BLACK TIE OPTIONAL? – Not Really

Suddenly an invitation creeps into the mailbox. It is for the wedding of the son or daughter of a close friend. At the bottom, usually in italics, reads the dreaded “Black Tie Optional.” It defines a formal event where – so it is claimed -- wearing a tuxedo is “expected but not required.” This is a trap. No one should be fooled…
Tuxedos are always the proper attire for this kind of event. The designation “optional” should not lull anyone into a false sense of diversity. There are really no options. Unless it is tired, worn out or otherwise unacceptable, the old tuxedo has to be recycled. If the event warrants a formal invitation, it cannot be accepted unless one plans to wear a tuxedo. Anything else threatens to come across as a slap in the face, or, at least, an unintentional insult.

One may indulge into speculations about some dark gray or black suit. Along with a dark tie and a broad smile it may try to pass as an option. Out of the question!

The only time it may work is if times are so bad that one is stuck in such a dreadful financial position that owning a tuxedo is out of reach. But even then, one should fake it and go for renting. In the good old days, the tuxedo was a staple item in any gentlemen’s wardrobe. The same applied to formal shirts, bow ties; cummerbunds stud sets, pocket squares, silk hosiery and formal shoes.

When it is a black tie event, and after the embarrassing optional part is cast aside, the construction of the ultimate self-image becomes essential. The following tips are ineliminable parts of the basic components:

The Tuxedo.   Today many tuxedo styles fit well within a “Black Tie” setting. In a classical framework, a one button, single-breasted Peak or Shawl collar is most distinguishing:

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Black, with a satin or grosgrain facing and plain front trousers is preferred. Details should also include a satin or grosgrain trouser braid (for the uninitiated, that refers to the side stripe), and no jacket vent. The trousers’ bottoms must always be finished plain, since, as a fad, cuffed tuxedo trousers went South many moons ago. Trousers should also be slightly shorter that a conventional suit, at least in a sufficiently subtle way as to betray the silk hosiery in a well-planned, unintentional way.

If following current fashion is one’s preference, then double-breasted or dinner jackets in a tartan plaid with black trousers should be considered. (The dinner jacket should always be done with a Shawl collar).

Some allegedly “fashionable” tuxedos are shown in three button fronts and other gimmicks. This would be a bad choice. In order to project the ultimate elegant sartorial profile there is only one possibility: man at his best!

Shirts.  They absolutely, unquestionably, and inescapably must be formal, with spread or winged collars, pleated (preferably ¼”) or bibbed front. The shirt must always accommodate cuff links and/or stud sets. Some formal shirts are shown with covered buttons. That also passes muster. If formal shirts display a monogram, it belongs on the left cuff.

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If the tuxedo happens to come with a fancy lining (as some do), a matching monogram color is the way to go. Some tuxedos come with a red lining, and a complementing red monogram on the shirt is nothing short of fabulous.

Ties and Cummerbunds. This is an area reserved for self-expression. A black bow tie and cummerbund is standard, but some are available in fancy colors and exceptionally tasteful patterns. A terminally fancy approach calls for matching the colors of one’s partner’s gown. That makes for a stunning composition. Of course, the cummerbund’s pleats must face down to avoid becoming a repository for wayward food crumbs during dinner.

If a cummerbund is deemed a nuisance, then there is no reason why it should not be skipped altogether. In that case, however, the trouser waistband should not have belt loops. It goes all too well, when covered in the same material as the facing, be it satin or grosgrain. In a more formal context, braces (suspenders) are de rigouer.

Stud Sets and Cuff Links. Cuff links are a must, while stud sets are not, if the shirt has a fly front (covered buttons).  This is a place for creativity, as the gambit runs from the classic solid black Onyx to diamond crusted versions. It must not be forgotten that the studs and the links should be in the same style, except that the studs should always be slightly smaller, and in sets of four, to fit into each front buttonhole. This is where self-expression can indulge into all kinds of daring departures.

Hosiery. Black sheer silks are the formal hose of choice. These offer fancy possibilities, but it should not be forgotten that, as with most things, excellence dwells in the details.

Shoes. These have to be formal and slip ons. Lace ups should be shunned, although they can occasionally be found in formal styles.  Well shined and in great shape, the shoes are always noticed -- especially by women. The standard Patton leather has given way to the more modern calf skin, which is not as shiny as those made out of Patton leathers, and much softer to admire. Still, it is not wise to try to substitute for slip-ons.

As the French used to say, the style defines the man. “Black Tie Optional” is an option meant to separate the wealth from the chaff. For everyone else it is no real option – unless one does not mind slipping into marginality. In formal gatherings, real men wear only tuxedos -- and their self-image must never be compromised.

-Walter Piccone

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