“…the best-dressed men look upon accessories as comrades in the struggle against sartorial mediocrity.”
— Alan Flusser
“One pretends to do something, or copy someone or some teacher, until it can be done confidently and easily in what becomes one’s own style.”
— Cary Grant
Like many other components of a classic white-tie ensemble, correct white-tie (or full dress) accessories are in most cases nearly identical to those required by classic black tie attire. Still, it’s important to discuss the rules—repetitions and all!—to understand how and why the different pieces work together. In addition, it’s important to understand the similarities so that you don’t commit a full dress faux pas by accidentally ignoring them!
White Tie Bow Ties
Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between white and black tie (besides the tailcoat vs. dinner jacket, of course) is, well, the color of the (bow) tie! This rule is quite self-explanatory: where classic black-tie attire requires a black bow tie, you wear a white
bow tie with full dress tails.
However, it’s important to note that in addition, the fabric
of your proper white-tie bow tie is distinctly different than that of your black-tie alternative. Rather than matching the lapels of your tailcoat, the full dress bow tie should be made of the same starched cotton piqué as your wing collar and shirtfront.
If black-tie attire is all about subtlety, well then white tie takes subtlety to its highest expression. Finally, experts agree that just like the black-tie bow tie, it’s absolutely essential that you learn to tie your own bow—adding just the smallest touch of imperfection, of individuality, to the finished look.
Full Dress Shoes & Hose
You have the same options to choose from, at least where shoes are concerned, for your white-tie look and your black-tie one. The first classic option is the formal oxford: low-cut, laced, made of patent leather, and as simple (in terms of decoration across the toe) as possible.
This choice of shoe is generally worn with black-tie attire—though if you don’t attend many white-tie events and you do own a nice pair of dress oxfords, they are perfectly acceptable and always classic.
The second (and vastly more formal!) option is the opera pump: a men’s shoe like no other, dating back to the time of court dress.
Pumps might strike you as quite effeminate if you’re not used to formal wear
—and with their heels, silk bows, velvet trim, and delicate design, that’s no surprise! Still, for an outfit as vested in tradition and history as full dress, the opera pump is truly the only shoe to choose.
Similarly, white-tie hose is even less forgiving (in terms of trying different options) than its classic black-tie counterpart! A gentleman’s hose should always be black and, in general, “the more formal the ensemble, the finer or more sheer the hose.”
Since classic full dress is the most
formal ensemble possible, your white-tie hose should be made of the finest, thinnest silk available.
[caption id="attachment_287" align="alignleft" width="202"]
Formal White Pocket Square[/caption]
The white-tie pocket square should always
be of white linen, with only a simple point or two peeking out of your breast pocket.
The contrast of fabrics—linen against the silk of your lapel and the starched piqué of your waistcoat and shirtfront—creates just enough interest without distracting from the look as a whole.
Like black-tie dress, your white-tie ensemble requires a small, simple flower to provide a point of contrast against the tailcoat’s black lapel: traditionally white (or, if you’re on the daring side, red) mini carnations are the classic flowers of choice for white-tie affairs.
The only time one shouldn't
wear a boutonniere to a highly formal event is if he is wearing decorations
Traditional white-tie jewelry consists of a set of cufflinks, studs, one ring, and pocket watch (or dress wristwatch)—and that’s it.
Traditional full dress cufflinks and studs are pearl (though mother of pearl cufflinks and studs are also acceptable). In addition, a man should wear no more than one ring: either a wedding ring or a subtle signet ring.
(When wearing a signet ring, be sure that the pattern is facing outward so that the viewer, rather than the wearer, can see it.
A pocket watch is the most traditional time piece to complete a full dress ensemble and is generally preferred. However, do note that “a dress wristwatch is considered acceptable today by everyone save a few fanatics who would probably also prefer to arrive at the ball by horse-drawn phaeton.”
“What the passing of the top hat comes to signify, in its symbolic sense, is the end of the social ideal of gentility.”
— Bruce Boyer
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Black Formal Wear Top Hat[/caption]
Both the top hat and the frock coat were originally designed for horseback riding: with its stiff brim and sturdy design, the top hat was meant to serve as a helmet. The top hat has something else in common with the frock coat, though, which is that both have followed the same path to relative obscurity. Once—that is, after the initial shock of wearing riding clothes in the street wore off!—it was inconceivable for a gentleman not
to leave his house without a top hat. Now, the top had it relegated to only the most formal occasions. While many gentlemen nowadays forego the top hat altogether, other traditionalists insist that it remains an integral part of a white-tie ensemble.
If you do choose to wear a top hat to a white-tie event, make sure that it’s of the very highest quality. Traditionally, quality top hats were made of silk, felt, or even beaver.
In addition to its material, you could tell a quality top hat by its weight and by its sheen: the best top hats were no heavier than six ounces, and always had a deep shine to them. The more artificial a top hat’s shine seems, the cheaper the silk it’s made of.
Another acceptable full dress alternative is the opera hat: a top hat with a spring mechanism built in (or cheaper ones made of foldable rubber) that are collapsible so that you can carry them under your arm.
Gloves & Scarf
Gloves, too, were once required of gentlemen at any formal occasion—always white kidskin.
These are almost entirely obsolete today (unless, reminds GQ
’s Dylan Jones, you happen to be a usher at a wedding
). Gloves are often still worn in winter, however
: just be sure that if you’re wearing gloves, you always take them off before shaking another gentleman’s hand!
A white (or off-white), tasseled silk scarf is also traditionally worn, either with an overcoat or with the tailcoat alone.
This element, too, has grown less common, especially since it (along with the top hat and gloves) is generally dropped off at coat check before entering the white-tie event in question! Still, if you’re looking for the most traditional ensemble you can put together, an ivory silk dress scarf is an elegant part of the package.
[caption id="attachment_285" align="aligncenter" width="222"]
Men's White Satin Formal Scarf[/caption]
Finally, it’s important to note that one must be careful when wearing decorations (e.g., medals, military marks of rank, etc.) with civilian formal attire. Bruce Boyer advises that you only wear full decorations at white tie events, and only when specified
. In this case, you should place your decorations on the left lapel, with the highest-ranked first (and proceeding left to right).
If decorations are not
specified, it is traditionally acceptable to wear one (usually your highest rank). Please note that if you are
wearing decorations, this is the only time it is acceptable not to wear a boutonniere
(as far as classic formal wear goes, anyway)!
When deciding whether or not to include these traditional—yet now optional—accessories in your full dress ensemble, keep in mind the nature of the event you’re attending, its level of formality, etc. And if you can wear these (high-quality only!) accents with confidence, go for it! If, on the other hand, you’re not quite comfortable in a large, heavy top hat, just don’t worry about wearing one. One of the most important formal wear “rules” to keep in mind is this: never let your accoutrements—or any part of your ensemble, that is—wear you!
Flusser (2001), 179.
Flusser (2002), 251.
Flusser (2002), 175.
E.g., Boyer, Flusser; c.f., Jones, Laver