Classic Black-Tie Shirts

High quality silk satin lapel with bow tie and Cummerbund in Black Silk Satin with Red Carnation Boutonniere

A Tale of Two Collars

Once upon a time, the dinner jacket was born as the informal offspring of the majestic tailcoat and had no accessories to call its own.  For many years, it borrowed the stiff-front wing-collar shirt from its full-dress parent.  Then the jacket came of age in the glorious sartorial days of the 1930s with a unique dress code that included a soft-front shirt with a turndown collar.  This soon became the standard black-tie shirt and remained so until a very dark time known as the seventies when an evil imposter appeared.

Wing-Collar Shirt with Detachable Collar

The Full-Dress Original

With its tall, starched detachable wing collar and stiff, plain bosom, this classic shirt radiates the elegance and gentility of a nobler era and imbues the most ordinary of men with an aristocratic air.  Complete details of this princely garment can be found in the White Tie section.

Originally, the white stiff front shirt used to be the only evening shirt option for men. Despite being rarely seen with black tie since the 1940s, some sartorial authorities such as Alan Flusser advise that this option remains perfectly acceptable today, although it should be limited to the very formal single-breasted peaked-lapel jacket. It can be paired with a black or matching white marcella evening waistcoat.

Cummerbund in Black Silk Satin - Fort Belvedere

Marcella Bib shirt with Cummerbund in Black Silk Satin – Fort Belvedere

If you wear a boiled front or marcella pique front shirt, make sure to wear an undershirt otherwise you will suffer from nipple chaving.  Also, ensure to get a properly sized black bow tie or a single end bow tie so no clasp is visible. Moreover,you will need shirt studs to fasten the collar to the shirt, and you can usually find those at the same places you buy the collars or vintage. For more information about buying tuxedo shirts, please take a look at our buying guide.

The Modern Reinvention: Attached Wing Collar Shirt

In the 1960s American manufacturers created the attached collar version of the wing-collar shirt.  At first, it maintained the traits of the original stiff front but by the late 1970s, it was featuring soft pleated fronts with minuscule wings.  This modern and much-maligned incarnation is described in depth in the Contemporary Black Tie section.

Black Bow Tie and Cummerband in Black Faille Grosgrain

Soft, attached turndown collar tuxedo shirt Black Bow Tie and Cummerband in Black Faille Grosgrain

Turndown-Collar Shirt

Popularized in the early 1930s by the future Duke of Windsor, turndown-collar dinner shirts offered a more comfortable and practical alternative to the cardboard-stiff full-dress model in that they were softer, did not require extensive starching and laundering and could be buttoned in front instead of in the back.  Initially considered too informal for any occasion outside of summer, they soon became the black-tie shirt of choice following the war.

The body of a soft evening shirt is typically constructed of a thin fabric that provides maximum breathability such as fine broadcloth, poplin, batiste or voile.  The turndown collar can either be spread or semi-spread as shown in the pictures to the right.  The spread version is more formal and because its tips are hidden under the jacket lapels it is well suited for the streamlined shawl-collar.  The sleeves of soft-front shirts always carry French cuffs (double cuffs in the UK).

Cummerbund in Black Silk Faille Grosgrain Repp

Pleated shirt front with Cummerbund in Black Silk Faille Grosgrain Repp

The final visible portion of the shirt, the bosom, is a bib-shaped or vertically rectangular double layer of fabric unique to formal shirts.  The bosom is traditionally decorated with pleats or piqué.  For the first option, wide or “box” pleats were the most common style during the 1930s but the narrow pleats that are so popular today have been around since the 1940s.  A dressier alternative was devised by London shirtmakers of the 1930s who decorated the bosom, cuffs, and collars with the piqué normally associated with the full-dress shirt.  This combination is commonly known as a Marcella shirt after the British term for the birdseye pattern that is used in the piqué.

Black-tie shirts are traditionally closed with two to three studs depending on the wearer’s height although it should be noted that some classic etiquette authorities limited studs to stiff-front shirts only and prescribed pearl buttons for soft-front models instead.  Bosoms can be unstarched (“soft-front”) or lightly starched (“semi-stiff”).  Also, modern shirts often feature 4 stud holes, whereas more contemporary tuxedo shirts have a hidden fly without any studs, you can learn more about them here.

In the latter case, the bib should end above the waistline to prevent it from billowing out when the wearer sits down.  And to keep either type of shirt front from pulling out of the trousers when the wearer stands up, higher-end models will have a tab that attaches to a button on the inside of the trouser waistband.  Like the bottom of the shirt’s bib, the tab is hidden by the formal waist covering.

There are no pockets on formal shirts as they are not considered dressy and would interfere with the reinforced bosom.

A proper tuxedo shirt should be buttoned onto the pants

A proper tuxedo shirt should be buttoned onto the pants

What’s in a Name?:

“Wing Collar” / “Wing Tip”

Despite what some mainstream formalwear retailers advertise, wing tipsare for shoes.  Shirts, on the other hand, have wing collars.


Button Shirts

Buttoned plain-front black-tie shirts have also been around for a long time.  A 1948 etiquette bookreported that this least formal style of shirt was actually the most popular (but required pearl buttons).

Well Suited: Voile Shirts

The visible features of a voile formal shirt – bib, collar, and cuffs – are made of a thicker material than the sheer body which provides maximum comfort beneath a dinner jacket.

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Classic Tuxedo Shirts
Gentleman's Gazette LLC
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