Just as the Super Bowl means that every American might find a refresher on the rules of the NFL useful, Oscar time marks one of the few occasions when fashion — and, even better, capricious fashion’s more level-headed sibling, style — matter above and beyond the way they do normally.
Many invitations this weekend — and during your life — will read ‘Black Tie’ For ladies, it’s the one time when the decision-making process is easier for them than gentlemen: Put on a block-rocking dress. For gentlemen, though, it’s a bit more complicated. Here, a few notes on “Black Tie.”
– When you think “Black Tie,” you think of bowties and tuxedoes, elegant silk black neckties with skinny lapels, white smoking jackets as James Bond stalks Goldfinger. But what Black Tie means is actually much, much simpler, with a fairly binary definition: Black Tie is defined by the gentleman’s waistband never being visible. This means either a vest, or a cummerbund, but — technically — it has nothing to do with the tie you wear or its color (about which more later). Make sure you start with either a vest or cummerbund so that, when your jacket is open, you can’t see the waistband (and NEVER remove your jacket, not until you’re at home or everyone else is) and you’re 99% of the way there.
– Vests can be tricky if you’re larger — I can’t wear them without looking like a cartoon mole — and, as ever, you will do far better wearing something that matches your jacket with dignity than you will selecting a vest’s color and cut and fabric for reasons of ‘contrast.’
– As for the Cummerbund, you want it so that the folds of the apparatus are open to the top — not downward. (You can tell yourself it’s “There to catch the crumbs,” if you’re 12; just have the pleats open upward.) It should match your tie and jacket. It should be black.
— While we’re talking about Vests, Cummerbunds and Ties, let us note that for gentlemen, variations of color are to be avoided. First of all, the host has requested Black Tie in order to not only ensure a degree of formality, but also a degree of uniformity; baby-blue tuxedoes and plaid cummerbunds go against this hope. As ever, whether black tie or not, remember the essential rule of men’s wear:
A gentleman dresses to be appreciated, not to be seen.
More to the point, Coco Chanel’s classic advice that a lady should take one thing off before leaving the house does not only apply to gentlemen, I think it applies doubly — and as Black Tie requires so many bits and bobs already, you’re already behind the game. Simplify, simplify, simplify. (This is why I also take a stand, persistently, against pocket squares — if you can take it off, take it off.)
– The tie offers three challenges/options. The traditional pre-tied tie welded to a length of fabric with a clip at the other side of the pre-tied tie is adequate — just make sure you have it properly tight around your neck, and, like leaving your jacket on, do not take it off until undressing. On the other end, there are elaborate guides to tying a bow tie on-line many of you will have the dexterity and experience to follow. (Again, as a bias, I find bow ties suitable only for Jimmy Olson, Orville Redenbacher and corrupt, corpulent Southern elected officials — and, thus, unsuitable for gentleman’s wear outside of Black Tie.) As a middle way — and this works, even if you have to fuss at the center-point afterwards – just take the bow tie and have you, or someone else, pretend they’re tying it like shoelaces as its tight on your neck, adjusting the loops and single-strands of the knot as required after to even/flatten. It sacrifices perfection for being done, though, and is eminently achievable in a jiffy.
– Your shirt should be the traditional wing collar; the points of the collar should go behind your tie. Studs are optional (again, simplify) but if you do choose to wear them, make sure they match your cufflinks. I prefer a French-cuff shirt with Black Tie, which requires cufflinks, but again, basic black and silver — no engraving or jewels or mosquitoes trapped in amber. 1/2 inch of your sleeves shot be visible past the cuffs of the jacket.
– The jacket should be single-breasted, never double-breasted, which are a) a disaster for shorter men and b) a disaster for everyone else but Pierce Brosnan. You have many collar options, but again: Stay with plain black. The contrast between a black satin lapel and the black fabric of the jacket should be your most showy moment.
– The trousers should a) have a satin stripe along the exterior side stitching and b) require braces. (It goes without saying that every part of the ensemble should be cleaned, pressed and fit well.)
– Tradition can demand a shiny, patent-leather shoe with Tuxedoes; for Black Tie, either acquire a pair or just go with your best, cleanest, best-polished leather slip-on; laces are a no-no.
– Make sure you are well-groomed. Again, your hosts have requested Black Tie to note formality and uniformity; you should respect that, as a guest.
– While you can technically wear, say, a black jacket with vest and conventional neck tie, or a white diner jacket with a pleated shirt and black bow tie for Black Tie, these are a) attention-getting devices and b) much more difficult to pull off than the narrower variations-on-a-theme a traditional tuxedo offers; again, a gentleman stands out through gradual conversation revealing character, not immediate “color-popping” revealing a desire to stand out.
– Owning a tuxedo is less annoying than you think — and if you have two or more events a year, it pays for itself. Check EBay and thrift shops as well; one of the pleasures of a timeless garment is that you can buy one from the ’50s – as I did for my first tuxedo — very cheaply. Also, tuxedos aren’t big retail ‘movers’ – you can often find them on-sale, if you look carefully and make sure you’re not buying some wide-lapelled joke just for value.