Category Archives: Formal

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,


Proper Fashion Etiquette for a Formal Event

The rules of fashion etiquette are clear for formal events. Certain terms and events require a certain protocol.

First, some general rules to go by:

  1. Unless you are in a wedding in the USA, it is considered to be in poor taste to wear formal attire before evening, roughly 6 pm. The UK and other regions have their own set of rules for this situation.
  2. If you are wearing a waist coat (vest), the bottom button should be left unbuttoned unless you are wearing it for a white tie event.
  3. You may wear a cummerbund and bow tie or a waist coat and bow tie or satin cravat (necktie). You may wear braces with either a cummerbund or a waistcoat.

  4. The pleats of a cummerbund are to be worn facing up as they were originally designed to hold opera or theater tickets.
  5. Because a double-breasted dinner jacket should be worn closed at all times, you do not need to wear a cummerbund or waistcoat under it.
  6. If at all possible, wear a bow tie that you tie yourself (as opposed to a pre-tied bow tie).

With at least seven categories of formal dress to consider, we will reserve discussion of the two most formal – White Tie and Morning Dress – for another time. For Semi-formal to Black Tie occasions, the following suggestions apply:

  1. Black Tie – Although this is a very formal event, it is not as formal as that of the white tie. A black tuxedo is required (AKA a dinner jacket or “D.J.” in the UK.) A white wing collar or pointed collar shirt is worn with a black bow tie and black cummerbund or black waist coat. Black studs and cuff links would also be worn. The lapel of the dinner jacket should be peak or shawl.
  2. Black Tie Preferred – means that the host prefers black tie, but a dark colored suit and conservative tie is allowable. (The suit is acceptable, but not preferred.) This is when it is also proper (or at least acceptable) to wear a patterned bow tie/cummerbund or patterned bow tie and waist coat. This is a formal event but not as formal as black tie or white tie. You may also consider wearing your White Dinner Jacket provided that you are in a tropical climate, on a cruise, or it is between Memorial Day and Labor Day (Derby Day to Labor Day in the Bluegrass state.) Dinner jackets of other colors and patterns may also be considered. Our recommendation would be that you wear your formal clothing in both the “preferred” and “optional” situations. It shows your respect for the event and your hosts.
  3. Black Tie Optional – Not as strong as “Black Tie Preferred” but the same rules apply.
  4. Black Tie Invited – Not as formal an event as Black Tie Preferred or Black Tie Optional. A dark suit and tie are required or you may choose to wear a tuxedo or white dinner jacket (providing the season and climate are correct.)
  5. Semi- Formal – Historically, this was synonymous with “black tie”. Today this could mean anything from a tuxedo to a dark suit and tie. In a more relaxed setting this could allow for a dressy sport coat with or without a tie depending on local culture or particular setting. If you are unsure of what to wear, it is considered proper to call your host and ask.

Shall we all be “puttin’ on the Ritz” this Winter when the occasion calls for something beyond business as usual? Time to raise our standards, gentlemen.

And in case you need some tips on formal dress, like How to Tie a Bowtie, check out The Virtual Tailor.

Shall We Dress for Dinner?

Formally Speaking: This is no time to relax your Standards

“Shall we dress for dinner?” asked the always stylish and cool Nick Charles (Leading Man in the 1934 Film “The Thin Man”) of his equally charming wife, Nora. In other words, “Shall I wear my tuxedo for dinner tonight, or will the standard suit and tie get the job done?” More often than not, Nora would reply with “Oh, why not?” (Or she just gave Nick ‘the look’ that said in no uncertain terms ‘but of course.’ She probably had a new cocktail dress to break out.)

A common question of a man to his wife for most of the 20th Century, the relative question for today might be (much to the chagrin of modern ‘Nora’) “Should I wear a sport jacket to the restaurant tonight or can I get away without it?” A less frequent but timely question, due to the season, revolves around what to wear when the invitation reads “Black Tie” or “Black Tie Optional.”

Traditionally the response to an invitation reading “Black Tie” was simple. For men it meant a proper dinner jacket and trouser, typically black, of fine worsted wool, with a satin or grosgrain lapel and trouser braid, pleated front shirt with a point or wing collar, black bow tie and cummerbund, and plain toe dress brogue or slip-on shoes, preferably of patent leather.

But as Ray A. Smith recently wrote in The Tux and the Suit Duke It Out, WSJ, October 5, 2011, “With more relaxed dress codes at parties and on the red carpet in recent years, many men have eased into a looser definition of ‘black tie.’ (Beware of ‘looser’ definitions.) The penguin suit with bow tie moved to the back of the closet, and the black suit with straight black tie hit the dance floor.”

While even I, Tom,…, gave in to the trend and have worn a black suit (Duopioni silk, no less) with a regular, albeit dressy, necktie to a formal event during the past few years (Bless me, Father, for I have sinned!), I am happy to report that my shawl collar, mohair blend tuxedo is ready to go and that tuxedo sales are rising sharply this season.

The sartorial tide has turned in favor of the tuxedo and the more classic accoutrements, including a black bow tie that you tie yourself (as if I needed to tell you that). Affirming this trend, entertainers and actors like Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake, who have tended toward edgier dress in past years for formal occasions, have been spotted wearing classic tuxedos and bow ties this year.

Though the notch lapel dinner jacket dominates the formal offerings at most stores, I prefer the classic panache of a peak lapel or the graceful line of a shawl collar.

Stay tuned for the next post when I elaborate on the ‘Rules’ of formal dress. And in case you need some tips on formal dress, like How to Tie a Bowtie, check out The Virtual Tailor.

What to Wear

Once again, one of Tom’s most trusted female friends is here to offer some advice, this time on what to wear to that holiday party.

“What to wear?” Isn’t that always the question in the rush of planning your outfit for a holiday party? No? Well, if it isn’t, it should be. Women are probably the most stressed yet the best prepared for what to wear; men tend to….wait, put off or procrastinate in the face of such decisions. Whether well-planned, or at the last minute, both face the challenge of trying to be neither underdressed nor overdressed. We girls often use our peer groups as sounding boards for ideas, “no no’s” and critiques.

The professionals of Tom James agree that it’s far better to be overdressed than underdressed. “People tend to dress up during the holidays and you should, too.” Consider the quiet confidence (not to mention the sublime luxury) of a cashmere sport coat and scarf, plaid or houndstooth slacks, winter white and anything black, timeless and classic. TJ women love winter white suits, Holland and Sherry cashmere scarves and plaid slacks or black skirts. Faux fur has made its way back into our wardrobes – on jacket lapels, as vests, and shawls.

Ladies, it’s time to pull out your tights and knee high boots to wear with your skirts and faux fur jackets!! Gentlemen, if you are in a pinch, black cashmere jackets are a safe staple piece. You can remove your jacket if you are overdressed or insert a pocket square if you need a little extra holiday pizzazz. If it says business casual, this means a sport coat or blazer but a tie is not necessary. When the invitation says semiformal, translate: suit and tie.

Still, your outfit is not complete without shoes and accessories. Plan this carefully. And please tell me that this part of the outfit does not include ties that sing Christmas songs and light up like the tree in Time Square, obnoxious Christmas jewelry, or a tacky holiday sweater…. unless it is ENTIRELY clear and noted in the invitation that you are to somehow emulate the look of Clark W. Griswold in Christmas Vacation. Let’s stay clear of that and join the other well dressed attendees so that we are not the entertainment of the party.