You’ve mastered the suit. You’ve got an impeccable collection of ties. Your pocket square game? On point. Your dress shirt choices? Resplendent (yeah, that’s right, we said “resplendent”). Your wardrobe is pretty much ready for anything…until you get that little envelope in the mail. You’ve been invited to a black tie event, which happens a lot as the the end of the year approaches. How do you look your best in a formal getup when you don’t wear one that often? Read on.
Black tie should be easy, right? It’s basically a uniform. You throw on a tux, give your shoes a quick shine and you’re off. So how do so many guys still manage to look unpolished at a black tie event? There’s an art to looking good in formal wear. Here’s how:
Step 1: Make sure your tux fits.
This sounds so basic but just as with suits, getting the fit right is 90% of the game. And we’re not just talking getting the right measurements. Pick the right style too. If you’re trim and athletic don’t go for a swim in a big boxy tuxedo, instead opt for a slimmer fit (not a “skinny” fit, mind you, it’s a gala not the bicycle race). Even if you’re a little bigger than your ideal size, don’t try to hide it with a jacket that’s got enough fabric for you and your date to wear to your event. Just give yourself some room in a couple of key areas like the stomach and hips.
Step 2: Keep it simple.
If you’re a complete novice when it comes to black tie, keep things simple. As you’ll see in our breakdown below, when done well, the traditional look holds up quite well. In the future, we’ll cover how to dress for black tie-optional events and other less traditional black tie events where you can, and should, branch out.
Step 3: Dig in to the details.
Even if you’re not usually a stickler for details, become one for one night. The key to shining in your black tie ensemble is nailing the little things. We’ll explain in more detail below when we break down the essential parts of a black tie look.
So what makes a tuxedo jacket a tuxedo jacket? They come with satin or grosgrain shawl or peak lapels, one button, piped pockets, and vent-less. Double vents are also more acceptable now, as opposed to the much too sporty-looking center vent, and most pocket flaps can be turned inside to achieve the same look as a piped pocket. In a pinch, you can even have vents sewn shut by your tailor. Stay away from notch lapels and two or more buttons. Bonus points if the left lapel has a working buttonhole (one caveat: we don’t recommend a working buttonhole for shawl lapels). Look for the loop on the underside, just below the hole, to securely stow a boutonniere stem.
Trousers are pretty straightforward. The main thing to consider is how you’re going to hold them up. A belt? No, sir. Not with black tie. Belt loops are a no-no when you’re going for a formal look. Instead use braces (suspenders) and/or side tabs. Braces for evening wear are typically black or white with matching corded ends, rather than leather. As with any other suit, pleated or plain front is strictly up to you. Plain front appears more minimalist, and emphasizes a slender/athletic body type; pleats help trousers drape nicely, creating more of a vertical line on the front of the leg. Whether you choose plain front or pleated, avoid cuffs which will look too casual.
Shirts should have a semi-spread or spread collar to frame the bow tie and come equipped with French cuffs; wing collars are an option for the old school gent, but turn down collars work just as well and you may get more wear out of the shirt outside of formal events. A straightforward solid white shirt will work, though one with ribs is a sharp choice. It goes without saying that the shirt should be white, and avoid anything with ruffles, unless you pair it with an eye patch and hook.
Bow ties should be black – hence black tie– and tied by you. While it takes some practice, the imperfections from tying your own bow can add character to a refined look. Don’t cop out and wear a regular necktie. We’ve broken this rule ourselves on occasion, but for a strictly black tie event it can downgrade even the most dapper dinner suit. Understated cufflinks and studs work well when it comes to your jewelry. Silver with onyx inlay is always a safe choice. If you want to step it up a notch, gold and mother of pearl will do the trick. Complete your look with a puffed or folded white pocket square.
What to get: Black Bow Tie available from Black Lapel. Black Moiré Braces available from Albert Thurston. Monroe Mother of Pearl Cufflinks available from Ledbury. White Formal Studs available from Cuff Daddy.
Going cover-less is pulled off most successfully when the jacket closure is around the same area as the trouser waistband – see both Sean Connery and Daniel Craig as James Bond. If you wear low rise trousers though, cover it. By bridging that gap with a swank cummerbund or waistcoat, you present a continuous look from the waist down, which makes you look taller and slimmer. In both waist coverings, the silk should be of the same type as your bow tie and lapels.
When it comes to footwear, a plain toe show is your best bet; think smooth lines. Black patent leather is the standard, though in many cases, you can get away with a very well polished black calf skin leather shoe. Formal pumps may sound like women’s shoes, but they’re actually quite masculine (think very dressy loafers) and a bit more traditional than a lace up. Black tie socks are generally silk, but thin cotton or wool work as well.
Now that you’re armed with the black tie basics you’re ready to hit the scene. Got a formal holiday party to attend? A swanky gala for your favorite charity? Follow these guidelines and you’re guaranteed to look better than the waitstaff (and 90% of the other guests) at your next event.
Have you already killed it in a tux? What was your secret to looking fly in black tie? Let us know in the comments below.