Reader Jay from San Jose, California shares the challenges and discoveries encountered during his quest to assemble a classic formal kit at an affordable cost.
While many in the world associate Californians with surfing and a laid back liberal culture, my wife and I enjoy dressing up just as much as anyone else. For those rare black-tie events that I have attended in the past, I have worn a 1968 hand-me-down tuxedo from my late father with narrow notched lapels, three-button front, and silk-edged pocket flaps. I was aware that it was outdated but, fortunately, the venues were poorly lit and, until recently, I was a lowly grad student and fairly young so no one likely held it against me. I have often thought of getting a new dinner suit but here in the States, tuxedos are so rarely worn that there is almost a stigma associated with them.
When you do wear one, people naturally assume that you must be attending a wedding or prom. If you mention that you are simply taking your significant other out for a beautiful evening, you are usually met with incredulous stares. Between this bias, the American penchant to wear jeans and T-shirts to any occasion, and the few times I was required to wear a tuxedo, there has been no real impetus to purchase an expensive new black-tie ensemble. However, when my wife and I were recently invited to the San Francisco Opera I realized it was about time to put together the right proper outfit. Since I knew that in an average year I would likely only use my evening wear for two to five occasions, I decided to set $1,000 as my initial investment.
Because I like tradition and wanted to make sure that my money was spent wisely, I decided to research men’s evening wear. Naturally, I first turned to my good friend Mr. Google and began reviewing all manner of sites purporting to offer expertise on the latest tuxedo fashions and traditional evening wear styles. The more I read, the more I suspected they were being written by twenty-five-year-olds who recently stumbled out of their college frat house with a journalism degree and had never worn proper evening wear.
Fortunately, I came across the Black Tie Guide and began to learn what proper dinner dress really consists of. About the same time that I began my research, I decided to stop in at one of the largest formal wear stores in San Jose. Upon entering, I was greeted by a 25ish-looking gent with full sleeve tats and an earring. I asked if the store carried any classic grosgrain tuxedos. He said “sure”, and showed me a suit that even Elvis would not have worn in his heyday. I then asked if he had any men’s opera pumps for sale. He said he had never heard of the term and instead led me to a selection of footwear that I would have found highly desirable had I been a Barnum and Bailey’s Circus clown. I thanked him for his time and quickly moved for the closest door.
Needless to say, I soon realized that black tie and tuxedos have little in common. For most Americans, the word ‘tuxedo’ means a dressy black suit that many assume will look even better with a colored vest and matching bow tie. Testicle-hugging trousers and long-toed shoes as worn by Hollywood stars only seem to accentuate the modern image of the loud American tuxedo. The regal U-shaped evening waistcoats, straight-drape slacks, and grosgrain-faced dinner jackets that I had come to admire seemed to be virtually non-existent here in the New World.
During my research, I discovered some interesting information about tuxedo prices. According to a few online retailers I spoke to, as well as merchants and salespeople in the Los Angeles and San Francisco garment districts, the cost to make almost any ready-to-wear tuxedo is only about $15 to $40 in actual material and usually less than $50 in labor. As such, I found that if I was willing to purchase dinner suit models from the previous year I could often find discounts of 40% or more. After considerable searching, and some successful haggling with a Buy4LessTuxedos salesperson, I ended up purchasing a 2012 Lauren by Ralph Lauren dinner suit for $229 that had formerly been retailed for $650 to $700 in a brick and mortar store or about $350 to $400 online. For this price, I received a peaked-satin-lapel, one-button, slim-fit jacket with flap pockets and a center vent along with a pair of flat-front evening pants, all in super 110s merino wool.
For my evening shirt, I wanted something a little bit dressier than the standard pleated tuxedo shirt usually offered in American formalwear stores, and eventually decided on a Marcella shirt. I was not able to find one sold by a merchant in the United States for a decent price (Brooks Brothers does offer a pseudo-model for $135) so I turned to British retailer TM Lewin. They appear to be the only reputable clothiers who offer a spread-collar Marcella shirt for under 75 US dollars.
