Cultural Differences: Black Tie At Weddings

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black-and-white-wedding
Considering the violent and convincing manner in which the redcoat troops were defeated in the last quarter of the 18th century, with the assistance of French gold and weaponry, the very existence of what is famously termed the ‘special relationship’ seems inconceivable but the similarities between the peoples either side of the Atlantic Ocean are well noted and undeniable. Indeed it could be argued that Britain has now maintained a friendly and understanding relationship with America longer than she has with any other nation. However, the grandiloquent pretences of the 19th century – the dream of America and the Imperial mother nation uniting together in mighty union – have, perhaps fortunately, vanished.

The Old World has been in decline since the ‘disagreements’ of 1781, the New has risen steadily to outmuscle, outshine and outdo the parent but, like all offspring, has slowly developed an appreciation for the Old. In art, architecture, fashion and music there have certainly been examples of American uniqueness; innovations of the continent itself. However, there has been, and still is, a connection and a reverence for the European way of doing things. This is by no means an embarrassment for Americans, nor is it overstatement of the greatness that lingers from a bygone age. Between two continents we have forged what has become to be known by all as ‘The Western World.’

However, there are some peculiar aspects and traditions of modern America perplexing to me. The most popular sports are played little elsewhere in the world; there is a strange arrangement in calendars of months, days and then years and of course, there is a tradition to wear ‘a tux’ at one’s wedding – no matter that it may be a morning ceremony followed by a lunchtime reception. Some American readers may think it terribly old fashioned, and Old World, to question a tradition that most Americans have known for at least a generation. However, it has always seemed to me rather strange when looking at American wedding photos – the bride and groom, extremely neat in appearance; well groomed, coiffed and with gleaming smiles but in contradicting attire.

The bride is invariably wearing what some refer to as the ‘meringue’ – a mound of creamy white that corresponds to the ‘fairytale’ of the wedding ceremony. It is essentially a period design, although what period it directly represents isn’t always clear. The gentleman stands next to his bride in a severe black tuxedo, usually with satin-faced lapels, and wears the white shirt with, typically, a black clip on bow tie. It is usually a case of ‘day meets night’ – it would be correct to wear black tie (or, as it is a formal occasion ‘white tie’) in the evening, after six o’ clock, but usually, the same dress is adopted for morning and afternoon wear. In the shining sun, the ‘tuxedo’ looks odd to this traditionalist European. Commanding and appropriately attired he might be to American eyes; to me he looks more like a Parisian waiter who has lost his tray. It might be that Americans don’t understand the rule of when to wear evening dress, do not care to follow such a rule or even that they are unaware of it being ‘evening dress.’ Someone I know recently wore morning dress to a wedding in the States to be complimented by a local with the words; ‘Nice tux!’ As the ensemble is known simply by this and not the more clear cut ‘evening dress’ or ‘dinner suit’, this may explain why it has somehow become the norm to wear it to one’s wedding.

The other explanation is that Americans adopted black tie at weddings as it was the only formal dress they possessed in their wardrobes. Instead of garbing themselves in something they were unlikely to wear again, they revolutionised the formal attire of weddings and adopted their ‘smart evening clothes’ instead. This is a rather charming explanation but is rather strange coming from a nation that produces television programmes that lecture women on the appropriateness of their clothing choices. “This one” shrills the self-assured host “is much maw an eevnin’ dress hunny. It’s black, that should give you your first clue!”


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Winston Chesterfield is an amateur composer, fashion blogger, trained lawyer and style aficionado. He lives in Westminster, London and blogs at www.levraiwinston.com.

Comments

  1. Clinton says:

    My hypothesis is that this trend stems from the opinion of most men in the US that clothing should be exclusively utilitarian. This mentality probably harkens back to the rugged pioneer or hunter ideal, ways of life seen as part as the US’s cultural fabric. They are also ways of life in which one’s clothes are meant to serve a purpose, often of carrying a variety of necessary tools, or even simply keeping oneself alive. With such utilitarianism in mind, many men in the US see the tux as having a singular purpose: that of making one look “dressed up.”

    I’ve experienced this first hand: as a classical musician, I often, for better or for worse, find myself in a tuxedo. I once tried to explain to a colleague that the peak lapel or even the shawl lapel made more sense than the notch. My arguments nonwithstanding, the look in his eyes belied to me his thoughts: “but I’m wearing a tux, aren’t I?”

    By the way, as to the television program you mentioned, the US is a nation of niche-marketed television programming. Although that program has enjoyed a certain amount of momentary popularity, I would hesitate to infer that that popularity represents the opinions of any significant percentage of people in the US.

