“In the modern era, constructing the perfect ensemble that oozes class and refinement is possible through the marriage of exquisite suit, shirt and […] bow tie combinations, but there is nothing more quintessentially elegant than the addition of a luxurious pocket square.”
— Bower & Fletcher
“And always remember to polish the bottom of your shoes; if it was good enough for Sinatra I think it ought to be good enough for you.”
— Dylan Jones
Men’s formal wear is often maligned for turning all men into mirror images of each other—for example, GQ
’s Dylan Jones bemoans the fact that, “The whole point of black tie, the whole reason all us men look like we do (identical) is in order to allow women to shine.” But, he claims, “in this age of male emancipation, when we are almost taken as seriously as women in department stores, isn’t it time we started getting our own back?”
Jones’ sentiment is expressed most obviously in wild modern approximations of black tie (e.g., “Hollywood Black Tie”) styles. Still, I think there’s a case to be made for the claim that there’s plenty of room for expression and individuality within
classic black tie guidelines.
“Male habiliment is a daily intimacy that publicly transmits inscrutably private messages,” notes Alan Flusser
—and the message transmitted by classic black-tie attire needn’t be nothing but identical penguinlike conformity. Rather, a thoughtfully composed classic wardrobe speaks volumes about a gentleman’s taste, opinion, identity, and so on—it’s just that those volumes are spoken in whispers. And it’s really the accessories that finish off a classic black tie look—from bow tie to pocket square to formal pumps—that help shift your classically styled outfit from identically to self-identity.
You’ve probably seen modern interpretations of black tie—at awards shows, on the red carpet, etc.—combined with a straight tie (or even no tie!). However, the classic black-tie ensemble is defined—in name, even!—by its black bow tie. As the name suggests, the classic black-tie bow tie is always … well, black. Your bow tie’s texture is determined by the texture of your dinner jacket’s lapel facings: so, a satin bow tie is worn with satin facings, while a textured (e.g., ribbed or pebble-weaved silk) bow tie is worn with grosgrain facings.
The bow tie was originally derived from the stock tie, a centuries-old neckwear style still used in certain kinds of equestrian competition! Eventually, the original (very long) stock tie was reduced to a single band around the neck with its ends tied into a bow: thus, bow tie
Today, there are two acceptable types of formal bow ties. First, the butterfly style’s flared ends produce wide bowties with small knots; alternatively, the narrower “batwing” style’s square ends produce a similar result with less hassle.
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Robert Pattinson in Black Bow Tie: Photo by Georges Biard[/caption]
More important than the style of bowtie selected, though, is your ability to tie it yourself!
A hand-tied bow tie acts as a mark of individuality, (subtly) displaying your personality and taste through the shape, size, and position of your bow: “Place a mathematically perfect, pre-tied bow under your chin and you forsake all individuality. The hand-tied bow’s moody loops and unpredictable swirls give you that subtle insouciance, that desired aplomb.”
Though your bow’s personality is entirely up to you, be sure that, when tying your bow tie, its width does not extend beyond the wings of your collar (if wearing a wing-collared shirt), or the spread of your collar (if wearing a turn-down collar), or beyond the sides of your face, regardless of shirt style!
“a gentleman folds or arranges his pocket square neatly, but with a minimal sense of theater.”
— John Bridges
Like the bow tie, the color of the classic black-tie pocket square is not a matter of personal preference: it is always
white. Still, experts disagree on whether this hand-rolled handkerchief ought to be made of linen
(which has more body and is better able to hold its shape) or silk
(for its touch of sheen and harmony with a silk bow tie - lapel combo). Again, the classic pocket square’s color is a strict rule that seems to limit the possibility of individuality. Despite this unyielding prescription, though, the way you fold your pocket square expresses more about you—both in terms of style and
personality—than just about any other formal wear component.
Not convinced? Here are just a few examples of undeniably classy yet individual pocket squares: the Duke of Windsor folded his pocket squares neatly, yet wore them at nontraditional angles within his breast pocket to draw attention. Cary Grant tucked in his pocket squares extra-discreetly so that one small corner always slanted toward his face (unlike the usual angle of the pocket square pointing toward the shoulder). Fred Astaire teased his silk squares into a puffed fold, which he claimed to have invented. Finally, Gary Cooper sported his squares askew and almost as an afterthought.
(For more information about different pocket square styles and how to attain them, please visit our “How to Guides” section—in particular, the page on folding a pocket square.)
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Pocket Square & Classic Black Tuxedo[/caption]
Before folding your pocket square with panache and personality, though, you must be sure to start with a top-quality white handkerchief. The ideal pocket square should be 16-18 inches across, its edges and exposed points must be hand-rolled and hand-stitched,
and it ought to be made of fine quality linen or silk (depending on what works best for you). Finally, be sure to test it out in your breast pocket to ensure that the fit is comfortable without bulging or sagging.
“The formal shoe is as distinct from other male footwear as the dinner jacket is from a suit. […] Sometimes shiny, sometimes appointed with a silk bow, yet always appearing more like a slipper than a shoe, the formal shoe is the only way to finish off the formal ensemble.”
— Alan Flusser
Formal footwear is yet another area where a man’s personality can play a bit from within the confines of classic black tie rules. Though classic formal hosiery, as well as the color of one’s shoes are more or less set in stone, acceptable footwear styles range from plain black oxfords to options that might strike “the less sophisticated as somewhat effeminate.”
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Patent Leather Dress Shoes[/caption]
There are two shoe styles that claim the most popularity as well as the most classic acceptability when it comes to formal events—as usual, one is considerably more formal (though in this case, it’s also considered more feminine) than the other. The more common and less formal classic black-tie shoe of choice is the low-cut laced oxford in (black) patent leather.
This shoe is actually the newer of the two classic styles, however—originating in the early 1930s. Classic formal oxfords should always be as simple as possible: for example, unlike day shoes, there should be no decoration across the toe.
The second, and most classic, variety of formal shoe dates back to the nineteenth century, a true “vestige of male court dress.”
This is the opera pump, available in dull calf leather, patent leather, or even trimmed in velvet! Regardless of material, the formal opera pump is unique among men’s shoes in its delicate shape, notable heel, and ribbed silk bow. These shoes are surely a chance to show off both personality and daring, as well as classic taste: Dylan Jones urges men to “be as feminine as you like (with bows)”
Formal hosiery, on the other hand, is an example of classic black tie attire where rules don’t allow for much interpretation or playfulness. Really the most important considerations about black-tie hose is that it’s discreet, black, and at least
calf-height: a gentleman can’t have skin showing through when, upon sitting down, your formal trousers lift up over your ankles.
There is some room for variation in terms of material—you might select silk or even superfine cotton as your weave of choice—but it’s best to leave statement hosiery to the most sartorially daring (and not
for the realm of classic attire!).
Flusser (2002), 213.
Flusser (2002), 161.
Flusser (2002), 162.
e.g., Flusser; Gross.
Flusser (2002), 213.
Flusser (2002), 251.