The Three Black-Tie Sins

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Criticism of what people wear to black-tie events tends to focus on obvious sins: wearing a lounge suit, wearing a coloured tie and wearing a long tie instead of a bow (though this is less objectionable than one may think). These are some of the biggest sins against the traditions of the dinner outfit, and stand out as such. They also stand out because they are committed by a relatively small number of people.

For that reason, I don’t think they are the greatest black-tie sins. They’re big, but they’re rare. More important are the small sins committed by almost everyone. Those demonstrate how disconnected the ensemble is from its traditions, despite the apparent uniformity on display.

Sin 1: Cover your waist

dinner-brad-pitt-waistThis is the greatest sin, so it comes first.

Every black-tie outfit needs to cover the waistband of the trousers in some way. That is an indisputable fact. This covering can take one of three forms: a waistcoat, a cummerbund or a double-breasted jacket.

A waistcoat should be the standard. If you’re wearing a single-breasted dinner jacket, something needs to cover up your shirt – particularly if the jacket only has one button.

A shirt with a stiff, oval front makes this obvious: only the stiff part is meant to show, the rest is covered up by a waistcoat. But even a soft-fronted shirt needs a covering. Even though its pleats form a rectangle on the front of the shirt, and even though they go all the way down to the waistband, that waistband must be covered.

This waistcoat can be black or white. White is less common and more formal, echoing as it does white tie or full fig. It can also be full or backless. If white, it should be made of the same Marcella as the shirt front. If black, it should be the same wool as the trousers.

The cummerbund was invented in the subcontinent as an alternative to the waistcoat for hot weather. It was originally a sash simply tie around the waist.

But what proportion of men at a black-tie event have some form of waist covering? Twenty per cent? Fifteen even? That’s why it’s the greatest sin.

Sin 2: Notch lapels

Most suits have notch lapels; dinner jackets should not have them. At some point, the black-tie industry forgot, or simply got lazy, and conflated the two.

A peaked lapel is more formal, aggressive and rakish. It suits black tie where it wouldn’t suit the decorum of day-to-day business. All dinner jackets, single or double-breasted, should have peak lapels. Yet a significant number (40%? 45%?) of men at a black-tie event will have notch lapels.

(Eagle-eyed readers will notice that my own velvet jacket, worn as black tie, has notch lapels. What can I say? My wardrobe is far from complete and the jacket was a vintage piece to trial a look. It’s on the list to upgrade.)

Sin 3: Shoes

The best shoe to wear with black tie is a patent pump with a grosgrain bow. Second on the list is a patent Oxford. Third is a plain black Oxford, without brogueing and preferably wholecut. All three are acceptable but are less impressive further down the list.

Yet how many men wear pumps? Probably zero. How many patent Oxfords? Perhaps 10%. And of the remainder wearing black leather shoes, there is probably a healthy chunk (again, perhaps 45%) wearing brogues, Derbys, boots or monk straps. So another low-level but popular sin. Multiplying number by grade of sin makes it a greater offence than a long tie.


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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. smoothie says:

    “The best shoe to wear with black tie is a patent pump with a grosgrain bow.”

    You typed this with a straight face?

  2. David V says:

    And why shouldn’t he have?
    Does one need to wear a motorcycle boot to “prove” his manhood?

  3. hornett says:

    Bond – Brioni Tux – Casino Royal – No cummerbund, one button, just braces and a white shirt. That rocked flat out.

  4. Ragdoll says:

    Do I need to wear a patent pump with a grosgrain bow to “prove” my manhood?

  5. JT says:

    #2. What about shawl collar?

  6. Matt says:

    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. What makes them so bad? I’m not sure why not covering your waist, wearing different shoes, or having anything but a peak lapel should be so deplorable.

    My conclusion at so many people making the same ‘mistakes’ and these mistakes not being pointed by the media would be that it is a case of break with tradition and modern black tie differing from tradition. 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.

  7. Paul Hardy says:

    I have not needed to wear black tie for a number of years so I’ve escaped this, but the simple fact is black & white render my complexion corpse-like. What is your view on makers like Emma Willis who offer an ivory dress shirt for evening wear, to minimise the harm on pasty-faced guys like me?

  8. Simon Crompton says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Matt, you make a very good point. While black tie is more rule-bound than any other type of dress, and is the one remaining area where a sense of ‘propriety’ could still be said to determine it, not much is said about the practical reasons behind rules.

    I will elucidate this in a future post, but broadly the rules are all about creating contrast in texture – patent Oxfords or pumps, for example, create shine that mirrors the lapels and bowtie, where normal Oxfords do not. Equally, the waistcoat/cummerbund is largely a question of being faithful to how the shirt is designed and its practicalities.

    Hornett, Bond did indeed rock but I would suggest that was a result of the cut, material and jawline. In a waistcoat he would have looked better.

    JT, a shawl collar is perfectly acceptable for black tie. Slightly less formal than a peaked lapel.

    Paul, ivory shirts are a nice alternative and can work well. But do bear in mind that the strength of black tie is contrast, and contrast will always be hard for pale complexions. Not much you can do there.

    Simon

  9. smoothie says:

    And please explain why a grosgrain bow is necessary?

  10. I think that the majority of evening pumps available on the market are made with pinched or flat petersham bows. I can recall seeing a few patent evening pumps (Edward Green used to make them I believe) without, but they are very rare. I love evening pumps, but then it’s all down to what a gentleman feels comfortable in. There are reasons why I believe they are better than lace ups.

    1) Their profile is far more elegant. Delicately made evening suits would be wasted on clumpy shoes with untidy laces.

    2) They make a gentleman appear far more refined than he may be – many of my acquaintance would only need this particular reason to purchase them.

    I think the bow (smoothie) completes the pump. Plain patent pumps look rather like ‘bling’ slippers.

    W

  11. Jim K says:

    Black tie is evening wear, when the lights are soft enough for any complexion to wear black and white. I don’t trust ivory.

    I would also say that notch lapels on a velvet jacket are acceptable, given the jacket’s relative informality. The notch lapel was often seen on earlier tuxedos, in the days when it was truly a “dinner” jacket.

    The shawl collar, however, remains the original lapel, and my favorite. It is difficult to find one with good proportions, but the Quantum of Solace jacket was poetry in motion.