Imagine you are walking out to your mailbox. It’s fall, so the weather is brisk, the wind is blowing and it smells like crisp leaves.
You grab the mail and breeze past all of the junk mail and bills. Nothing too exciting today. Until, you see an invitation from your friend for the fall fundraiser for their local nonprofit. It’s a benefit gala and the dress code is black tie. You don’t really want to go, but you will because you’re a good friend and who doesn’t enjoy getting dressed up every now and again? Except, you don’t really know how to dress in black tie attire.
Well, fear not my friend. I am here to rescue you once again from the terrifying unknown of men’s fashion.
Today, we will talk about what is black tie, what’s not and when you should wear it. We will also discuss whether you should invest in a tuxedo or rent one. Hop on to my style education bus and we will figure it out together.
When we talk about “black tie” attire for men, the dress code is pretty strict. This will make all you fashion worry warts out there breathe a sigh of relief, because there’s not really much room for error. Let’s start by covering what black tie is not. It is not the same as formal wear. Black tie is a very specific segment of formal wear, while formal wear covers a broad range of attires.
Black tie is not designed to be worn during the day; it is evening wear only. Black tie is not the fanciest category of attire. While black tie is considered quite fancy for us these days, in its original design black tie attire was the semi-formal option with the option of highest formality being white tie attire. Additionally, black tie is not the humorous attire we have seen in many performances and movies; it is a serious attire full of formality and poise.
So, what is black tie, then? Black tie consists of these basic elements: a black dinner jacket, matching slacks, the option of a formal black waistcoat or cummerbund, an evening shirt, a black bowtie, black dress socks and black dress shoes. It’s as simple as that. Let’s look at the details for each element:
Dinner jacket: This should be a tailless dinner jacket made out of worsted wool with black silk lapels, usually single-breasted, but can also be double-breasted. The jacket should either have peaked lapels or a shawl collar. Buttons should all match and should either be black or covered in the same fabric as the lapels.
Slacks: These are pretty basic. Fabric should match the jacket and pockets should be vertical slits. Tuxedo pants should have no belt loops (they are held up by suspenders) and no cuffs. Whether the slacks are flat-fronted or pleated is up to you, but I think flat-fronted looks a bit sleeker.
Waistcoat: You can choose between this or a cummerbund. Whichever waist-covering you choose, should be black. A waistcoat should be constructed out of the same fabric as the jacket. The cut should be low and wide and the vest will also have small lapels. Just like the jacket, the vest can be either single-breasted or double-breasted.
Cummerbund: If you go with this option, it should be made from the same silk fabric that covers the jacket lapels. This is a pleated sash that wraps around the waist and the pleats should be facing upward. In some designs, the pleats can be used as pockets or there are even hidden pockets.
Evening shirt: Similar to a dress shirt, this type of shirt has a few features that set it apart. First, it has a “bib,” or a rectangular panel that runs from the collar down the front of the shirt. This can be pleated or flat, but the most common models are pleated. Additionally, in the place of buttons on the sleeves, the evening shirt has holes for cufflinks, meaning that all sleeves of this type of shirt are french-cuffed. Evening shirts for tuxedos have turndown collars and these collars should never have buttons like a typical dress shirt. Finally, an evening shirt should always, always be white.
Bow tie: The bow tie should match the fabric of the jacket lapels and always remember: a true gentleman never has a pre-tied bow tie. There are four styles of tying that are accepted for black tie attire — butterfly, semi-butterfly, straight-end or pointed. Choose whichever one of these tying styles you like best.
Dress socks: These should be black silk dress socks that are over-the-calf length.
Dress shoes: These can either be formal pumps or a formal oxford shoe. Either option should be a shiny black. Formal pumps are largely out of style unless you are highly fashion forward, so I would recommend a formal oxford. Like I said, these should be shiny, or polished, and they can be any type of formal oxford.
I should note, that you can probably find all kinds of options for “tuxedos” that don’t stick to these guidelines, but those are not traditional tuxedos. If you want to change something up in your tuxedo as a fashion statement, I would suggest choosing just one component to change and leaving everything else to the traditional guidelines. Other options that are acceptable under the strict traditional guidelines are a white jacket in the summertime (still with black lapels and buttons) or a dark navy fabric for the jacket (again still with black lapels and buttons).
Additionally, you may encounter events that have a “black tie optional” dress code. This is a bit different than straight up “black tie.” While a black tie dress code means a tuxedo is required for men, a black tie optional event means that you should absolutely wear a tuxedo if you have one, but if not, you have the option to wear a dark suit with a black tie or bow tie. My recommendation is that you always dress your best, so go with the highest level of dress if possible.
OK, so you may be saying to yourself, I don’t really need to own a tuxedo because I only need one once every five years. There are definitely a ton of great options for renting a tuxedo. You can look at local businesses or the are many online options for this as well. I won’t kill you if you choose to rent.
I will say, however, owning your own tuxedo brings great prestige and class. If you need one even just once a year, or even every couple of years, I would suggest investing in a tuxedo that fits you well and displays your personal style. This is a great way to elevate your personal wardrobe.
And with that, I think we have covered the basics of black tie attire for men. I know this realm of the wardrobe is less-traveled, so please reach out if you have any questions.
Next month, join me in exploring the world of sweaters.
Judah Estreicher is the CEO of JBD Clothiers in Baltimore. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.