“As with anything else, in dressing well the most important awareness is timing. You get the term ‘trendy’ as something bad from people jumping into things too soon without letting a look evolve or grow for them. But if they wait too long, then they’re out of fashion. No changes in clothes or fashion should completely overthrow you as a person or the way you have been dressing.” — Don Sayres[1] “Introducing softness into formal wear automatically helps to make it more casual and less authoritarian. By combining the more feminine elements of shape and texture with the rich historical trimmings of male formal wear, tuxedo dressing can take on a modern mien.” — Alan Flusser[2] [caption id="attachment_332" align="alignleft" width="189"]son-in-law-636021_640 Your tuxedo jacket isn't the only piece of formal wear making a statement.[/caption]   While the dinner jacket certainly plays the leading role in your formal ensemble, the supporting cast—in particular, your dress shirt—can completely change the tone of your look overall. The traditional black-tie dress shirt, with its high-contrast white coloring, starched wing collar and shirtfront, etc., is as important as your tuxedo in developing a look that screams formality. With the same jacket and a different shirt, though, you can add softness and subtler contrast to your formal ensemble, creating a contemporary look that doesn’t sacrifice the essentials of classic style. When changing up your dress shirt, there are several components to consider: from tailoring options (including collar style, cuff style, closure, etc.), to fabric, to color (or even pattern). Remember that stiffness and sharpness of contrast increase formality, while softness in texture and contrast decrease formality. As you develop a personal formal style, play around with mixing different lines, textures, fabrics, and colors: individuality of style can reside in interesting yet subtle combinations of soft and hard rather than aggressively “different” or “trendy” components.

Collar and Tailoring

Your dress shirt’s collar is probably its most important and noticeable feature; as such, its selection is crucial in composing a formal outfit. The most traditional and most formal dress shirt collar is the wing collar (especially when the shirt comes with a stiff, detachable collar with more prominent wing tips). A laydown collar is another popular choice for slightly less formal black-tie events, as it adds some softness to the look.[3] However, while these are the most classic collars, they’re not your only options! While button-down collars are generally considered too informal for black tie, another way to add softness to your look is to minimize or eliminate your shirt’s collar altogether. One option that was extremely popular in the sixties (and that’s still sometimes found today) is the mandarin collar: a short collar with no points and a single button (with stud) at the front in lieu of a traditional bow tie or straight tie. You can even find ultra-modern dress shirts with no collar at all. Another important consideration when picking a (wing or laydown collar) dress shirt is the collar’s spread, or amount of room between its points. The best spread for you often depends on your own proportions as well as the size of your jacket’s lapels.

Jacket Lapel / Shirt Collar Combinations

As mentioned previously, the style of shirt collar you choose can tell a completely different story depending on the dinner jacket you wear it with; you can enhance your look by choosing either complementary or contrasting lines. Traditionally, the most formal combination was the peaked lapel dinner jacket with a wing-tip collar: as both the collar and lapels have stiff, upward-facing points, their complementary lines enhance each other’s formality.[4] Similarly, a shawl collar dinner jacket with laydown collar shirt create a combined sense of softness and ease. [caption id="attachment_329" align="aligncenter" width="344"]laydown_collarshirt_nonpleated One classic combination is a non-pleated, white laydown collar shirt.[/caption]   Wearing a peaked lapel dinner jacket with a laydown collar dress shirt, however, produces an entirely different effect: the jacket’s upward-facing points combined with the shirt’s downward-facing points creates an interesting line change as the eye moves over your ensemble. Wearing a shawl collar dinner jacket with wing-tip collar creates a compelling combination of hard and soft, drawing attention to the contrast created.[5]

Decoration, Color and Pattern

We’ve already discussed using color in your formal attire, but it’s worth repeating that your dress shirt presents a wonderful canvas for using color—or even print. You can also choose between pleated and non-pleated dress shirts depending on the other elements in your outfit: fine pleats can provide a touch of added interest and elegance to an otherwise simple ensemble. However, if you’re already using colors, prints, contrasting fabrics, etc., you might prefer a non-pleated shirt so as not to make your outfit unnecessarily busy. In terms of patterns, Alan Flusser recommends, “Any classically styled turndown-collar dinner shirt in black and white color scheme such as gingham check, tartan, black polka dot on white ground, or striped black-and-white horizontal front.”[6] And Matt Sebra at GQ agrees (see photo on right): “Ewan McGregor stepped out for an awards show this past weekend working two GQ-approved patterns, micro prints and polka dots, together in perfect harmony. When it comes to shirt and tie pattern mixing, scale is key and the actor wisely keeps this combination in check. See how each tie dot is about the same size as those shirt circles? That's what makes this pairing so effective. Same goes for the black tie color that pulls from the shirt pattern and ultimately anchors all the visual interest. It's a look worth remembering next time your solid shirt and ties start to feel staid.”[7] Another modern color-mixing option is the all-black (or midnight blue) look, which creates softness by removing the white dress shirt’s signature stark contrast: “The popular fashion for wearing one dark color from head to toe quickly separates one from the well-scrubbed mix-and-match crowd.”[8] While this look can certainly be done poorly—be careful not to completely eliminate contrast and interest—perfect tailoring and contrasting fabric accents help define a style that’s sleek and modern, without losing the essential formality of black tie. [caption id="attachment_330" align="aligncenter" width="338"]For a striking look, try all black from head to toe. For a  more striking look, try all black from dress shirt to dress shoe.[/caption]   [1] Quoted in Hix, 24. [2] Flusser (1996), 85. [3] Boyer, 90. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Flusser (1996), 84. [7] Available: <http://www.gq.com/style/blogs/the-gq-eye/2012/10/celebrity-style-watch-ewan-mcgregors-pattern-play.html> [8] Flusser (1996), 85.