Whether you’re preparing for a gala, grand wedding or prestigious awards ceremony, understanding the nuances of black tie is essential. Let Thomas Pink be your guide
There is no outfit more head-turning (at least in men’s fashion) than black tie. Sure, it may not win on originality and – sadly – these days we don’t have much call for black tie outside of Oscar season or a traditional wedding. But this classic monochrome ensemble never fails to make an impact. If you’re worried about looking like a penguin, think instead of the many iterations of James Bond, the ultimate tux wearer, who owns the room in a pristine, perfectly fitted black tux, martini in one hand, pistol in the other.
Men nowadays are more inclined to experiment with their formalwear. Even Bond star Daniel Craig pushes the envelope with his red-carpet looks, most notably in a headline-grabbing pink crushed-velvet dinner jacket at the No Time to Die world premiere. Often this involves subverting societal norms by incorporating glitzy accessories or jewellery and embracing bold colour and unexpected textures.
But black tie in its purest, most traditional form never goes out of fashion. And even if you only get to wear it once in a blue moon, every man should know the ins and outs of black-tie attire – and how to get it just right.
The origins of black tie can be traced back to the 19th century, when the practice of wearing a waistcoat and black bow tie with a dinner jacket became the go-to evening look. As Victorian fashion began to embrace darker colours for eveningwear, black tie started to gain in popularity among the upper classes for dinners, balls and other formal occasions. King Edward VII (then Prince of Wales) played a significant role in popularising the tuxedo when he allegedly asked his tailor to make a more comfortable dinner jacket with matching trousers for formal events. The monarch’s endorsement led to widespread adoption of the style and solidified the tuxedo’s place in high society.
Interesting pub-quiz fact: the word “tuxedo” – a central element of blacktie attire – is an Americanism and takes its name from Tuxedo Park, a wealthy enclave in New York state where the style emerged. However, Edward also played a part in this, when he was visited by American coffee magnate James Brown Potter and his glamorous actress wife Cora at his country estate in 1886. Unsure of what to wear for such an occasion (we’ve all been there), Potter was advised by the prince to visit his personal tailor for a similar comfortable dinner jacket sans tails. Later, the design continued to evolve, featuring peaked lapels, satin facings and a single button closure. The ubiquitous bow tie was a call back to OG dandy Beau Brummell and his penchant for cravats.
In the early 20th century, the tuxedo gained further prominence thanks to Hollywood’s influence. Film stars often appeared in tuxedos on and off screen, which helped to connect black tie with luxury and glamour forever. In the years after WWII, black tie became more accessible and began to diversify in style. Shawl collars and double-breasted jackets became popular alternatives to the traditional peaked-lapel jacket. This era saw the emergence of the “midnight blue tuxedo”, which appeared black under artificial light but had a distinct blue hue in natural light.
Today, black-tie attire remains a staple for formal events. While the core elements of the tuxedo remain consistent, modern fashion also allows for slight variations in jacket styles and fabrics, along with the addition of accessories for a personal touch.
White tie is slightly older than black and can trace its roots to the Regency era, when the style du jour was a tailcoat and knee-length coat with tails at the back. White tie is the more formal dress code, with its tailcoat, white bow tie and matching waistcoat. The shirt is, of course, the foundation of both black and white tie. It should be crisp, white in colour and, for white tie, feature a wingtip collar.
Times may be changing, but if the dress code says “black tie”, then it’s best not to rock the boat, sartorially speaking. Here are some tips from Thomas Pink:
Do stick to a classic tux. Fit is key, so get yourself measured. The standard tux includes a black dinner jacket, black trousers and a crisp white dress shirt. Modern iterations have room for personalisation through accessories like pocket squares and cufflinks, while jacket styles and fabrics may vary.
Do remember that a waistcoat is optional (which is merciful after one too many servings of wedding cake), but a bow tie is a must. It doesn’t have to be black, if that’s your jam, but white is reserved for white tie.
Do keep accessories minimal, but a dress watch can be a real talking point.
Don’t wear a cummerbund with a belt. Both serve a similar function, so choose one or the other.
Don’t forget to pay attention to your footwear. They say you can judge a lot about a man by his shoes, so don’t let the side down by pairing a sharp, beautifully fitted tux with a scruffy pair of old shoes or – shudder – sneakers. Book an appointment with your local shoe shine pronto.
Don’t skimp on tailoring. There’s no point in forking out on an expensive, beautifully crafted tux if it’s baggy and ill fitting. Or, worse, too tight. Visit a professional to get your size just right.
Similarly, don’t go cheap on the shirt. This is the foundation of your outfit, so choose well. Cheap fabrics will look – well – cheap, not to mention flimsy and transparent. A classic white dress shirt is a true investment piece and will see you through every formal occasion in your diary. Try a classic Thomas Pink bib front shirt, which tucks neatly into trousers and under dinner jackets for a smooth and refined silhouette. They’re available in a range of pure cotton and luxury cotton-silk blends and different fits (classic, slim, tailored), so you’re bound to find your perfect fit.