Breaking Formal Wear Rules

“The man who knows what to avoid is already the owner of style.” — W. Fowler[1] “And, true to form, most of the male guests dressed in a modern-day approximation of black tie, namely black suits, embroidered black shirts, patent leather shoes and lots and lots of jewellery. Ozzy Ozbourne—who, as well as being The World’s Most Extraordinary Living Rock Star (copyright all newspapers), is also something of an underappreciated natty dresser—turned up in quintessential alternative black tie: bespoke black frock coat, black dress trousers, a simple black T-shirt, snakeskin boots, a huge belt buckle, John Lennon sunglasses, and a bloody big cross at the end of his necklace.” — Dylan Jones[2] So far, I’ve mostly discussed how to correctly make a black-tie look your own. However, it’s also important to mention those formal wear rules one should never, ever break—even those small errors in fit, judgment, or taste that can completely destroy the very idea behind formal attire. Each of these rules depends on two main principles:
  1. You must never insult your host.
Formal wear is rooted in centuries of etiquette, stretching back to the complicated court etiquette of British aristocracy. And though, especially with the invention of “Hollywood Black Tie” and its increasing ubiquity, proper treatment of your host always comes first. What is Hollywood Black Tie? GQ’s Dylan Jones has perhaps the best definition I’ve ever seen: “Well, Hollywood Black Tie started off meaning some sort of suit not worn with a bow-tie but maybe with an ordinary black tie. But actually it has become a catch-all term and in reality means anything you like. […] If truth be known, HBT was invented so that lazy film actors and multi-millionaire rock stars wouldn’t look so ridiculous turning up at black-tie events wearing their gym kit or their girlfriend’s pyjamas.”[3]
  1. Your clothes are never more important than you
[caption id="attachment_350" align="alignright" width="229"]Don't be afraid to show off your personal style with color, just don't let the color outshine you. Don't be afraid to show off your personal style with color, just don't let the color outshine you.[/caption] One way to think about this rule is the following: your formal attire is what lets you in the door to a set dress-code event, but you were the one invited to the event in the first place. So, the fact that you spent days picking out the right elements and hours putting them together does not mean they ought to be your subject of conversation, not should they be so idiosyncratic as to distract from who you are. Your personal style defines what you wear—even in formal situations—not the other way around: “A gentleman is not just a man of broad gestures. He is also a man of detail. His appearance is not meant to create a fuss. A gentleman knows that underneath it all, while he is holding the limelight with his witty conversations or trenchant analysis of recent politics, the most seemingly insignificant of his accessories may steal away a listener's attention, for good or for ill. He dresses well, not just from sole to crown, but from the inside out.”[4]  So, with those principles in mind, we’ll cover a few examples. The less formal the event, the further it’s acceptable to stray from the traditional black or midnight blue tuxedo. At all but the most formal events—Nobel awards, say, or million-dollar benefit dinners—navy blue and gray are near enough to tradition as to mark one an owner of personal style without, say, offending his host. For evening wear, however, there are several things that you should quite simply never do.    

Never draw too much attention to your clothes

“Choose your clothes carefully, but don’t talk about them, please, as one mention of a bespoke suit has been known to suck all breathable oxygen from a room and render everyone unconscious.” — Dylan Jones[5]  [caption id="attachment_347" align="aligncenter" width="266"]A classic black tuxedo is the perfect option. It looks great and is never too much for a formal event. A classic black tuxedo is the perfect option. It looks great and is never too much at a formal event.[/caption] Similarly, no particular item of clothing should draw undue attention to itself—unless you’re a (real) rock star, that is, in which case you can do whatever you want. The rest of us mere mortals, on the other hand, must stay within reach of the rules.
  • Never wear a shiny tuxedo (or a shiny dinner jacket with regular matte trousers)
  • If you wear a velvet dinner jacket, make sure it’s perfectly tailored and that it’s clearly differentiated in some way as formal wear
Think of it this way: unless you’re the one winning some sort of acting award, the reason you’re in formal wear at all is because someone else asked you to. Flagrantly disregarding propriety is quite simply insulting to your host—and personal style should never come at the cost of simple politeness.

Never break these simple styling rules

[caption id="attachment_349" align="alignright" width="190"]Double Breasted Tuxedos are the only ones that should be fully buttoned! Double-Breasted Tuxedos are the only ones that should be fully buttoned![/caption]
  • Unless you’re wearing a double-breasted suit, never button the last button of your dinner jacket.
  • Never leave your shirt unbuttoned.[6]
  • Don’t let shirt front peek out from beneath your waistcoat (or through your properly buttoned dinner jacket in the absence of waistcoat or cummerbund).
  • A bow tie is always more formal than a straight tie; if you must wear a straight tie, make it skinny and make sure that it’s not too shiny!

Never Assume

Again, unlikely events aside, it’s safe to assume you’re wearing black tie at the behest of your host. So if you’re not sure about anything having to do with dress code, ask. You will not be ridiculed for this; in fact, you’ll be the only guest who knows exactly what he’s supposed to do. [1] From Matter of Manners; quoted in Flusser (1985), 143. [2] Jones, 198. [3] Ibid., 205-6. [4] Bridges, 109. [5] Jones, 187. [6] There is a case to be made for acceptability at daytime, semi-formal events: e.g., <> (only the upper half! only the upper half!)