A reader of my blog wrote to me recently requesting advice on a particular matter. It was, he wrote, an issue of confusion. He had received an invitation to an engagement party that stipulated ‘Summer Black Tie.’ Naturally, the reader had since concerned himself with determining exactly what this entailed. He had, in his own words, come rather unstuck. He had looked elsewhere online but had become even more confused by the polar sermonising of traditionalists and fashionistas.
Apparently, GQ Online has produced a guide for gentlemen intrigued by the notion of the summertime tuxedo. The first point of advice? “…Skip the tie, unbutton your collar, and add a simple white pocket square.” I stopped reading at that point and returned immediately to my work. Anything that advocates the abandonment of the tie in formal dress is not worth the cyberspace it’s written in. This is not a Tom Ford lookalike competition. Not wearing a bow tie, irrespective of the temperature, is lazy. This is not a question of ‘different taste’ it is simply a question of taste – having it, or having none at all. A hairy chest is not an acceptable replacement for elegant matte silk. Why should the women be forced to socialise with an underdressed man?
My own advice to this reader was rather different. Whereas GQ seemed to be promoting the shedding of bows, powder blue shirts, khaki suits and denim (yes, denim), I suggested to the inquisitive visitor that above all, his evening dress must acknowledge the formality of the occasion, the location of the occasion and, of course, the season. After all, it was an invitation stipulation. Unfortunately for the ultra-traditionalists, those who eschew cummerbunds in the heat of summer, this means that some allowances have to be made. We no longer, thankfully, live in an age where those who wear formal dress endure heat and discomfort for the purposes of ‘prestige’ – indeed, the accounts of colonials in Burma, Egypt and other exotic outposts of empire suggest that this was a mask of propriety and ‘civilisation’ that caused the stiffest of upper lips to wobble.
Now that our lips are permitted to do as they please, there is nothing wrong with a little climate preparation in attire. Some suggest the off-white jacket as an alternative. Some even suggest a mess jacket.
The former is more common and, although it is known as the ‘cruise’ jacket, is appropriate for summer invitations such as garden parties. It should always be shawl collared. Opinion is divided as to their proper use. Many say they are only appropriate outside of the metropolis – like the straw boater. Others suggest that times have moved on and the summer aesthetic and tradition of the off-white jacket is more important.
The mess jacket is rather frowned upon, although such a reaction has never bothered me. Those who wear one may be subject to tongue-in-cheek comments and whispers behind the napkins. Known as bum-freezers, mess jackets are tailless tailcoats; with peaked or shawl lapels, they are exceptionally smart but very rare.
I believe that the anchor for all black tie outfits – summer or winter – is a formal white shirt and black, or midnight blue, evening trousers. These are constants. They cannot be altered. The idea of facing the lapels of a khaki suit with satin in order to make it a ‘tuxedo’ is abhorrent. It is a khaki suit. It will never be elevated from that humble position. Likewise, adding white trousers to a dark jacket makes it a day outfit – not an evening one. However, adding a seersucker jacket to black evening trousers, a well ironed white evening shirt, a black bow tie and black patent shoes is acceptable. The acknowledgement of formality is in what is beneath the jacket – the nod to climate, season, and perhaps locality, is all in the jacket itself.