    Great articles Winston, keep it up!

  2. Peter says:

    Sadly, the concept of time-appropriate attire seems to be far beyond the grasp of the average (North) American. The lack of proper instruction available to the masses is also to blame so I’m hoping my Web site can help fill that void, one visitor at a time.

  3. Peter says:

    P.S. The Web site I’m referring is linked to my name in this post.

  4. Benedict (Oxon) says:

    Cher Winston

    First and foremost, your articles are invariably literate and well-researched; for this I congratulate you. Any time you are near the university, I would be pleased to meet you for drinks. Secondly, I am interested to hear what experience you have of American weddings (whether first- or second-hand); at all the weddings I have attended (in the UK), every member of the bridal party has been in morning suits (whether rented or not), and everyone (male) present has worn a suit. Is this supposed informality pervasive in the city or anywhere else?

    Regards

    BDP

  5. alex says:

    Please do explain how the old world, as you call it, is in decline since 230 years straight.

    Isn’t the forming of a union of so many peoples a great achievement, especially if it grows in a lot of places out of the ruins left behind by communist rule.

    And how the new world has risen steadily to outdo the old.

    Didn’t North America have it’s own set of problems? A civil war comes to mind.

    You might want to adjust your view of the world to a more international compatible one.

    regards,
    alex

  6. Adam says:

    Alex: I wouldn’t say that the EU is a ‘great achievement’- in fact it is laughable to compare the formation of the EU to America’s success. Even more- Europe has done so much better than the EU- we have a lot to be proud of. The EU is nothing more than an excuse for the few rich countries to pay for and support the poor ones.

    Adam.

  7. alex says:

    Adam: the EU is the first era in all of europe’s history that we (the europeans) have peace among ourselves. That is by no means laughable. The forming of the US of A took place under completely different circumstances, from less peoples and with less governments that had a say in the process.

    As to what the EU is: I think you forgot about it being a single market, a political forum and a place of cultural exchange, about town twinning, multinational tv programs, exchange students, the erasmus program, the bologna process, free travel, and a lot of other initiatives. I know the EU has a lot of shortcomings, and I too don’t agree with a lot of things concerning it, for example the distribution of power (which should lie in the hands of the people, not their governments) but to say it’s merely an excuse for development aid is surely a bit too simple.
    alex

  8. Patrick says:

    Umm… what does the merits of the EU have to do with formal day-wear?

    In any case, as an American, I can say that the reason most Americans don’t distinguish between formal day and evening wear is that the industry doesn’t promote it, and the majority of American men either simply go along with whatever is marketed and sold to them, or what the women in their lives suggest. Also there is also some reluctance among American men to show too much concern over how one dresses, as being too particular or demonstrating too much individuality in clothing is seen as a feminine trait.

    Also, I’m curious, what are the variations of formal day-wear throughout Europe? The image of someone in a morning coat is usually that of a Brit. What do the Italians, Russians, Germans, etc. consider proper formal day-wear?

  9. Kyle says:

    If I could comment briefly on the tangent about sports, it has to do with timing and a few other factors.

    Baseball made its mark in the at the turn of the 19th century. This was at a point in time when transatlantic travel was time consuming and expensive. The same exchange of ideas and competition found within Europe for soccer wasn’t available for cheap export to the States. (I use the noun soccer without reservation as it is British in origin and was the term used when the game was introduced to us).

    I want to commend you for not citing our lack of soccering prowess as evidence of American arrogance or imperialism (it’s obvious you’ve never written for the Guardian’s sports pages). Soccer was spread throughout the globe by British expats at a time when the British empire was still the most powerful in the world.

    Left alone in relative sporting isolation you see American football evolve into a new species from rugby much as Australian rules football did when separated by a different ocean or two, and rugby itself is a sibling of soccer and named for the set of rules codified by the Rugby School that allowed for carrying of the ball.

    One thing that may have hampered soccer’s growth in the States were that it’s champions in the late 19th century were very disorganized when compared to those of baseball. With competent organizers and later businessmen at the helm, baseball conquered New York and with it the press. The box score in baseball gives fans more information about the shape of a game than any comparable summary for any other sport. As baseball came to dominate professional sports, American football would find its niche in the amateur ranks and become the dominant college sport in the 20th century (and still today). The everyday grind and marathon of a baseball season didn’t make for as big a spectacle as the solitary Saturday afternoon match between rival schools. Eventually American football’s amateur popularity paves the way for the flowering of the professional game in the 1960s.

