Peak lapels or shawl? Black cloth or midnight blue? Waistcoat or cummerbund? And what on earth is a Marcella shirt, anyway?
how me a man who doesn’t get a buzz from the prospect of black tie and I’ll show you a man who’s given up on life. Or at least given up on looking his best. Because that’s what black tie does, after all. Turns us into movie stars. Just see the chap at the top of this page. OK, so that gentleman really is a movie star, but you get the gist.
Black tie. The tuxedo. Hard to get wrong, right? All you need is a penguin suit and a bow-tie and you get to play James Bond for the night. Not so fast soldier. Unless you know your mohair from your barathea, your pleated shirts from your piqué, it’s easy to end up looking more cocktail waiter than secret service agent. There’s a fine line. It could come down to the depth of the cut of your waistcoat. No, really.
So, with wedding season upon us, and black tie ceremonies becoming increasingly popular, we asked our friends on (and around) Savile Row for some pointers on picking the perfect dinner suit. Here’s what we gleaned...
Sartorial legend has a habit of getting a little sketchy. The dinner suit, it is said, was born in England around 1885, when the Prince of Wales commissioned Savile Row tailors Henry Poole & Co to create a tail-less, silk dinner jacket and matching trousers. Something smart enough for dinner but more comfortable than traditional evening tails. When an American spotted the heir apparent wearing the ensemble to a soiree at Sandringham, he promptly commissioned a two-piece of his own, which he wasted no time showing off at the Tuxedo Club in his native New York City. Hence the dinner suit being called a ‘tuxedo’ in America.
Traditionally worn only after sunset, the trend for getting married in a dinner suit arguably came the other way; our American brethren having been tying the knot in a tux for far longer than we over here have been walking down the aisle in a dickie bow (the French, by the way, still consider the concept très étrange).
Let’s start by laying out what we’re not talking about. We’re not talking Hollywood Black Tie (when a bow-tie is traded for a neck-tie); we’re not talking Creative Black Tie (a sartorial no man’s land that can result in some truly shocking novelty waistcoats (though we're digging this dogtooth one from New & Lingwood)); and we won’t be venturing off-piste into smoking jackets (there’ll be no velvet here). What we’re talking about is traditional black tie, proper black tie, Rat-Pack, Gregory-Peck, Humphrey-Bogart, Marlon-Brando-era black tie.
That, according to the tailors we consulted, means a dinner jacket, single-breasted or double, with contrast lapels, but no vents or pocket flaps; matching trousers, with a single line of braiding down each leg; a white shirt, with French cuffs for cufflinks; a black bow tie, hand tied, of course; a waistcoat or cummerbund; and black patent or polished shoes.
Black tie and white tie – what’s the difference?
The clue’s in the name. Black tie equals black bow tie. White tie equals white. White tie also means a white waistcoat, low cut, and a black tailcoat that must have peak lapels (a tailcoat, incidentally, is different from a morning coat, which are traditionally worn to church weddings). White tie is the most formal dress code, reserved for royal, state and some official City of London occasions. It's unlikely you'll ever be invited to a white tie wedding these days. Unless it’s fancy dress.
What will it be, Sir, a single or double?
The single most important aspect of the black tie ensemble is the dinner jacket. Single- or double-breasted, the choice is yours. A single-breasted jacket, perhaps surprisingly, is considered the more formal option, as it can be paired with a waistcoat (which a double-breasted, in most cases, cannot).
Shawl lapels are the most traditional, and therefore arguably the most formal, but peak lapels are equally as good. Avoid notch lapels, which belong on a business suit. Whichever lapel you opt for, they must be cut from silk – either smooth satin or ribbed grosgrain – and be as close to the colour of the main suit fabric as possible. Buttons should be covered in the same silk. The jacket should not feature pocket flaps or vents.
Black or blue?
Fun fact: back in the early days, when denizens of St James's gentleman’s club White’s began wearing their new-fangled suits to dinner, their outfits were actually cut from midnight blue silk – the material appearing darker than black under artificial light.
Today, midnight blue cloths can add a depth and warmth to a black tie look, but be warned: not all midnight blues are the same. There’s a surprisingly wide spectrum when it comes to what cloth manufacturers define as ‘midnight blue’. The darker the better, especially in the age of the smart phone – the cameras on which tend to lighten blues in pictures.
WTF is barathea?
A soft, stiff yarn spun from various combinations of wool, silk and cotton. Barathea has a slightly pebbled texture thanks to the hopsack weaving process used to create it. If you attended a private school, your blazer was probably made from barathea. Now you know.
How about mohair?
A more luxurious fabric that, like cashmere, is harvested from the undercoat of goats, rather than sheep. Mohair has a slightly higher sheen than barathea, and is blended with wool to create fabrics that have a silkier quality. The higher the mohair count, typically the more expensive the suit.
When to go white?
At al fresco weddings in Italy and the south of France, when the sun is shining and the Moët is flowing. Never to a marquee wedding in Birmingham.
Waistcoat or cummerbund and braces?
Choices, choices, choices. Time was when the flashing of a waistband was considered something of a sartorial sin. To avoid coming off the great uncouth, a chap had one of two ways of concealing his midsection: behind a cummerbund, the go-to option if he’d chosen a double-breasted jacket; or behind a waistcoat. There remain rules to follow with each.
Cummerbunds, which can be worn with or without braces, should be made of silk in the colour and finish of your lapels, and worn so that the pleats face upwards; a waistcoat should be low-buttoning and invisible when a jacket is done up, so as to showcase the detail of the bosom of a dress shirt. The most traditional of evening waistcoats feature lapels and are often double-breasted. Single-breasted, high-buttoning v-shaped vests belong with business suits. Toe the line.
A few rules to stick to here. The shirt must be white, obviously, and feature a textured front, either in dimpled, waffle-like piqué or Marcella fabric (ostensibly the same thing today) or pleated in the curved space between the waistcoat. Avoid ruffles, unless you’re actively looking to court Austin Powers comparisons.
Collars should be of the turndown variety (wing-tips are for white tie occasions) and cuffs of the French kind (when the fabric is folded back on itself and fastened with cufflinks). Black stud buttons add a decorative touch and help break up the expansive of white that's usually hidden by a neck tie.
The bow tie
Know how to spot the difference between a pre-tied and handtied bow-tie? Perfection. A pre-tied bow-tie will be perfectly symmetrical. The beauty of a hand-tied bow-tie lies in its wonky imperfection. You’re an adult, so it'll be the latter option for you. In black or midnight blue. Satin silk or grosgrain. Nothing that’s geekishly small; nothing clownishly large. And best to get in some practise tying one before the big day – otherwise you’ll be fumbling for that clip-on in your tie draw after all.
Plain, patent and not too pointy. If you’re tempted to give those velvet George Cleverly slip-ons you bought during lockdown a run out, don’t be.
Enjoy the wedding.