good options:

From left: J.Crew's Ludlow tuxedo in black and navy; Suitsupply's Black Tuxedo.
From left: J.Crew’s Ludlow tuxedo in black and navy; Suitsupply’s Black Tuxedo.

J.Crew
J.Crew has several wonderful formal options in their Ludlow Shop. If you’re getting your first tuxedo or replacing an old one, stick with an all-season tuxedo in Italian wool in black or navy. If you’re adding to your collection and in the mood for a second or third summer-only tux, they have gorgeous summer-weight black or navy tuxedos in Japanese seersucker or Italian chino. Stick with peak lapels or a shawl collar. Notch lapels (like on a regular suit) are not appropriate black tie, even though J.Crew sells them.

Sold as separates, the wool tuxedos go for a combined total of $790 ($525 jacket, $265 pants), and the cotton tuxedos are a combined total of $456 ($298 jacket, $158 pants).

J.Crew Ludlow Shop, NYC
50 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10013
212-587-3139

www.jcrew.com

Suitsupply
Though they have only one formal option, Suitsupply’s black tuxedo is a beautiful suit, with a wide silk peak-lapel and the corresponding silk stripe down the side of the pants. It’s made with a Super 110s wool from Vitale Barberis Canonico, and features a stunning scarlet bemberg lining in the jacket.

The price of the tuxedo itself is $569, but Suitsupply offers a rather smart “black tie set” that includes the tuxedo, a tuxedo shirt, a silk bow tie and black patent leather shoes for $799.

Suitsupply, NYC
635 Madison Ave. (@ E. 59th St.)
New York, NY 10022
212-259-0400

453 Broome St. (betw. Greene and Mercer)
New York, NY 10013
United States
212-828 7250

suitsupply.com

Indochino
Some guys have trouble fitting into suits off the rack. Don’t despair. Indochino makes very well-made and extremely affordable made-to-measure suits online, including tuxedos.

Indochino’s Essential Black Tuxedo is a medium-weight, all-season Super 120s wool that is suitable for every formal occasion and will take care of you for life. (I’m wearing one in the photo above with my bicycle.)

As with all custom suits from Indochino, you have some customization options with the jacket and trousers. For the jacket, go with a peak or shawl collar (NOT a notch lapel), one button in the front, functional sleeve buttons, single, double or no vent in the back, and no pocket flaps. Double-breasted is also an option here, but only recommended for men with a leaner build. You can also choose your bemberg lining and your custom monogram. For the trousers, go with no pleats (flat-front), no cuffs and no belt loops. Side tabs are a nice option here.

If you’re not comfortable self-measuring, have a custom tailor help you for $20 or so. (If you’re in NYC, I can help you.) Since Indochino’s turnaround is about four weeks, the time to order your custom tux is now, especially if any tailoring adjustments are necessary when the tux arrives. And if any tailoring is required, Indochino will pick up the tab for up to $75.

The suit is $449, and shipping is free.

Indochino

The Shirt

Charles Tyrwhitt's Marcella bib front classic tuxedo shirt (left); Suitsupply's Tuxedo Shirt.
Charles Tyrwhitt’s Marcella bib front classic tuxedo shirt (left); Suitsupply’s Tuxedo Shirt.

Here’s what you want with a shirt: a trim-fit standard or classic spread collar (shown) with holes for studs and French cuffs. Do not wear a wing-collar shirt. Wing collars are for morning suits, white-tie, tails, magicians, poker dealers and Chippendales dancers.

For the money, here are two of my favorite tuxedo shirt options:

Charles Tyrwhitt‘s Marcella bib front classic is fabulous. It’s 100% Egyptian cotton with a pique texture, available in classic or slim fits. They’re $99 each, but Tyrwhitt will give you two for $160.

Charles Tyrwhitt, NYC
377 Madison Ave. (@ 46th Street)
New York, NY 10017
212-286-8988

745 Seventh Ave. (@ 50th Street)
New York, NY 10019
212-764-4697

1177 Avenue of the Americas (@ 45th Street)
New York, NY 10036
212-901-1050

www.ctshirts.com

Suitsupply has a terrific white Tuxedo Shirt, made with a beautiful light textured cotton, a seamless French placket and black enamel stud buttons. It’s $99.

Suitsupply, NYC
635 Madison Ave. (@ E. 59th St.)
New York, NY 10022
212-259-0400

453 Broome St. (betw. Greene and Mercer)
New York, NY 10013
United States
212-828 7250

suitsupply.com

The Bow Tie & Cummerbund

Bow Tie & Cummerbund set

The bow tie is a given, yet the cummerbund seems to have fallen by the wayside. A rule for the tux is that we should not see any shirt below the jacket button. The cummerbund fixes that. This is, of course, not a concern with double-breasted dinner jackets.

My friends at Fine and Dandy sell perfect black bow ties and cummerbunds as a set. They’re both made right here in NYC with 100% silk, with cotton backing on the cummerbund. The very reasonable $79 set is available in their store or on their website. And if you just need the bow tie, they have you covered there, too, for $55.

Fine and Dandy
445 West 49th St. (betw. 9th and 10th Aves.)
New York, NY 10019
212-247-4847

www.fineanddandyshop.com

On a style note: we must know how to tie our own bow tie. The pre-tied variety is a cop out. If you make it over to Fine and Dandy, Matt or Enrique can give you a little how-to. If you can’t make it over there, there’s a brilliant how-to video produced by The Hill Side. Check it out here.

On another style note: please don’t wear a standard necktie, however black it may be. There is a growing perception that a standard necktie is appropriate for black tie. It isn’t. It’s a lazy man’s cheat that has a funeral effect, making the wearer look like a Tarantino gangster, a pallbearer or a chauffeur. Black tie is an occasion with deliberate and celebratory apartness from regular suit and tie. Wear a bow tie and celebrate.

The Bling

Fine and Dandy Formal Set

If you were lucky enough to inherit a badass formal set of studs and cufflinks from your granddad, you’re all set. Otherwise you’ll need to invest in a set of your own. Thanks to Matt and Enrique at Fine and Dandy, you can snag a smart and handsome black and silver set for a very cool $49, available from their website (www.fineanddandyshop.com) or at their Hell’s Kitchen shop.

As for a watch, keep it simple and elegant. The watch should match the metal tone of your studs and cufflinks. Silver tone cufflinks and studs go with a stainless steel or silver watch.

The Shoes

Black Tuxedo Shoe - Suitsupply

Unless you have a busy black tie schedule, formal shoes (called pumps) won’t get a ton of wear. But one should invest in a smart, handsome, timeless pair that are specially reserved for formal occasions only. Whatever they are, they should be simple, unadorned and nondescript patent leather, without any perforations or designs on them. Unfortunately, your favorite wingtips or monk straps, however glossy their shine, are not appropriate. In a pinch, a well-tended and very well-shined pair of plain black oxfords could work.

SuitSupply sells the handsomest pair of formal shoes I’ve ever seen for the price. Called the Black Tuxedo Shoe, it’s a slim-profile shoe of polished patent leather made with Italian calfskin. They run $289.

Suitsupply, NYC
635 Madison Ave. (@ E. 59th St.)
New York, NY 10022
212-259-0400

453 Broome St. (betw. Greene and Mercer)
New York, NY 10013
United States
212-828 7250

suitsupply.com

In Conclusion…

This is the Tony Awards, celebrating the highest honor in American theater. It’s an occasion for which one shows up with respect: respect for oneself, respect for the theater, respect for the artists, respect for the tradition, respect for the honor and respect for the fact that there will be cameras. Dress for it.

One man's journal about raising the bar without raising the budget.