Expert Eye for the Black Tie Guy

Author: Nick Carvell, GQ Contributing Fashion Editor

Party season is black tie season - but what the hell is black tie? At a time when what sort of clothes are expected at what sort of event is increasingly flexible for men, black tie is probably the only formal dress code most guys will come across (unless you happen to go to a lot of white tie balls - and if so, hello Your Royal Highness). Thankfully it’s also a relatively straightforward dress code that has a fairly rigid set of rules focussed around the timeless dinner suit, and yet, much like riding a surfing, it’s something that can be tricky to get onboard with at first. Got a black tie event on the cards this festive season? Here, I answer the pressing questions you might have to make sure you get a tuxedo dress code right.

Why do I have to wear a tuxedo?

You’ve got King Edward VII to thank for that. While Prince of Wales in the late 1800s, he asked the tailors at Henry Poole & Co on Savile Row to come up with a more casual alternative to the traditional formal tailcoat for dinner at his country estate, Sandringham. The result was a tail-less midnight blue silk jacket with matching trousers. Originally known as a dinner jacket in the United Kingdom, it earned the moniker “Tuxedo” around 1888 after becoming the uniform for men at the exclusive Tuxedo Park Country Club just outside of New York City in the United States (supposedly one of the members picked one up on a trip to London after spending the weekend at Sandringham with the Prince and his wife). As super-formal white tie events became less popular during the 21st century, black tie soon became the default formalwear for men on both sides of the Atlantic - something that remains true to this day.

What makes a tuxedo a tuxedo?

Simply put, a tuxedo is set apart from a business suit in two distinct ways: silk-lined lapels (either peak or shawl) and a single, silk, grosgrain or brocade stripe down the outside leg of the trousers. Tuxedo trousers will not have belt loops, and have a covered zipper and sometimes pull-tabs for adjusting.

Does black tie need to be black?

No, this has never been the case. As mentioned earlier, the Prince of Wales’ tuxedo was midnight blue and in the late Victorian and early Edwardian era, grey was also a popular option as well as black. Today you can find tuxedos in a wide variety of colours and materials - not to mention smoking jackets in rich velvet (originally created as a more relaxed post-dinner alternative to dinner jackets) as well as contrast off-white jackets (originally intended for black tie events in warmer climes at fashionable 1930s resorts) now being totally incorporated into the year-round black tie oeuvre.

What shoes should I wear?

The most traditional option is an opera pump (a shoe that’s almost a balletic shape, cut from patent leather with a grosgrain or silk bow over the toes), however today the most popular option is a lace-up patent leather shoe or, for something a bit more eye-catching, a velvet slipper. If you’re not in a position to buy a specific shoe for a once-a-year event, an alternative is a well-shined lace-up Derby, free of patterns or adornments.

Can I go sockless?

Whatever shoe you go for, one thing is non-negotiable: you need to wear black socks (preferably fine-gauge cotton or silk). No bare ankles.

Do I need shirt studs?

If you buy a traditional shirt that takes shirt studs, it will often come with studs already inserted - but be warned, these are generally temporary (meaning they might snap open during your event). In this case, it’s important to invest in a good set of metal ones. However, you can also get evening shirts that have buttons hidden under a covered placket. These tend to look more modern and minimal, so it depends on the vibe you want. However, if you can see the buttons on your shirt, then you’re doing it wrong.

Can I get away with a ready-tied bow tie?

There is a lot of snobbery around ready-tied bow ties, to the point that some men feel it’s a badge of honour to be able to tie your own bow tie. In my opinion, a bow tie you tie yourself looks better (ready tied ones look a bit too perfect for my liking), plus you can control the size and shape of it to fit the proportions of your neck, body, lapels etc. However, it is tricky to master - and if you don’t do it everyday, tying a bow tie can be a last minute panic no-one needs before a big event. Plus, most velvet bow ties come ready tied (as the material is super slippery). So, no, there’s nothing wrong with a ready-tied bow tie.

Can I wear a black necktie instead of a bow tie?

In recent years, more men have opted for a long necktie instead of the expected bow tie. This is often referred to as “Hollywood black tie” by traditionalists, as it has become a popular choice for celebrities on the red carpet at awards. If you are going to do this (and, be warned, it might appear more casual in a room of bow ties), be sure to go for a sleeker silk one to match the shine of your lapels.

I mean, come on, do I need a cummerbund?

A cummerbund is perhaps the most frequently forgotten element of a man’s black tie - which is a shame as they’re actually really useful. First adopted by British military officers after seeing them worn in Colonial India, the cummerbund is a pleated sash-style belt worn around the waist over the trousers. Not only is it practical (as it often has a concealed pocket inside for cards, cloakroom tickets etc), but it also serves aesthetically to make your waist and stomach look smaller - plus it avoids any potential for an untucked shirt on the dancefloor.

However, it’s not a hard and fast necessity. If you want a more minimal, modern look, you can absolutely leave the cummerbund at home on two conditions: first, that you don’t wear a belt (these should never be worn with black tie - and if your trousers are slipping, invest in a pair of braces); and, second, that your trousers are high enough to stop any shirt showing under the button of your jacket (as this can look messy).

Alternatively, you could go for a three-piece suit. Especially good in winter for an added layer of insulation, a co-ordinating waistcoat is another way to keep your outfit looking sleek while standing out from the crowd.

How do I add some personality to my black tie?

In a sea of black and white, you might feel you want to try bringing your own style into the mix. However, unless your style icon is John Virgo on Big Break, it’s best to avoid patterned waistcoats and comedy accessories, and instead opt for something a little more restrained. In my experience, the key to this is to start with a totally traditional set-up and then change one element for something unexpected: that could be a rollneck instead of a shirt, a silk scarf, a colourful pocket square, a smoking jacket, or a suit that’s not the classic black or blue, for example. Stick to this and, trust me, you’ll stand out for all the right reasons.

One final note…

I always remind guys that, while their tuxedo is designed for a specific dress code, they shouldn’t leave it languishing in the back of their wardrobe waiting solely for black tie events. Think of this as just another of your suits. Slip it on with a black T-shirt and white trainers, and it’s a smart alternative for a weekend night out.