“The golden age of jewelry workmanship spanned the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of the First World War, with the latter art nouveau and art deco periods also producing some extraordinary design and craftsmanship. Today, a pair of Edwardian cuff links or an early Cartier tank watch affords a man one of the few opportunities to actually sport an ornament of beauty and antiquity without eliciting the disapproving looks of his cohorts. Recounting some fanciful tale tracing the item’s origin or recalling its celebrated owner only enhances the mystique of a secondhand collectible”
— Alan Flusser
These days, as in Victorian times, very little jewelry is acceptably worn with traditional black-tie attire. Though modern styles allow for considerably more latitude, discretion is still considered the height of taste when selecting a classic look (just as it did when Victorian England struggled to pin down the concept of a gentleman
). Still, there remain a few simple accessories required by classic formal wear that (acceptably) make even the most traditional black-tie attire “pop,” from cufflinks and shirt studs to colorful boutonnieres!
As Alan Flusser notes, “With the exception of the finger ring, man’s jewelry has been fathered by function—the money clip, tie clip, collar pin, key chain, cuff links, shirt studs, and wristwatch are utilitarian first, decorative second.”
And for the most part, the Victorian era’s elegant gentleman consciously avoided all jewelry that wasn’t purely functional in nature and as discreet as possible in appearance.
By the 1980s, though, men’s jewelry began to make something of a comeback. Only functional items (plus the ever-present finger ring) were sanctioned for formal wear, and discretion was still a crucial property of an elegant gentleman’s apparel; however, it became acceptable for your cufflinks to add a touch of character to your dress shirt. It was no coincidence that the elegant man suddenly became obsessed with collecting vintage jewelry!
Now, such decorative features of utilitarian-in-origin accoutrements are intended
to add a touch of flash and individuality to your classic black tie ensemble. (Just make sure you don’t cross that fine line into unacceptably and excessively elaborate territory—by wearing more than one signet ring, for example!)
“It has been said that watching a gent undo his cuff links is every bit as sensual for a woman as for a man to hear the zipper slide down the back of a dress. Regardless of its effect, no form of shirtsleeve closure dresses a man’s hand better than a well-fitted French cuff accented by the subtle glamour of its buttonhole-covering link.”
— Alan Flusser
Originally, cuff links were designed to hold starched, removable cuffs (much too stiff for the likes of a mere button!) together.
They were worn for both day and evening wear: usually gold for day and silver for evening (as gold tended to look gaudier under artificial lights).
Today, though, a man has more acceptable color choices, even for a truly classic formal look. Either gold or
silver cufflinks are acceptable (though it’s essential that they match—both each other and
any additional accents). You might also choose cufflinks set with (subtle!) precious stones or antique ornamentation—onyx or mother of pearl (a nod to traditional pearl white-tie cufflinks) are often preferred.
[caption id="attachment_245" align="aligncenter" width="301"]
Mother of Pearl Cufflinks[/caption]
In addition to color, you must consider the style and design of your cufflinks. Alan Flusser insists that correct formal cufflinks should be decorated on all four sides, and that each side should connect with a chain (or link—thus the name): “The most prized examples of cuff-link art have always relied on all four sides to convey their craftsmanship and lineage.”
Though these are without question the cufflinks of highest status, so to speak, other designs are generally considered acceptable with classic black-tie attire at all but the most formal events. You can find chained cufflinks that are only ornamented on the outside—though these should be reserved for less-formal black-tie affairs. Similarly, you can link French cuffs with a bar that simply pushes through all four buttonholes: this is just as effective yet easier to deal with than traditional cufflinks. It too, however, should be reserved for less formal occasions: as Flusser puts it, “only half of each hand ends up embellished.”
After all, in this one area where embellishment is acceptable, it’s definitely preferable not to skimp!
Like cufflinks, shirt studs were originally designed for functionality. Just as cufflinks hold your formal cuffs together, studs conceal your formal shirt’s buttons, giving your ensemble as a whole
the impression of sartorial perfection—no loose ends, so to speak. Now, however, studs can also be used to make a bit of a statement. Do note that they should be much simpler and less comparable to wearable art than your cufflinks, however! Studs should always go
with your cufflinks (so, no gold studs with silver links, for example), but should never match
your cufflinks exactly. Perfectly matching accessories make an outfit look prefabricated, while complementary accessories present an appearance of carefully collected elegance.
Wearing rings with formal wear can present something of a quandary. After all, rings are one of the oldest male accessories in existence (harkening back to Greek and Roman seals, or even Egyptian currency
). On the other hand, wearing too many or too
decorative rings—especially when going for a classic look—is often considered the most obvious mark of classlessness.
With a classic formal look, wearing one or two rings (no more!) is definitely your best bet. In addition to—or instead of—a wedding ring, acceptable formal rings include signet rings, family crest rings, military rings, organizational rings, and class rings.
These types of rings may be worn on either hand (unless you’re married, in which case your second ring should be worn on the pinky finger of your right hand).
Again, if you’re married, you may acceptably wear two rings. However, you should never, ever wear more than one non-wedding ring: the unmarried gentleman must make do with one ring alone—or risk whispers of gauche
by his fellows.
During the Victorian era, a social taboo on the display of a timepiece (“a true gentleman’s concerns were not supposed to include the passage of time”
) led to the popularity of the pocket watch. However, though the pocket watch is still preferred for a classic white-tie look, dress watches have been acceptable classic black-tie attire since the dinner jacket’s invention and popularization.
In general, a dress watch’s band should be black and as thin as possible, while any accents (buckle, face ornamentation, etc.) should go with your cufflinks, shirt studs, ring(s), etc.: no mix-and-match of gold and silver, please!
[caption id="attachment_246" align="aligncenter" width="336"]
A Basic Men's Pocketwatch[/caption]
While some experts insist that boutonnieres are as important a touch of formal class as ever before,
others maintain that the wearing of the boutonniere (for anything other than highly formal white-tie events and the occasional wedding, that is) is fading away, just like the wearing of the top hat. If you do choose to wear a flower in your buttonhole, however, there are some key rules to abide by.
[caption id="attachment_247" align="alignleft" width="192"]
Boutonniere on Men's White Tuxedo (photo credits to David Ball)[/caption]
First, whether you wear a boutonniere or not must depend in part by the kind of dinner jacket you’re wearing. If your dinner jacket is shawl-collared, it’s best to avoid wearing a boutonniere, as your jacket is tailored without a lapel buttonhole in which to hold the flower.
Note that even a peaked- or notched-lapel dinner jacket without a real, working lapel buttonhole should not be worn with a boutonniere, however. Experts agree that the touch of elegance added by a flower would be overpowered by the sophomoric appearance of its stem pinned to the outside of your lapel.
You must be able to insert the flower’s stem into the lapel’s buttonhole, where it’s kept hidden: some jackets even come with a tiny vase sewn behind your lapel button in order to keep your flower fresh all night.
Finally, you must consider the type of flower to wear: you should select a small, simply-shaped flower that adds just a spot of contrast; it shouldn’t be so large or unwieldy as to attract excessive attention to itself. Mini carnations (in red or white) and cornflowers are the most traditional boutonniere flowers: for classic black tie, the mini red carnation is your best and most traditional bet.
If you follow the guidelines above, even the most traditional, classic black-tie elements can work with you to display just a modest dash of individual style within the ensemble’s timeless class—and that’s exactly the picture that even master artists
Flusser (2002), 228.
Flusser (2002), 227.
Flusser (2002), 227.
Flusser (2002), 230.
E.g., Angeloni, 52.
Ibid.; Flusser (1996), 77.