Tuxedo Fit & Style Basics 101

Tuxedo Fit & Style Basics 101

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A man should look as though he has chosen his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.

Sir Hardy AmiesDressmaker for Queen Elizabeth II

The dearth of good sartorial advice today affects not just the exclusive realm of formal wear but also the general domain of tailored men’s wear.  All too often sales clerks put their own priorities first, focusing on the selling the latest fads and minimizing alterations rather than determining what is best for the customer.

Therefore this section will explain the basic elements of style so that buyers can select a tuxedo that will best flatter their general build as well as remain fashionable for years to come.  It will also review the fundamentals of proper fit so that whether purchased or rented, the selected dinner suit can perfectly complement their specific physique.  The end result should be a tuxedo which appears born into rather than borrowed.

Black-Tie-Pocket-Guide-mockup-multi-screen2-min

I. Basics – What is Black Tie?

We begin our review of the fundamentals of black tie by establishing the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “why” of the dress code.

What: Black Tie Defined

Logically, first of the “five Ws” that should be answered is what exactly does “black tie” mean? The Guide reviewed twenty different works by leading style and etiquette authorities and found that the true definition lies in the dress code’s details. Furthermore, despite the diversity of the experts and the century-long evolution of the code, the cumulated details are largely identical which puts to rest any misconception that it is merely a matter of personal opinion.

Cary Grant with wide peak lapel tuxedo and butterfly bow tie and two shirt studs

The Short Answer

At its most basic, black tie is a dress code that for men consists of the traditional tuxedo and accompaniments: a black dinner jacket and matching trousers, an optional black formal waistcoat or black cummerbund, a white formal shirt, a black bow tie or, alternatively, a black long tie, black dress socks, and black formal shoes. In hot weather, a white dinner jacket may be substituted and the cummerbund is the preferred waist covering.

The Complete Answer

For the complete answer, check out the Definition of Black Tie here. In short, these are the Tuxedo Style Basics.

Why Is It Called Tuxedo?

The dinner jacket had its U.S. debut in the exclusive enclave of Tuxedo Park, New York which is how it earned its American nickname.

1. Tuxedo Jacket

For more details about the Tuxedo Dinner Jacket, click here.

Fabric:

  • black wool is the norm
  •  midnight blue is equally correct

Tuxedo Silhouette can be:

  • single-breasted
  • double-breasted

Lapels can be:

  • peaked lapel
  • shawl collar

and can have:

  • satin facing
  • grosgrain facing
This midnight blue jacket features lapels faced in black grosgrain silk.

This midnight blue jacket features lapels faced in black grosgrain silk.

Vents

  • No vents is the most formal option, but side vents are also acceptable.
  • one button is traditional for single-breasted models
  • pockets should be jetted without flaps
Typical black-tie trousers, featuring side adjusters and a silk stripe (or galon/braid).

Typical black-tie trousers, featuring side adjusters and a silk stripe (or galon/braid).

3. Tuxedo Pants

  • same material as the jacket
  • single braid along outside seams to match lapel facings
  • cut for suspenders (braces in the UK)
  • no cuffs (turnups in the UK)

4. waist covering

  • optional waist covering is traditionally either: black cummerbund made from silk to match jacket facings;
  • best suited to shawl collar jacket; not particularly popular in

Europe

  • black low-cut evening waistcoat; best suited to peaked lapel

jacket

  • either is worn with single-breasted jacket models but not with double-breasted
Classic Black Tie Accessories - Shirt Studs, Cufflinks, Pinky Ring, Pocket Square

Classic Black Tie Accessories – Shirt Studs, Cufflinks, Pinky Ring, Pocket Square

5. shirt

  • white fabric, turndown collar
  • fronts can be either pleated or piqué (Marcella in the UK)
  • shirt traditionally has eyelets for studs; some authorities allow for fly-fronts
  • French cuffs (double cuffs in the UK)
  • wing collar is considered unflattering or inappropriate for black tie by most authorities; some allow it but only in its traditional white tie form

6. neckwear

  • black self-tie silk bow tie to match lapel facings
  • black silk four-in-hand tie (long tie) has become a popular alternative although it is rejected by traditionalists

