Thursday, January 22, 2009

Formality & Black Tie - A Friend's Questions for the Panel

Dear Panel,

I wanted to briefly lament the shawled collar. I have often tried on jackets, smoking and otherwise, and have just never looked right with a shawl around my neck. At first I thought that the trouble was the usual one of finding a jacket that fits my long and narrow person, but conversations with Boston have convinced me that they simply will not work on someone who looks like me... very tall and very thin. So while I have always craved a shawl, I think they are things I will need to admire from afar. Pity. But better to silently experience pity then to look like an over-worked, possibly dying ox with a too-thin neck.

This question is for Florida panelist: may I pull your electronic ear a bit further on the wearing of a black or white tie? It may connect into your position on traditional vs trendy. Or possibly not. The matter: I have a velvet suit that is reasonably formal, but not a tuxedo. The thing is a very dark blue -- a deep, deep navy. While I think velvet has become trendy among a small set, this particular number is from Sweden, probably the 1960s, and is of a staid, respectable cut. The velvet is superior to what is commonly available today. New York and Boston Panelists have seen it worn and can speak to its character more eloquently than can I. To get to it, I recently escorted a lady to what was called a "black tie" event -- a dinner at my university for holders of a supposedly prestigious fellowship. Of course, nearly every fellow there was in rental garb complete with pre-assembled black bow ties. Nearly every fellow wore a jacket that swam copiously around their stomachs. As per expectation, men looked very similar to the waiters serving them, who were also wearing black bow ties, also pre-assembled (the big difference being that the waiters wore no jackets). In contrast, I wore velvet. I did this with the idea that though my suit might be a notch less formal (and, indeed, had notched lapels), the fact that it had been well tailored would actually put me in a more respectable class than the other men in the room. And I wore a white tie because it works much better with blue than a black one would have. Perhaps this was a transgression?

Was my thinking wrong? I suppose a lot of this thinking revolved around the correct prediction that, though the event was billed as black tie, many of the gents in attendance would wear second-string garb. I figured I'd be fine so long as I wasn't in a business suit. Now if I had been invited to a formal event at your house or a Boston's club then I would have expected a different standard and would have dressed accordingly.

Hmm . . . a lot of this is expository. A larger question is: what is our duty in situations where black tie is called for but you can expect almost no one to rise to the occasion? I am afraid I already know the answer to this: it matters not about those who never rise. I just hope I wasn't as guilty as the renters in the not-that-black-tie affair I described. Actually, I hope to suffer no guilt at all. At the time I felt like the only fellow in the room who looked well enough, even though my tie was white. But our recent string as caused me a bit a distress.

-New Haven


New Haven,
I will wait for Florida's response, but I offer this as my unsolicited bit. When the event is billed as "black-tie", the first question to ask is "Do they mean it?" Not that one should show up in a suit if he event is billed black-tie, but the designation, I have found, is really a way of ensuring that everyone adhere to a degree of similarity, because nobody wants to say "wear a coat and tie for God's sake", though that's what they want to say... rightfully, yet sadly so. You actually achieved what the invitation was really getting at in my estimation... a standardized degree of formality, to which you added a shot of bubbles (needed too, by your description of it). I have seen your velvet suit, and with it's exceptional tailoring, and I think that you made the right choice. The choice becomes much less right once you acquire a proper rig, and which point you will be able to intimidate fellow party-goers with the taper.

As for the verticality and accentuation of the shawl collar on your frame, I have nothing to add to your analysis, because it is simply correct.



As we wait for the final word from Florida, I'd add something to what our Boston friend has said. Let me assume the historical viewpoint: black tie was invented by Poole for Edward VII when he was still only 19 and the Prince of Wales. From the beginning, it was intended as something less than entirely formal (i.e., not for ceremonies) specifically aimed for dinner party use. Thus, when properly worn as in New Haven's case for a dinner party, any departures from simple black tie must be in the spirit of dinner, of going out. In this vein, the substitution of velvet for a traditionally less-tactile material seems to me an almost orthodox choice if executed in the right spirit.

Now, departing from the historical view, I'd say that these days having one's clothes actually fit counts for much. To put it as nicely as I can for our benighted age, one can no longer earn demerits for breaking rules, only credit for what one does carry off. We may no longer dress to uphold a dead standard, but only as a tactical gesture in the war to maintain any standards at all. In this sense, velvet too can be a weapon.

-New York

A slight digression. I like words and the English language, and have for years. I am not particularly good at English, but then I was never particularly good at rugby, but that never stopped me from arguing over the game and how it should be played. I blush when I think of how many years I've spoken of the beauty of the English language, and how it is so vibrant and alive by borrowing from others, without ever realizing that you can't keep something alive without evolving it. Now, granted, without rules, the language would disintegrate, but there is a balance between rigid adherence to rules without reason and evolving standards. You see where I going with this. The very nature of the creation of the tuxedo is one of change. Change from the rigid formal standards of England's royal court society to the emerging mercantile centered society. Mercantile society in England was always in the shadow of the royal court and never really developed, but America started with a somewhat cleaner social slate.
I think there should be rules. I don't think the rules should be changed just because we can, but I think we should do what we are doing here - looking at the rules, talking about them, and seeing if they apply. But not be too quick to change them at the whim of fashion or commerce. Remember what your fathers looked like in their leisure suits or bell bottoms. The fate of fashion rests on your shoulders.
Back to the matter at hand.
Your dress should be a reflection of your character. Did the clerk give you a twenty instead of a one? Did you return it? Of course you did, as a gentleman even when no one is looking.
[name withheld] arrived and changed into blue Albert shoes with gold monograms. Does anything say "this is my club" better than that? Very personal. A signature piece. He started off with traditional wear and made it uniquely his. I believe in understatement. Deplorable fashion comes from those that see what [name withheld] did and try to copy and add to. Boston's comment on traditional wear with loud socks is in the same vein as [name withheld]'s statement. Personalize, don't parody. Try for only one change at a time.
New Haven's velvet suit is a good example of when standing out in a crowd is good. A European tailored suit in a sea of ill-fitting rentals sounds like a winner. Transgression? I don't think so. If the white tie worked, and you were not being a parody - good.
This is my recap from your comments.
-- Jacket: Black single-breasted, single-buttoned, with peak or shawl lapels. White limited occasions.
-- Tie: Black (and real of course). White ties ought only to be worn with tailcoats.
-- Shirt: standing collar, french cuffs, and studs in front .(pleated front?)
-- Cummerbund: limited width and black in color. (Bonus points for wearing one actually procured in India.)
--Trousers: no belt loops, with piping or braid of silk or satin running along the leg seam.
-- Braces: Yes.
-- Shoes: black closed-toe oxfords with leather soles and a good shine.


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