Over the last several modern decades, men’s style has established a handful of easy-to-follow standards for executing perfect black tie. Awards season red carpets invariably bring some unfortunate choices made by stars or their stylists, yielding images and footage that will look weird and dated in years to come.
As expected, I saw numerous examples of my three favorite misfires: notch-lapel jackets, which are really business suits disguised as tuxedos; standard neck ties, which make men look like fancy pallbearers; and wing-collar tuxedo shirts, which are really only appropriate for waiters, groomsmen in morning suits and poker dealers.
Men’s black tie is not a place to make a personal statement. One wonders if the expressed individuality and subsequent fuss made over the women have made the men a little jealous, inspiring them to color inappropriately outside the lines for a little extra attention. But attention is not the purpose of men’s black tie. The tuxedo color palate is deliberately dark and nondescript so that the women can have the spotlight. Men are not the intended stars of a black tie affair. As for expressing individuality… well, that’s why we have faces.
Within the box that is appropriate and timeless black tie, there is a little room for nuanced and restrained expression of individuality and flare. Those options have worked for more than fifty years and why we still look at decades-old iconic photos of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Marcello Mastroianni and Humphrey Bogart and say “Man, I’d love to look like that.” Those icons stayed within the box and produced lasting images that still look handsome, glamorous, magnificent.
The bullet-proof choice is black. We can also try dark and solid shades of navy, gray, scarlet or purple. Should one go with those alternates, they should be so dark that they look almost black, with the color popping in only very specific light. (When we first met Sean Connery as Bond in Dr. No, he was wearing a dark blue dinner jacket.)
Tailoring is what separates men who own their style from boys who rent it. Every man should have a custom-fitting go-to dinner jacket in his arsenal. That one go-to should have either a shawl or peak lapel, not the notch imposter. Single-breasted with only one or two buttons is the way to go for one tuxedo. But if one has the occasion, the means and the requisite tall and lean physique, an alternate double-breasted tux is wonderful.
White. No other colors are acceptable, not matter what any designer, stylist, salesman or inner voice tells you. White. As for the collar, stick with a spread or semi-spread collar and you’ll never be wrong. A slim, fitted tuxedo shirt with a plain or pleated front is the way to go. A ruffled bib can be fabulous if you’re a notoriously flamboyant celebrity or Warren Beatty in Shampoo.
The Tie, Cummerbund and Hanky
Cummerbunds seem to have lost popularity, but I’m still an advocate. Just keep in mind that the shirt’s white should not be visible below the jacket’s button. (This, of course, is not a concern with double-breasted dinner jackets.) The bow tie and cummerbund should match. Keep them solid black unless the pattern is very subtle, like a tiny polka dot pattern. But if you’re from Scotland and have a tie and cummerbund in your clan tartan, go for it.
As they are with suits and blazers, hankies/pocket squares are totally optional in black tie. If you go with one, best keep it white.
And please… for eff’s sake… bow tie only. The standard necktie, however black it may be, is not appropriate black tie. As I said before, a man in a standard necktie with a tuxedo looks like he’s at a funeral. Tuxedos are for celebration. So put on a bow tie and celebrate.
A basic tuxedo is wool or a blend of wool and silk. There are other fantastic texture options that lend subtly different sheens or hands to the tuxedo’s finish. One of the most popular alternate textures is probably velvet. At last year’s Oscars, Christopher Plummer killed it in purple velvet. Until I lost it in a move years ago, I had a marvelous deep scarlet, peak-lapel, velvet dinner jacket I sometimes wore to winter functions with the trousers of my wool/silk tux. As with the color, keep the texture dark and subtle.
The dress shoes one wears with a regular suit, no matter how nice they are, are not appropriate in formal settings. Lace-up or slip-on “pumps” in patent leather or velvet are the standard. I have a pair of handsome but very plain slip-on dress shoes that buff to a near-patent leather gloss that look fantastic. For black tie, the shoes should never have any patterns, stitching or wingtip broguing on them. Men’s formal shoes should be very simple. No tassels, buckles or ornamentation. Just simple.
Here are more photos of guys from this year’s Academy Awards who, I thought, nailed it: