Finding Your Form

Respecting the Requirements of Formal… Your Way

Like it or not….it’s that time of year when opportunities to dress formally are likely to find their way onto your calendar. I’ve always suspected that most guys try to avoid formal events because:

  1. They don’t want to shell out two Benjamins to rent an outfit that was just worn by a high school senior or a fully-inebriated groomsmen last weekend, or
  2. They don’t know how to tie their own bow tie and know that they should, or
  3. It’s probably a charity event and they know it’s going to cost them a lot more than the simple price of admission.

With regard to point (c), get over it already. Our greatest joys come from giving to others from our well-earned abundance, right? Besides, is it really that hard to stand around with a cocktail in hand, casually observing the fairer sex in cocktail dresses and ball gowns? As far as point (b), your Tom James Clothier can help. Or, check out this video. As a bonus, tying your own bow tie will give you new bragging rights. Point (a) is easily resolved by making an investment in your own formal wear, an outfit that will pay dividends and actually save you $$$ if you attend two or more formal events per year anyway.

Now that we have taken care of all of your excuses…

“The whole point of formality is form,” reminds GQ’s Glenn O’Brien. If you lose all semblance of form (respect for custom, etiquette, manners, etc.) in your appearance, then what you are left with may cause women to swoon and men to salute you, but it is no longer formal.

If you have been a devoted follower of tomtalks, then you know that we have a deep respect for both time-honored classic elements and individual expression in how one chooses to dress. That is to say, we respect ‘form’, but also embrace breaking or bending the rules in ways that still respect good taste and don’t completely ignore good form – especially when the occasion is, well, formal.

Dougal Munro, of Holland & Sherry, has consistently offered the sage advice that “How we dress for any occasion is a reflection of the esteem in which we hold the occasion, and those in attendance.” Furthermore, the degree to which we deviate from classic form is a reflection of our desire to draw attention to ourselves rather than focus on others. A gentleman’s primary purpose at such events is to accent and enhance the lady on his arm.

A summary of the points of form for formal dress:

  • The basic color is black, with midnight navy being an acceptable and sometimes superior alternative. The jacket should have a peak or shawl lapel, either of which being made of satin or grosgrain. The braid on the out seam of the trouser should also be of satin or grosgrain, whichever matches the jacket lapel.
  • Some will ask, but what about a notch lapel? Isn’t that ok? To which I would answer, not if you really care about form, but yes, it is acceptable in that the style has been widely available and worn by many for a generation now. Anyway, this little diatribe is about form. How to bend the rules comes later.
  • Your formal shirts should have either a wing, point or spread collar (not banded), and be made of a fine broadcloth or pique. A wing collar best complements a peak lapel, both in form and architecture, and either a point (preferred) or spread collar is best if your jacket has a shawl lapel. A traditional formal shirt has vertical pleats on the front and is worn with studs instead of buttons (usually four studs, and typically made of black onyx trimmed in gold or silver.) Classic sterling or gold knots work nicely, too. This is one place where you can express your individuality. A nice touch is to wear studs that were a gift from, or were inherited from, someone special.
  • A formal shirt is always worn with cuff links, matching the studs if studs are being worn. The cuff may be French (double-fold) or Link (single layer but requiring a link.) A link shirt should only, and must be, worn with a full dress outfit (morning coat or tail coat.) So for the most part, wear double cuffs only – otherwise, stay home! For best results, pair the spread or point collar with a shawl lapel, and a wing collar with peak lapel.
  • Formal dress might include a waistcoat (vest) cummerbund, or neither. A waistcoat is properly worn with the most formal of attire, the morning coat or tail coat. A cummerbund (pleats UP) is standard issue with a classic tuxedo. Wearing neither is the most casual of formal options. Did I just use the word casual and formal in the same sentence? Indeed I did. And it makes perfect sense.
  • Shoes should be black in color and plain in style, made of patent leather, highly polished calfskin, or, in some cases, very fine velvet.

OK, so I didn’t give you much in the way of bending the rules. We will get to that during the balance of the month. In the meantime, what would you suggest to push the envelope when dressing formally? Do you have a picture of a great formal look you’d like to share? Please send it to

Always in good form,


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