    I would like to quibble with your claim that our most popular sports (with the exception of American football) are played little elsewhere in the world. Baseball is the most popular sport in the Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Aruba, Japan, Korea, and Venezuela and Taiwan. In addition to those countries, the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada and Australia have all produced players who are currently playing in Major League Baseball, the world’s top professional league. Baseball’s second world cup (called the World Baseball Classic) took place last Spring with Japan defending their inaugural title. There are fledgling amateur leagues in Ireland, South Africa and Italy. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed the first two Indian professionals in 2008. When the Japanese sell out the 55,000 seat Tokyo Dome just to watch their national team practice, I wouldn’t call baseball just an American sport. Basketball has also met with international success.

    American football, well you’ve got me there.

  10. Adam says:

    Alex: I certainly do not think that EU is anything to be proud of, (Also bear in mind that the writer is English- a country that seems to be ready to leave the ‘union’ at any time. Funnily enough, the most successful countries in Europe appear to want to stay out of the union). If you like it, great, however, many people don’t and I do not think that the union will last for another 50 years. (And may I add that all of Europe hasn’t been all peaceful during the existence of the union, there are many countries, non-EU members, but still European, that has suffered terribly from war not many years ago).

    Anyhow, this is moving away from the subject itself. My first comment was merely written because I agree with the writer’s article and do indeed consider it to be an ‘international compatible one’

  11. alex says:

    Adam: The british have a long history of a certain way of thinking about “the continent” and their empire.

    Now what might the most successful countries in Europe be? And by what measure do you decide that?

    Indeed they have, but that proves my point. The countries within the EU hadn’t had a war among themselves because of the EU, because of constant political dialog.

    Still, there was not one argument mentioned that supports this theory of Europe being in decline since 230 years and America rising steadily. So I can’t even decide whether we measure such things on a common scale.
    I’m gone.

  12. Patrick says:
  13. Reggie says:

    Americans of sophistication understand that a “tux” (abhorrent word) is eveningwear, and that wearing one in all its ghastly, rent-for-the-occasion permutations before 6 pm is a sign of boobish-ness. Those of my fellow countrymen who do so are unfortunate examples of the type who in your country I believe refer to napkins as “serviettes”

  14. David V says:

    A few observations of my own which may or may not bring some understanding to this incorrect use of evening wear. An understanding I did not have 31 years ago when I was married in a “tux”.
    The American wedding is dominated by the Bridal Industry (for that is what it is.)
    Every aspect of the wedding is controlled and decided on by women. We men allowed this to happen because we showed no interest in the planning. I made only one demand. The groomsmen’s shirts were NOT going to match the bridesmaids dresses.
    We are a nation of the middle class. We are almost all descended from the European lower class. We noted how the “swells” dressed but not why.

  15. Interesting response here. I must thank Kyle for providing such a detailed explanation for the sporting differences between America and, as I loosely termed it, ‘the rest of the world.’ Most illuminating.

    Clinton makes an excellent point here; “With such utilitarianism in mind, many men in the US see the tux as having a singular purpose: that of making one look “dressed up.””

    Benedict, I am afraid that is generally correct. Lounge suits are usually worn by all except the groom’s party. I have only been to a few weddings wear nearly all have worn morning dress.

    Alex and Adam introduced some interesting discussion on Europe’s ‘decline’ vs ‘renewed greatness.’ A slight diversion from the topic but still part of the wider continental debate.

    I agree with Patrick to an extent that promotion of clothing is important in influencing formal wear. However, there have been countless movies and television programmes that have promoted morning dress as a day formal option. Albeit that no one in these productions has ever made the explicit distinction between ‘evening’ dress and ‘morning’ dress – never was there written, unfortunately, the Astaire number; “I’ll Wear My Tail Coat In The Morning (My Tux I’ll Wear At Night.”

    I’m not sure Reggie that, being a French word, any Englishmen, particularly the ‘boobish’ type who spills canned lager down his rented frock coat, are particularly comfortable in using “serviette” but I’ll take your word for it.

    I think David V makes an excellent point in his final sentences, and one which I would not be comfortable in making myself as it would smack of finger pointing and might be perceived as mockery.

  16. Horrible spelling error – it should read “I have only been to a few weddings where…” rather than “I have only been to a few weddings wear.”

    W

  17. Thom says:

    One hopes Mr. Chesterfield, when you state “I think David V makes an excellent point in his final sentences, and one which I would not be comfortable in making myself as it would smack of finger pointing and might be perceived as mockery,” that you are referring your reserve to the UK itself.