7. footwear

  • black shoes can be:
    · patent or highly polished leather oxfords (most popular)
    · patent or highly polished leather pumps (most traditional)
  • black silk or fine fabric hose, over-the-calf length
Cummerbund in Black Silk Satin with Black Silk Satin Bow Tie and White Unlined Leather Gloves and Red Carnation Boutonniere

Cummerbund in Black Silk Satin with Black Silk Satin Bow Tie and White Unlined Leather Gloves and Red Carnation Boutonniere

8. accessories

  • harmonizing black, gold or mother-of-pearl studs and cufflinks
  • suspenders (braces in UK) of black or white silk
  • optional white silk or linen handkerchief as a pocket square
  • outerwear: Chesterfield coat is most conventional but any other dark dressy coat is acceptable; rain (trench) coats are not appropriate
  • evening dress scarf of white silk with tassels
Off-White dinner jackets had their origins in attire worn for cruises and at tropical resorts.

Off-White dinner jackets had their origins in attire worn for cruises and at tropical resorts.

Warm-Weather Variation

The following outfit is acceptable as a substitute to standard black tie year-round in tropical climates and in summer in North America:

1. jacket

  • white or preferably ivory
  • self-faced lapels
  • all other details as per classic jacket

2. trousers

  • black
  • all other details as per standard black-tie trousers

3. waist covering

  • black cummerbund

4. shirt

  • as per standard black-tie shirt

5. neckwear

  • as per standard black-tie neckwear

6. footwear

  • as per standard black-tie footwear

7. accessories

  • optional colored silk or linen handkerchief as
  • pocket square
  • all other details as per standard black-tie accessories

Obviously, proper black tie is a far more specific dress code than anything the average man is likely to encounter outside of the military. Take a second look, though, and you will see that much of black tie’s dress code is not about what you must wear but what you may wear.

In fact, the amount of choice can be a little overwhelming. But don’t worry; the remaining four W’s of black-tie etiquette will help narrow down the options based on what is appropriate for various types of occasions. Beyond that, your choices are simply a matter of personal preference, which we’ll explore in our summary of the code’s attire.

Stylized Jazz Age Black Tie Tuxedo Outfit from 1925

Stylized Jazz Age Black Tie Tuxedo Outfit from 1925

When: Evening Elegance

Black tie and its ultra-formal progenitor white tie are the two categories of a class of dress known as evening wear (or evening dress in the UK), a centuries-old tradition that reserves one’s finest attire until after sundown.

As evening wear, the dinner jacket and tailcoat are ideally not to be worn in daylight. Because this can be quite unavoidable during summer in some locales, etiquette experts have devised more practical guidelines. The most common solution is to define evening chronologically and discourage the wearing of corresponding attire in public prior to six o’clock. The other school of thought allows more latitude by asserting that evening begins at 6 p.m. or dark, whichever comes first. In either case, unless he is working as a waiter the only excuse for a man to be seen in a tuxedo during daytime hours is if he is traveling to an evening event.

Typical 1930s full cut for evening wear

Typical 1930s full cut for evening wear

Who: Age Appropriate

Evening wear is intended for adult occasions and so dinner jackets and tailcoats have traditionally been considered inappropriate for children. According to the Encyclopedia of Etiquette, “As a general rule, boys do not wear dinner jackets much before they are fifteen, or tailcoats before they are about eighteen.” This is sound advice considering these are the ages when young men trade in their youthful clothes for grown-up attire at popular coming-of-age ceremonies. In fact, the only time that children younger than these ages are likely to attend a formal affair is when they are invited to participate in a wedding. In these circumstances only junior ushers should wear the same clothing as their adult counterparts.

Late 1950s ad for Henkel Trocken showing a seasoned gentleman in an wing collar shirt and black tie ensemble that is rather early 1940s

Late 1950s ad for Henkel Trocken showing a seasoned gentleman in an wing collar shirt and black tie ensemble that is rather early 1940s

Where: Invitation and Implication

Prior to World War II, there was an implicit understanding among polite society as to what type of occasion required what type of attire. Following the war, social standards became much more casual and formalwear rules more subjective. Consequently, most formal affairs requiring formal attire will now state this explicitly in the invitation or other forms of guest instructions. Emily Post’s Etiquette advises hosts that ‘Black Tie’ or ‘White Tie’ “is conventionally printed in the lower right corner of invitations to proms, charity balls, formal dinners or dances, and any event for which clarification of dress standards may be necessary.”

