The Rules And How To Break Them. No.6

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Rule 6: Black tie must be bound by tradition
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In my previous post, one reader commented: “You did a good job of pointing out common ‘sins’ of black tie attire, yet I feel you could explain better why these things are sins. I understand that you might call tradition the entire point of black tie, but I’d be interested in hearing what the actual downsides of breaking these rules would be.” The post can be seen here.

This is a great point. Yes, to a certain extent tradition is the point of black tie. It is one of the few last bastions of dictated dress, where an actual sense of propriety bounds one to wear certain clothes. Beyond some award events, balls and Ascot, nowhere is the modern man restricted one particular mode of dress by his fear of offence.

Whether that is good or bad is debateable. But like all the rules I have described in this series, the rules of black tie are there for practical reasons.

Black tie aims at two things. First, make the man look as smart as possible – to be appropriate to the importance of the occasion. Second, create contrast in material and texture – to create striking effects in dark rooms or under bright lights.

So what makes a man look smart? Well, custom has always been that a shirt is less smart than a jacket. And you can see why: thicker, less crumpled material in a darker colour.

So keep the amount of shirt on display to a minimum: keep your jacket on and wear a waistcoat or cummerbund to cover the triangle of shirt material that appears below the button. Plus, the messiest part of a man’s shirt tends to be around the waist, where it untucks, and the untidiest part of the trousers is the waist where they fasten.

It is hard to dispute that a long, clean silhouette created by a waistcoat and trousers is smarter than one without the top half.

Other things that make a man look smart are a stiff shirtfront (stiff being smarter than soft) and calf-length silk socks (a smoother texture and no wrinkles).

The second aim of black tie, to create contrast in texture, is achieved by a matte finish to the suit and trousers, contrasting with shiny lapels, trouser seams, bow tie and shoes. Hence the reason for patent pumps or Oxfords. (Also note that the seams to the trousers are covered as this is considered smarter: reveal as few of the fastenings and workings of a suit as possible. Also, this is why the buttons are usually covered in the material of the suit.)

As to my second sin, notch lapels, this holds no practical purpose other than to distinguish black tie from the lounge suit. It is sharper and more rakish. I think it is worth maintaining these differences, but recognise that there is little practical reason for it.


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Simon Crompton is a journalist and a style enthusiast living in London, who blogs at permanentstyle.blogspot.com. He has too many suits.

Comments

  1. Paul Hardy says:

    Thanks Simon – I have enjoyed both articles immensely. Just a thought – is the concept of a firm and inviolable black tie tradition somewhat suspect when it owes its current form to a sensation caused by Lorillard in 1886 when he broke emphatically with tradition? And thus – given the presence of notch lapels with their fuss-free lines on evening wear since the 1960′s, and their acceptance by very traditional people (www.blacktieguide.com/Contemporary/jackets/2005_portrait.jpg)- isn’t hanging on to this one a tad precious?
    But this is justout of curiosity – I have as I say enjoyed the articles.

  2. Chris says:

    This article, as well as the former has been quite interesting. My reading of it was also laced with a hint of humor, being able to view an add for “After Six” immediately beside such an explanation of proper black tie.

  3. Simon Crompton says:

    Paul,
    Black tie was really cemented in its current form in the 1930s, so it’s a little more recent but I take your point.
    I don’t believe notch lapels are any less fussy than peaked and they have another historical association (though again, this is not a practical reason): the peaked lapel is a direct descendant of the tails worn with white tie, and harks back to that. The shawl collar, by contrast, echoes the soft lines of a smoking jacket or dressing gown.

    One last reason for me to always avoid notched lapels: the prime reason they are spreading today in black tie is not because people choose to wear it that way out of a desire for personal expression; that I could respect. Rather, it is because makers of black tie are lazy and cutting corners, making black tie on the same patterns as a lounge suit and just putting satin on the lapels.

    Simon

  4. Paul Hardy says:

    One last reason for me to always avoid notched lapels: the prime reason they are spreading today in black tie is not because people choose to wear it that way out of a desire for personal expression; that I could respect. Rather, it is because makers of black tie are lazy and cutting corners, making black tie on the same patterns as a lounge suit and just putting satin on the lapels.”

    Excellent point. Thanks