Joe C. asks: So I’ve been wearing my wedding tuxedo during the holidays, and I am reminded that even though I plan to keep the girl I married when I bought it, I don’t plan to keep the tuxedo too much longer. It’s not as comfortable as it was on my wedding day, and I feel a bit like a waiter or an usher when I wear my tuxedo with my pleated shirt and my black bow tie and cummerbund. What’s my next move?
Tom Talks: First of all, you made a good investment purchasing your tuxedo. If you’ve kept it for at least 7 years, it has paid for itself, even if you’ve only worn it twice a year (it’s about $150 to rent a decent tuxedo ensemble these days, which includes the stigma of wearing rented clothing). With any luck, your bride will never wear her wedding dress again, but you’ve gotten good mileage out of the tuxedo you purchased for your wedding. But time marches on, so here’s a strategy for where to go from here:
1) Because you wear a tuxedo only occasionally, we would recommend that you not follow fashion trends in selecting your core items. However, you can insert an updated twist, or a touch of flair, by changing your accessories. Consider the new James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his interpretation of proper black tie attire – an absolutely timeless tuxedo jacket with a peaked lapel, coordinated with a fly-front shirt without pleats (no studs needed), a medium spread point collar and a tie-it-yourself bow tie. You won’t be mistaken for a waiter or an usher if you follow Bond’s lead here. A well-folded, white linen pocket hankie will eliminate any possibility of mistaken identity and provide a sophisticated finishing touch.
2) Give your formalwear some variety — If you move in more fashion-oriented circles, you might consider alternating between a bow tie and a “formal cravat” (a necktie worn with a tuxedo, usually a solid color or striped pattern, usually black or silver, woven in a lustrous formal silk, like grosgrain or satin. Most men who struggle to tie a proper bow tie knot can tie a regular necktie with their eyes closed. Modified spread collars (with stays) work best with tuxedo neckties, but a wing collar with a necktie is a great change of pace.
3) Join the legions of men who have freed themselves from “the tyranny of the cummerbund” by adding a formal waistcoat (vest) to your black tie ensemble. It works with either bow tie or formal cravat, and you will always look more elegant and trimmer without a cummerbund to punctuate your “equator”. A classic formal vest is styled with a very low opening and only three buttons, with or without a lapel. You can, however, use a street-wear model, styled to mimic the tuxedo coat model with notched, peaked, or shawl lapels. If you have a choice, opt for no upper pockets and have the back strap removed once your vest has been tailored properly.
Start with a formal vest made in cloth that matches the tuxedo, but consider a contrasting vest fabric for visual interest and variety. For a subtle rich look, consider having the vest made from the same silk as the lapels on your jacket and trouser braid, whether satin or grosgrain. A small black & white houndstooth pattern is a good choice, and a Black Watch plaid or clan tartan vest is a great option for next year’s holiday formal events. The investment in a variety of accessory looks allows for plenty of flexibility and enjoyment that reflect your individual take on “black tie” dressing.
4) Variety is the spice of life, but there are conventions in formalwear, to which you should be attentive:
a) Tuxedo trousers have no belt loops, so use braces (aka suspenders) with them. You can have your trousers tailored to fit a little looser, because the braces will keep them up at the right level at all times, while leaving you a little breathing room after dinner! Classic formal braces are white, but can be solid, black, or silver, or any number of textures or patterns. Formal braces are distinguished by woven tabs, rather than leather ones. Woven silk braces are available in numerous whimsical motifs that can add a personal signature to your formal ensemble. A formal trouser has no cuffs, of course, and features a satin or grosgrain stripe (“braid”) that runs down the outer seam on each leg.
b) Proper formal shirts have French cuffs and usually feature a “stud front” with paired buttonholes to accommodate studs – 4 studs is traditional, but you can have a 3-stud shirt made if you own an heirloom set of 3 studs. A pleated shirt, with either a wing or point collar is the classic “black tie” shirt (ruffled shirts are for high school proms or costume parties). A “bib front” formal shirt, with a wing collar, has a stud front but no pleats. Being derived from the “white tie & tails” ensemble, it should only be worn with a peak lapelled jacket. A “fly front” shirt has no pleats or studs, as the buttons are hidden behind an extra panel of fabric overlaying the placket. Any of the above are good choices, and owning two tuxedo shirts makes sense for both utility (back-to-back events) and variety.
c) Tuxedo shoes are typically black patent leather, grosgrain, or velvet. A formal “slipper” is considered more elegant than a formal tie shoe, but either style is correct. Several shoemakers now feature higher luster calfskins that are not patent leather so they can be worn with regular suits for more utility. Just avoid wing tips, tassels, or penny loafers with your tuxedo. Consider what your wife or significant other spent on her evening shoes as a guideline for what you should invest in formal footwear. You’ll never wear them out, and they may never need to be re-soled — a good investment and the best indication that you take your formalwear seriously. They should, of course, always be worn with black, over-the-calf hosiery, preferably silk.
Whatever your station in life, there are events that demand formal dress. Hopefully, these guidelines will allow you to conform to convention but still express your sartorial individuality in black tie.