However, there remain a few occasions where evening wear is expected, or at least welcomed, largely by implication. If you are looking for excuses to enjoy your black-tie finery or just want to ensure that you will not be noticeably underdressed, it would be wise to research local custom before attending the following formal functions.

Black Tie and White Tie ensembles at the opera house.

Black Tie and White Tie ensembles at the opera house.

Public Entertainments

Premier performances at the opera, ballet and symphony are often implicitly Black Tie Optional affairs, as are opening nights of major theatrical productions. A word of caution though: the balcony is a “don’t dress” section unless you and your companion will later be attending a formal function.

Non-traditional Black Tie ensemble with velvet DB jacket and midnight blue trousers, following the clack black tie style rules

Non-traditional Black Tie ensemble with velvet DB jacket and midnight blue trousers, following the clack black tie style rules

Private Entertainments

There are still a few balls which require white-tie attire by custom but these are primarily in Europe. Private affairs requiring black-tie attire are most likely to be formal banquets or dinner-dances held by large corporations, professional associations and fraternal organizations. Ritzy charity galas regularly require black tie but are more accurately classified as semi-private (or semi-public) because tickets are often advertised only to a select pool of potential guests.

English playwright, director, actor and singer Noel Coward starring in his short play We Were Dancing.

English playwright, director, actor and singer Noel Coward starring in his short play We Were Dancing.

Coming-of-Age Ceremonies

At debutante balls the debutante’s escort and father traditionally wear full dress (another term for the tailcoat and its proper accessories), while the other male guests attire themselves in tuxedos. Proms and their international equivalents usually have a much less sophisticated interpretation of “formal” and even in schools where tuxedos are preferred over regular suits, young men will often opt for outfits that bear little resemblance to proper black-tie attire. The Quinceañera is a Latin American celebration equivalent to an elaborate Sweet Sixteen where the celebrant is customarily accompanied by her escort plus a “court” of fourteen other couples, usually dressed in formal attire.

Royal Wedding - Prince Charles & Prince William in Black Tie

Royal Wedding – Prince Charles & Prince William in Black Tie

Evening Wedding Ceremonies

Marriage ceremonies are commonly held to more traditional standards than other social occasions and a formal evening wedding is the grandest of all. Complete details of proper wedding attire for guests and grooms can be found in Formal Evening Weddings.

Wearing formal and semi-formal evening clothes at sea is a storied (and not completely extinct) tradition.

Wearing formal and semi-formal evening clothes at sea is a storied (and not completely extinct) tradition.

Formal Nights at Sea

While it is true that black tie is no longer mandatory for evenings at sea thanks to the advent of budget-priced mega-ships, the fact is that, other than weddings and proms, cruises provide the most popular opportunities for the average man to don a tuxedo.

Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt in 1974 wearing black tie

Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt in 1974 wearing black tie

Diplomatic Functions

White tie is eminently suited to ceremonial diplomatic functions such as state dinners. While these extremely formal evenings remain a tradition in the royal courts of Europe, American presidents have hosted only two such affairs since Ronald Reagan left office in 1989. Consequently, in Washington these types of dinners are now typically black tie.

Institutional Dress Codes

Historic societies at prestigious universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, and fraternal organizations such as Masonic Lodges, often have their members don full dress or tuxedos for special events. These groups may have their own versions of traditional formalwear codes which makes their attire more of a uniform than evening wear per se.

Why: Dress Code Benefits

Hosts in recent decades have needlessly complicated the straight-forward Black Tie and White Tie dress codes by devising ambiguous variations. Consequently, uninformed guests already prone to anxiety at the sight of the standard codes on an invitation become even more stressed. Therefore, both host and guests should keep in mind the following significant benefits of traditional dress codes.

Relaxed 1930s Black Tie evenit with black waistcoat, wing collar and boutonniere as seen by Laurence Fellows

Relaxed 1930s Black Tie evenit with black waistcoat, wing collar and boutonniere as seen by Laurence Fellows

Social Guideposts

Hosts that avoid setting dress standards for fear of appearing stuffy or alienating invitees are actually doing their guests a disservice. Without clear guidelines, guests are forced into a no-win game of guessing what type of attire is appropriate. Conversely, it is ironic that the appearance of Black Tie on an invitation causes panic in so many men. They frequently view the looming event as an intimidating test of their (sadly lacking) sartorial skills when in fact the black-tie “test” comes with a complete set of answers guaranteed to ensure top grades to any man that follows them.

