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Black Tie Primer

Black Tie Primer

As we step into the month of December, unlit Christmas decorations slowly begin to loom along the shopping streets of London. As the lights, trees and baubles proliferate, one feels that the end of the year is in sight. It is also a reminder that party season is almost upon us. Parties to celebrate successes, friendships, family. Parties as an excuse for jollification and the opportunity to dress up.

For many men, dressing up means Black Tie. As the world retreats further from the classical strictures of suit and tie, Black Tie stands alone to remind us of a more elegant mythical period that we can – however briefly – step into once more. Choices on Black Tie can present a myriad of rules and potential pitfalls for the unwary. The few remarks below may provide some pointers on the subject with a particular focus on its two principal variants: the Dinner Jacket and the Smoking Jacket.

Some Guiding Principles

Consider some guidelines to inform and educate your decision-making. Understanding the underlying rationale may lead to more thoughtful Black Tie dress choices appropriate for your situation or context.

  • Comfort and Fit

Often this most basic premise is overlooked. The thoughtful dresser understands intuitively this balance. A dinner jacket should be comfortable. There should be enough cut to accommodate the dynamics of the evening: prodigious efforts with the claret and port, active debate and raucous rhetoric over dining room table, heroic moves on the ballroom floor. Comfort should be not come at the expense of fit. The minimalism of Black Tie provides no distraction, so avoid tent like jackets, poorly fitting collars, over-long sleeves, and puddling trousers at all costs. Consult your tailor.

Also consider the material of the suit. Tradition once called for heavy barathea (20 ounce plus), but this was in an era of castles and mansions not overly encumbered by central heating. While barathea provides a deep, inky black and lovely drape, a heavyweight wool would be intolerable to wear indoors. If you like barathea, go lighter. Alternatively, experiment with a mohair or tropical weight wool. These will have a ‘drier’ texture which loses some of the drapey quality of barathea but make for a sharper and more breathable suit.

  • Contrast and Mirroring

The elegance of Black Tie is assured by its minimalism, its stripping back to the essentials. Ensure that this effect is maximised by solicitous fit and consideration to the impact of light and dark. Dinner shirts should be freshly pressed and spotless, the white punctuating the silhouette of black at the vee of the chest and at the cuff. Subtle but important contrast is achieved by the choice of black silk used for the bow tie.  Bow ties are usually constructed in satin or grosgrain, and it is customary to match this silk with the silk lapels of the dinner jacket. The silk faced lapels are then echoed in the single stripe running down the seam of the dinner trousers. This texture and sheen of the silk provides a subtle, pleasing contrast to the mohair or barathea material of the suit.

Accessories should complete and play to this arrangement. Black silk hose and patent shoes for footwear. Onyx studs to punctuate shirt facings and cuffs. White linen pocket square exposed in the pocket breast for contrast.

Advanced dressers may consider a boutonniere, but admittedly this requires self-confidence in dress sense, underpinned by a strong understanding of the tenets of Black Tie. A boutonniere is rarely seen but can be very appealing if done well. If you do go down this path, there are really four colours to play with: a blue cornflower, a white camelia, or a red or pink carnation.

  • Create Length

Black Tie is intended to flatter the dresser by establishing length and slimming the wearer. Focus then on the vertical. The silk lapels draw the viewer up towards to the face. The silk stripe along the trouser lengthens the leg.

Covering the waist provides further extension to the perceived leg length. This can be achieved either by a cummerbund or a dress waistcoat. Cummerbunds is a horizontally pleated band of silk – in the same material as the facings above – that sits across the waist. A dress waistcoat provides the same service. These waistcoats maximize the presentation of the dinner shirt, typically distinguished by a low-cut front, shawl collars and buttons and facings matching the rest of the dinner suit.

The Standard: Black Tie Formal

The dinner jacket (known as tuxedo in the US, as le smoking in France) is the default option for formalwear. Briefly applying the guidelines above, let us enumerate the components. Jacket in black or midnight blue wool. Mohair for lightness and sheen, mid-weight barathea for inkiness and drape. Single buttoned, single breasted with peak lapels faced in grosgrain or satin silk. A vent-free back and jetting pockets to minimize bulk. Trousers in matching material, high waisted with single silk strip as above. Low cut waistcoat or cummerbund to cover the waist.

Complement with dinner shirt in white cotton or voile with marcella or pleated front. Bow tie - self-tied if you please - in matching grosgrain or satin. Accessories to include braces, cuff links and shirt studs, pocket square in white linen, dinner shoes or pumps in patent leather, silk hose. Additional accessories, such as cigar cases, lighters, pocket watches, boutonnieres are a function of context, needs and the judgement of the individual. Select with care. Restraint is a sensible guide.

The Variant: Smoking Jacket

The smoking jacket has a different origin and provides a more relaxed sartorial proposition to the dinner jacket. Velvet smoking jackets were originally tailored – no surprise - with smokers in mind. Men would change into their smoking jackets after dinner before addressing their brandies, whiskies, and cigars. The received wisdom was that the velvet material of the smoking jacket would absorb the fumes of the cigar and thus protect the dinner jacket. Traditionally the domain of private homes and Gentlemen’s Clubs, the smoking jacket ensemble has started to appear as a substitute for a dinner jacket in more public gatherings.

Smoking jackets strike a very different, though no less elegant proposition to the restrained monochrome of the dinner jacket. The velvet smoking jacket has flair, made of striking colours such as emerald, burgundy, and sapphire. Note that while all smoking jackets are velvet not all velvet jackets are smoking jackets. The smoking jackets are typically single or double breasted with a shawl collar faced in silk (satin, grosgrain or quilted). The jackets are frequently decorated with embroidery – known as frogging - at cuff and in lieu of buttons. Turnback cuffs – faced in silk - are another design variant.

To complete the look, select a silk dinner shirt in a vintage cream, black silk bow tie with material to match the facings and dinner trousers as above. Keep accessories to a minimum. White linen or silk pochette for the breast pocket should be sufficient. Pumps serve well for this more relaxed ensemble, either in patent black or in a deeply coloured velvet, possibly echoing the colour of the smoking jacket. This ensemble can make a dramatic statement so consider once again context and intention.

Dressing for a formal event is as much about respect for the host and the event itself. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your preparations. Don’t rush. Enjoy the process and theatre of Black Tie. Participate in and contribute to the dignity and elegance of the event and ensure that your behaviour matches the efforts you have made with your dress. And try to keep your jacket on. 

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