“When you stop to consider it, individuality in dress almost always presents itself in terms of accessories rather than the basics. The Fred Astaires and Dukes of Windsor and Douglas Fairbankses of this world would never think of wearing anything but the most proper gray flannel suits and navy blazers. Not for Cary Grant are the Day-Glo bow tie, fruit-salad jewelry, or lime green tuxedo. But who would disagree that each man possesses a singular, fashionable aura?” — Bruce Boyer[1] “Even though it’s very difficult for any man to go off-piste without appearing to be trying too hard—think about those fools from the accounts department who sport the revolving bow-tie, the paisley cummerbund, the robin-red bow-tie or the T-shirt with a bow-tie printed on it—I haven’t worn a bow-tie to these events in years. […] since then I’ve simply worn a crisp white shirt with a big strong collar . . . and no tie.” — Dylan Jones[2] As both Jones and Boyer have pointed out—though with different levels of approval!—accessories are where individuality in formal wear really begin to take off. And while accessories can be either an excellent place for a less experienced black-tie attendee to practice individuating himself or the last touch of elegant sophistication that sets an experienced formal dresser apart, it’s important to be careful which accessories you choose for your experimentation. When starting out, it’s a good idea to remember Alan Flusser’s advice as a helpful rule of thumb: add some differentiation—in terms of untraditional color, pattern, unusual texture, etc.—in a place where the individualistic item in your ensemble will be surrounded by black (or another dark color such as midnight blue) and thus feel pulled together into the ensemble.[3] So, good accessory choices for the gentleman not quite fully comfortable in his personal formal styling might be, say, a pocket square or a fine piece of jewelry. On the other hand, you might want to avoid flouting tradition where your bow tie is concerned (at least to start!), for example, and be careful not to accessorize with too much jewelry!—well, not unless you’re Prince, maybe. Similarly, even though your hosiery might seem like a safe choice, surrounded as it is by the dark color of your trousers and the black of your formal pumps or lace-up oxfords, this is a delicate technique that shouldn’t be tried out unless you’re fully comfortable in formal wear.[4]

Pocket Squares

Flusser and Gross both name the pocket square as one of the easiest and most elegant formal wear elements with which to begin experimenting.[5] Flusser suggests several alternatives to the classic white linen (that is, “The finest hand-rolled white English, French or Swiss linen handkerchief affordable”[6]!). For example, you might want to try a pocket square made of printed foulard with white patterns (e.g., plaid, tattersall, polka dot, and other classics) on a black background. He also suggests a similar black-background foulard handkerchief with patterns in more untraditional yet still deep and elegant colors: e.g., gold on black, dark green on black, deep red on black, royal purple on black. You can also go with small black designs (check, plaid) or a black border on the classic white pocket square.[7] Another option is to change up your pocket square’s fabric: try a pocket square in silk, for example, for a softer look. Dylan Jones recommends the silk pocket square above all others.[8] Fred Astaire, too, always wore a silk pocket square—Astaire wore his teased into a soft puff (allegedly invented by the actor/dancer himself).[9] You might even try out different combinations of color and fabric!


Bow Ties

[caption id="attachment_339" align="alignright" width="200"]rsz_bowtie Choose a bowtie that will look elegant, without competing for attention with your face![/caption] Bow ties are, of course, the most traditional formal option available—but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring! Of course, you’ll probably want to go with something a bit more traditional than the revolving bow tie or the bow tie-printed t-shirt; however, there’s still plenty of room for putting your own stamp on an old classic. The reason Flusser warns against a contrast bow tie is that it can either distract from or compete with your face[10]—and remember, you are always the most important component of your formal wear ensemble! That said, you can of course try out different bow tie colors that accent or enhance your features rather than competing with them. If you know what color tends to bring out the color of your eyes, for example, you’re already ahead! Otherwise, don’t be afraid to try on colors you might not have thought would work. Just make sure that the color of your bow tie draws the eye to your face; it shouldn’t draw your eye to the bow tie itself! Patterns can work as well, as long as you stay with a small, simple pattern on a darker background.    

Straight Ties

Much to the chagrin of many a traditionalist, straight ties are becoming more and more popular at black-tie events, as evidenced by the slew of them worn at awards shows over the past several years. Keep in mind that a bow tie is more formal than a straight tie—so, if you’re going to a prestigious dinner benefit, for example, it’s best to show respect by staying within traditional bounds. Some black tie events (e.g., awards shows!) allow for more lenience, however; at these kinds of events—and if done properly—a straight tie can work nicely with the rest of your formal attire. [caption id="attachment_340" align="aligncenter" width="243"]100_silk_4_in_hand_neck_tie (1) Thick formal ties are ideal for men with a bigger build.[/caption]   First, keep in mind that, just like dress watches and dress belts, thinner ties are generally considered more formal than thicker ones. If you have a tall, slim build, a skinny tie with muted sheen can be extremely flattering, helping to accentuate your long vertical lines. For men with broader chests and/or necks, however, skinny ties can look doll-like; in this case, you’re much better off framing your face with a wider and always correct butterfly-knotted bow tie. (For more information on different ways to tie a bow tie, please see our “How-To Guides” section.)


When personalizing your formal jewelry, it’s probably best to keep a similar rule of thumb in mind as when picking out a non-traditionally colored bow tie: the pieces themselves can be striking; however, they should never distract from you. So, if you’re ever stopped mid-conversation to be asked about your cufflinks, you’ve probably gone too far. If your jewelry is such that its exquisiteness can fully be appreciated only close up, though, this is generally a good sign. Consider shopping antique stores or boutiques for vintage jewelry: good vintage pieces are beautifully worked without being overdone.[11] [caption id="attachment_341" align="aligncenter" width="254"]OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA These bold silver cufflinks are the perfect way to accessorize your look![/caption]   Finally, remember that when it comes to jewelry—and to the rest of your formal accessories, for that matter!—less is almost always more. Your best bet is just to go with a few understated pieces that don’t themselves steal the center of attention but instead enhance your overall appearance (and confidence). And as always, if you’re not completely confident with any item, don’t wear it. Prince might be able to pull of a sparkly Nehru jacket with giant gold chain at a back-tie event… but you’re not Prince, and that’s ok! [1] Boyer, 18. [2] Jones, 198. [3] Flusser (1996), 83. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid.; Gross, 180. [6] Flusser (1996), 84. [7] Ibid. [8] Jones, 200. [9] Flusser (2002), 213. [10] Flusser (1996), 83. [11] Flusser (2002), 227.