Sense of Occasion

In addition to providing clarity and self-confidence, prescribed attire also helps to generate a sense of occasion. Combined with a specific code of conduct, it fashions a social ritual that elevates one type of happening above another. Fine restaurants may go to great lengths to provide a more elegant atmosphere than a local pub, for example, but if their customers import typical pub clothing and behavior then these establishments are robbed of much of their special character.

Heath Ledger wearing a classic peaked lapel, one button tuxedo at the 2006 Oscars

Heath Ledger wearing a classic peaked lapel, one button tuxedo at the 2006 Oscars

Act of Consideration

Just as a host or hostess can show consideration towards guests by providing clear dress guidelines, so does a guest return the favor by being mature enough to honor them. As Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners points out, “by being seen to make an effort you are paying your host or hostess a great compliment, as well as making yourself look your most attractive. After all, the short time required for getting yourself dressed is negligible compared with the hours the hostess might have put in preparing the party.” Ignoring the event’s prescribed etiquette will make it clear that you could not care less about your hosts’ desires nor your fellow guests’ experience.

Etiquette: Further Reading
Formal Tradition: A closer look at the concept of evening wear and the type of occasions that customarily merit it.
‘Black Tie’ Variants: Dress code variations such as Black Tie Optional and why they should be avoided.
Definition of ‘White Tie’: A summary of the garments that make up the most formal male attire of all.
Ladies’ Evening Wear: A description of the much more loosely defined female attire associated with Black Tie and White Tie.

Late 1960s Chartreuse Dinner Jacket with Continental Tie, Cummerbund and Studs

Late 1960s Chartreuse Dinner Jacket with Continental Tie, Cummerbund and Studs

Contemporary Fashion: Amending Perfection

Change for the Worse

If you are intent on modifying black tie’s classic standards, the first step is to ask yourself why you want to risk foregoing their numerous benefits.

Since the 1960s, modernist attempts to reinvent black tie have typically arisen from the perception that it needs to be more comfortable or more contemporary. However, proponents of classic menswear argue that its components have been perfected over many decades by the best tailors and the best dressers and that all the necessary compromises have already been made. Says a 2004 Wall Street Journal editorial:

This is the power of the traditional costume–it is at the same time aristocratic and democratic. The very uniformity of the tuxedo makes it socially leveling. And whereas most instruments of democratic equality tend to lower all boats, the tuxedo levels up. Would-be improvements invariably throw the aristocratic-democratic balance out of whack.

For the most part, history has validated the traditionalists’ argument. Ever since the rise of the baby boomers in the 1960s, attempts to replace black tie’s convention, maturity and conformity with modernity, youthfulness and individuality have almost always failed, often spectacularly.

You should also ask yourself why you want to risk degrading the black-tie experience for your fellow guests. Making bad sartorial choices at high school proms or youthful weddings doesn’t much impact anyone but yourself. But carrying these bastardizations into grown-up black-tie galas affects everyone in attendance by fracturing the unique sartorial uniformity that the dress code is supposed to impart.

Frank Sinatra in a shawl collar tuxedo

Change for the Better: Rules for Bending the Rules

Having said all that, history has also proven that not all change is bad. In fact, what we define as classic black tie today would never have come into existence if it were not for changes to the dress code prior to the 1940s. The critical difference between black tie’s pre-war adaptations and the ones that came later is that the original changes were introduced by men with an impeccable sense of style and a thorough familiarity with the purpose of formal attire. In other words – and this can’t be emphasized enough – the only people who can successfully bend the rules are the ones who truly understand them.