To go with the shirt, I ordered a sized self-tie silk bow tie for $19 from an Amazon.com storefront called Silk Solutions.
During my extensive search for a waistcoat, I found several beautiful examples from British clothiers but they were typically £160 to £200 which is about $280 US dollars or more. Ouch. Eventually, by doing some in-depth searching for smaller storefronts at Amazon, I located a merchant (Uniform Tux) that sells classic waistcoats for only $49. Naturally, I was suspicious, but it did indeed turn out to be 110 wool with satin silk lapels. Of course, I would have preferred a classic U-shaped waistcoat but they simply weren’t available for a reasonable price.
Another item that took considerable effort to source was an affordable pair of men’s opera pumps. (A random observer might label me a twit for wearing men’s shoes with bows on them, but to me, it is all the more emasculating to continue a formal tradition that can be traced back to 17th-century court shoes.) Once again, my first stop was Amazon but the best option I could find there was a formal loafer. A little bit more searching led to a pair of Brooks Brothers evening pumps but the price was a bit more than I willing to spend. I was able to locate several specialty merchants in the United Kingdom who sold opera pumps, but they were often outlandishly priced at more than 400 US dollars. Then, by chance, I noticed that one of these merchant’s pumps were marked “Broadland Slippers” on the insole. It turns out this made-to-measure company provides many of the evening pumps for other high-end British formal stores who simply re-brand the shoes and add a hefty markup. By buying directly from the manufacturer the price was only £127 (without VAT, including shipping), which is equivalent to 208 US dollars. I placed an order with them and one month later, my custom evening pumps arrived in excellent condition and fit well.
Thanks to Amazon.com’s system for indicating which reviewers actually own the items being reviewed (and their Amazon Prime program that provides free shipping), I was able to locate a generic but very nice set of classical black/silver cuff links and four shirt studs for only $30. I also purchased a well-reviewed white linen handkerchief from the site for only $8 and some generic formal hosiery for only $14. After receiving all of my items, my next step was to head to two local seamstresses whom I have known for many years. I made special arrangements to meet them in the evening because human body proportions shrink throughout the day due to gravity and my dinner suit would only be worn in the evening. (On average, a 20-year-old man will shrink in stature about 2/3 of one inch between 8 AM and 10 PM. Likewise, a 40-year-old man will shrink about ¾ of an inch while an 80-year-old man will shrink about 1 ¼ inch.) They hemmed the jacket’s sleeves, sewed up its center vent, took in its waist and removed its pocket flaps, as well as hemmed the trousers, adjusted the waistcoat and took in the Marcella shirt. I also had them add shirt and waistcoat tabs. The cost for all of these alterations was $125 and they were worth every penny.
The End Result
The final tally for my outfit including shipping was:
Tuxedo – $229 Tuxedo Alterations – $110 Waistcoat – $49 Marcella Shirt – $72 Shirt Alterations – $15 Opera Pumps – $208 Sized Self-Tie Bow Tie – $19 Dress Hose – $14 Stud and Cuff Link Set – $32 Linen Handkerchief – $8
Total – $757
As you can see, I was able to gather everything I needed under budget. I can report that the opera outing went very well and that I received some appreciative looks from several people who sat nearby. At the very least, I now have a dinner suit I can feel proud of and which fits my frame correctly and appeals to a classical aesthetic. I have since purchased a piqué full-dress shirt with detachable collar, a white full-dress waistcoat, and a cummerbund which will allow me to vary my outfit at different outings. My only disappointment is that I was unable to locate a more reasonably priced grosgrain dinner suit or a U-shaped waistcoat. After making my purchases I discovered the existence of British clothier Oliver Brown who offer both of these items for about US$1,200. If I had known about this earlier I may well have purchased them regardless of my budget.