Dress Shirts & Waist Coverings

“A gentleman's ultimate goal is to travel through life as if he were a polished machine and a complete work of art.”

            — John Bridges[1]

“…until we move toward a ‘minimalist’ approach to dress—and none is on the horizon—the vest will continue to be with us.”                           —Bruce Boyer[2] Though a gentleman attending a formal event would never dream of removing his jacket, the dress shirt and formal waist covering still play a crucial role in holding his black-tie ensemble together. In fact, a significant component of what gives classic black-tie attire its perfectly polished appearance has to do with the way that certain “rougher” elements (that display construction work, say) are covered up: your shirt collar, the imperfection where shirt is tucked into pants, the seams on the outside of your trousers, your trousers’ waistband, even your shirt’s buttons. Today, dress shirt and waist covering are elements of the formal outfit that can be playfully (though carefully!) personalized, allowing a man to add a bit of individual style to his penguin suit. If you’re aiming to stick to the classics, though, the code is quite strict—especially where dress shirts are concerned!

Dress Shirts

The classic dress shirt is always white. Always. Given that universal law, there are generally two acceptably classic models, though one is generally considered more formal than the other. These models tend to differ from each other in the style of their collars, the elaboration of their fronts, and the number of the buttons/studs they require. Finally, despite the aforementioned fact that it is unacceptable to remove your jacket—ever—at a formal occasion, a true dress shirt is always long-sleeved! Or, as John Bridges puts it, “A gentleman knows that the term ‘short-sleeved dress shirt’ is an oxymoron.”[3] Long-sleeved dress shirts allow for an extra touch of elegance at your wrist, where the cuff of your shirt should extend about 1/4 to 1/2 inch past your dinner jacket, displaying subtle yet classy cufflinks.


There are two main types of collar found on a classically styled formal dress shirt—as noted, one of which is decidedly more formal than the other. The first type of collar is the wing collar, loosely based on the stiff, detachable, inches-high Victorian model of the same name. Today, however, wing collars are usually attached to the shirt, losing the effect of a strong collar surrounding one’s neck and holding up one’s chin.[4] Today’s wing collars are shorter and softer than their Victorian-era ancestors; however, some starch and careful positioning of collar and bowtie retains something of the original’s grandeur and formality. Wing collars were traditionally worn with white tie attire. However, as white tie events grow more and more scarce, the wing collar has become a classically acceptable black-tie dress shirt, especially for the more formal of black-tie events. The wing collar goes especially well with peaked-lapel dinner jackets, as the pointed shape of the collar’s wings nicely complements the shape of the jacket’s lapels.[5] [caption id="attachment_214" align="aligncenter" width="301"]colored_shirts_1 Wing Collar Mens Dress Shirts[/caption]   The second type of collar is the softer turned-down collar, first worn at traditionally formal occasions and popularized by the Duke of Windsor. Though considered less formal than the wing collar, it’s an equally acceptable black-tie classic[6]—even more traditional than the wing collar, according to some[7] (who maintain that the wing collar is for white-tie events only). The turned-down collar goes well with any style of dinner jacket; however, its more relaxed shape might be the ideal match for a shawl-collar dinner jacket.

Shirt Fronts

Quality dress shirts of both types are “made with a bib-type construction so their fronts do not billow out of the trouser tops when seated”; the very best shirt fronts are made to end just above the trousers’ waistband with a tab designed to attach to the waist button inside your trousers—thus preventing the shirt front from pulling up.[8] This “bib” portion of the shirt front is available in two classic styles, ruffled or pleated. Regardless of chosen style, the width of the bib should not exceed the space between your suspenders.[9]


Finally, the true dress shirt exposes no details of construction: thus, you should wear studs to cover the buttons of your shirt. (An acceptable though decidedly less classic alternative is to wear a shirt specially constructed with a panel to cover the front buttons.[10]) If you do go the shirt-stud route, there are several things to keep in mind. First, your studs should complement—without perfectly matching!—your cufflinks.[11] Second, the number of studs required depend on the style of your shirt: where a wing-collared dress shirt might require one or two shirt studs, a turndown-collar shirt needs two or three.[12] [caption id="attachment_213" align="aligncenter" width="246"]372px-5.3.10NeilPatrickHarrisByDavidShankbone Neil Patrick Harris wearing dress shirt with button covers (photo by David Shankbone)[/caption]   When compiling a classic formal look, these minute details can make all the difference between recognition as an elegant man of class, or relegation to the ranks of black tie beginners.

Formal Waist Options

For some reason, common knowledge seems to be that cummerbunds are always worn with tuxedos while vests (or waistcoats) are always worn with tailcoats. And while the latter is assuredly true, the classic black-tie look is much more versatile: a gentleman may choose between cummerbund and vest depending on proportion and alignment with the rest of your ensemble, as well as personal preference.


Though the vest has gone in and out of style for decades now, its popularity achieved stability in the nineteen fifties,[13] and it is now perfectly acceptable to wear a vest as part of your classic black-tie look. The classic black-tie vest is always black, and should be made of the same fabric as the dinner jacket and trousers. It’s also important to note that its cut is considerably different than the vest component of a three-piece business suit, say. First, classic (usually twenties-inspired[14]) formal vests are made with shawl-collar lapels. They may be either single- or double-breasted; in either case, though, they must have a “deep V front so as to display the front of the formal shirt.”[15]   Though you may wear a vest with any type of (single-breasted!) dinner jacket, they go particularly well with the peak-lapel dinner jacket and wing-collar dress shirt combo. When these pieces are combined, “the vest’s points below the waist echo those of the coat lapels above the waist,”[16] as well as the points of the collar’s “wings.”  


The classic cummerbund is always black; its fabric ought to mirror that of the bow tie (which is also black). You can tell the quality of a cummerbund by its pleats: a well-made cummerbund will include a small pocket inside one of the top pleats (originally intended for holding a gentleman’s opera ticket). For this reason, the cummerbund is always worn with the pleats facing upwards. [caption id="attachment_212" align="aligncenter" width="244"]large_3749_Solid-Silk-Black-Cummerbund-Set Solid Silk Black Cummerbund[/caption] Again, there is no restriction on the type of dinner jacket a gentleman may choose to wear with his cummerbund. Still, it is thought to go particularly well with a shawl collar jacket, as the cummerbund’s “curved design harmonizes particularly well with this shape of lapel.”[17] Each type of formal waist covering is intended to play the same role as the dress shirt’s studs, for example: covering up an unavoidable bit of visible tailoring in order to make the entire ensemble as sleek and elegant as possible. Both the cummerbund and the vest (or the double-breasted jacket alone) smoothly cover both the trousers’ waist band with its stitching, buttons, zippers, and other unavoidable pieces of construction, as well as the potential rumpling caused by tucking one’s dress shirt into one’s trousers. Combined, these classic details help to illustrate that you are a man of class and sartorial distinction!   [1] Bridges, 14. [2] Boyer, 278. [3] Bridges, 57. [4] Flusser (2001, 1996, 1985). [5] Gross. [6] Jones, 200. [7] Bridges, 62. [8] Flusser (1996), 81. [9] Ibid. [10] Jones, 200. [11] Boyer; Flusser. [12] Jones, 200. [13] Boyer, 278. [14] Ibid. [15] Flusser (1985), 130. [16] Flusser (1996), 80. [17] Ibid., 79.