The first step in understanding the rules that make black tie successful is to be aware of the merits that define this success. By closely examing black tie’s historical origins and evolution as well as its classic sartorial details, the following primary merits emerge:

  • Black tie maximizes the masculine ideal by making a man look taller, stronger and younger than any other type of dress.
  • Black tie makes a man appear more refined than any other type of dress.
  • Black tie’s unique uniformity creates a visual equality among men.
  • Black tie maximizes an occasion’s formality.
Black Bow Tie in Silk Satin Sized Butterfly Self Tie with Red Carnation Boutonniere and Classic White Irish Linen Pocket square

Black Bow Tie in Silk Satin Sized Butterfly Self Tie with Red Carnation Boutonniere and Classic White Irish Linen Pocket square

Now that we have identified the traits makes black tie successful, we can determine the rules behind those traits:

  • Black tie is grounded in black. White is always secondary and color is to be used sparsely and with great discretion.
  • Black tie emphasizes understated details and elegant finishes.
  • Black tie manifests established sartorial tradition.

Arming yourself with these rules of successful black tie allows you to now judge the potential success of modern variations. In addition, you can take advantage of a few secondary guidelines to assess how best to bend those rules:

  • Try it on. The fact that a new trend looks good on a professional model or popular celebrity means nothing unless he’ll be the one wearing it for you. Similarly, you can’t truly weigh the visceral appeal of current fads against the subtle nuances of traditional style until you have worn the latter as well.
  • Keep it low key. A variation that is subtle and respectful of the remaining fundamentals is only bending the rules; a transgression that blatantly contravenes numerous principles is definitely breaking the rules. Play it safe by leaving the dinner suit untouched and limiting the modern twists to its less visible accessories.
  • Pace yourself. Include no more than one unorthodox variation at a time, particularly if it’s an especially conspicuous bastardization.
  • Know your audience. Remember that black-tie customs vary according to geographic region, social strata and relative formality of the affair. You will be much more likely to pull off a Nehru jacket and band collar shirt at a music awards ceremony than you would at a diplomatic reception.
  • Act your age. Younger men can get away with a lot more than other guys. So can much older men, for that matter. For all the rest of us it’s best that we accept our limitations.

Classic Black Tie Tuxedo – Sven Raphael Schneider

Proper Fit

Once you’ve decided upon the details of your tuxedo it’s time to switch from theory to practice. Before you rent or buy anything make sure you understand that:

a tuxedo, for all its fancy trimmings, is still a suit, and
a suit has to fit you properly or you’ll look you’re wearing someone else’s clothing which pretty much negates a tuxedo’s stylistic benefits
If you‘re fortunate enough to have your tuxedo custom made for you then a good fit should be built right into the suit by the tailor. If you opt for a pre-made tuxedo then the process for ensuring a proper fit is two-fold:

Try on the suit and assess the fit features that cannot be altered by a tailor. If a suit does not meet some of these fixed criteria (and no ready-to-wear suit is likely to meet them all) then you will have to decide how relatively important those shortcomings are to you.
After selecting an acceptable suit based on the fixed criteria, have the alterable features adjusted as needed.
The Proper Fit page lists all the alterable and unalterable criteria that you need to know. Read it, print it and carry it with you because you can’t count on salespeople to always put your best interests above their own.

Further Reading:

Classic Black Tie: Explores the sartorial details of each traditional component in depth by examing their technicalities and their aesthetic impact on the overall outfit and, by association, the wearer. Readers can use this information to help determine which options suit them best (such as shawl versus peaked lapels) and to explore traditional alternatives that can be used for tasteful personalization (such as colored or patterned accessories).

Contemporary Black Tie: Uses the same garment-by-garment breakdown as Classic Black Tie to examine popular contemporary variations in the context of the classic benchmarks.

Suit Style: A suit’s style or cut refers to features pertaining solely to fashion aesthetics. Use this information to determine the best match for your particular physique when choosing between attributes such as fitted versus looser cut, single- versus double-breasted jacket, and pleats versus flat-front trousers.
How to Tie A Bow Tie: Nothing separates the men from the boys – and the waiters – quite like a self-tied bow tie. Fortunately, it is the same technique as tying your shoelaces as shown in these illustrated instructions and how-to video.
Wear & Care Tips for cleaning, storing and traveling with your formal suit, shirt, and shoes.

Explore the remaining content of our Black Tie Basics here:

Summary
Tuxedo Fit & Style Basics 101
Article Name
Tuxedo Fit & Style Basics 101
Description
Learn all about the basics of black tie including the classic rules, contemporary alternatives what tuxedo to wear and what dinner jacket to avoid.
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Publisher
Gentleman's Gazette LLC
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