I have been promising a post on formal wear for some time, but it covers so much range that it is nearly due a blog of its own. I have found it a bit daunting. I have decided to break it up a bit, and I am beginning with what is, for most of us, the most useful and the least formal of formal wear: The Dinner Suit.
HistoryThe dinner suit dates to England of 1860 when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII of England, the most "fun" king of the modern era, had a bespoke smoking jacket made for him that would be more comfortable to wear at a dinner table than the traditional tailcoat. "Lounge suits" were becoming quite fashionable for day wear in that era – the prince was seeking an evening version of that comfortable wear.
Soon thereafter, the Dinner Jacket leapt the pond and became the rage at the Tuxedo Park Club in New York, earning it the American moniker, "Tuxedo."
ElementsYou might notice that I periodically refer to the teen-aged employees at the mall formal-wear store with some contempt. This is only because I hold those stores in utter contempt. They need to sell new stuff every season, and, in truth, a good dinner suit is timeless. The only time that you need a new element is when the old one is worn out or destroyed. Bow-ties change a bit in size periodically, though less so now than they did in the 70's and 80's, but, beyond that, there is nothing new under the sun. You can get the best quality pieces that you can afford, and they will be in fashion in twenty years.
Whether referring to a Dinner Jacket, a Dinner Suit or a Tuxedo, they are all the same thing. The dinner suit should be black, though midnight blue examples are seen. It consists of a dinner jacket and a pair of formal trousers. It is worn with a waistcoat or a cummerbund, a formal shirt and a bow-tie. Footwear may range from a pair of highly polished black dress shoes all the way to the most formal of evening footwear, the opera pump. If headwear is worn with a dinner suit, it may be a black Homburg, Tribly, Fedora or, in the summertime, a straw boater. Top hats are a bit too formal for dinner suits.
The Dinner JacketThis is the defining element of the Dinner Suit. If you have only one, it should be black and of a good quality woolen suiting. The lapels are normally faced in black satin or grosgrain silk and the shank buttons are often covered in the same fabric as the lapels. Sometimes you will find dinner jackets with black plastic buttons, and that is acceptable as well.
A black Dinner Jacket is acceptable year-round in any region. If you travel to tropical climes, however, you may wish to equip yourself with a white or off-white dinner jacket as well. This may be made of linen, but if you stick to a lightweight worsted wool you will find that it will keep its shape better, especially in humid, warm environments, than the linen versions. The cut of the white dinner jacket is identical to the black version, but the lapels are often not faced in silks. Contrary to what the mall-store employee will tell you, you do not need to match white shirts to the off-white dinner jacket. The layered white-on-white look is very traditional, and handsome.
The cut of the dinner jackets may be single or double-breasted, and it may have one or two buttons, though one is only ever buttoned. The lapels may be peaked, notched or shawl style. There are as many opinions on the best or most correct form that the dinner jacket should take as there are gentlemen, and you will certainly develop your own tastes in these things. Because of its roots in the smoking jacket tradition, I prefer shawl lapels over the other options. Because the dinner jacket spends as much time open as it does buttoned, I prefer a single-breasted, single button version. When I have done master-of-ceremonies work, however, I prefer a 2-on-1 double breasted version.
Formal TrousersFormal trousers have a clean, sleek line from the waist to the hem. Often they are a bit higher waisted than your dress slacks, and they invariably lack belt-loops. They are held in place by braces. Avoid the type with the adjustable waist-band as these just scream "rental". Again contradicting the mall-store wisdom, they may or may not have narrow stripes down each leg, often matching your lapel facings on your black dinner jacket, much in the manner of military uniform trousers. These stripes became popular during World War I when military fashion was seeping into civilian styles as well, but there is no necessity for stripes on your trousers.
Dark tartan trousers are an acceptable alternative, especially around the holidays. These are best if the tartan has some ties to your family, but a Black Watch tartan may be worn by anyone. Whilst it may be tempting for our highland brethren to wear a kilt with a dinner jacket, that temptation should be denied. If you are going to wear a kilt, you should go with full highland wear including an appropriate jacket, and that is all a discussion for another day.
Braces or suspenders are worn to keep the trousers in place. Most traditionally they are black silk, though they may be any color or pattern that the wearer chooses. If you are wearing a white or off-white dinner jacket, however, you should wear braces that are the same color as your shirt, as dark braces may show through the jacket in some lighting.
Waistcoat or CummerbundAround the middle, a waistcoat or cummerbund is worn. Each is equally traditional, but if you have an antique watch fob or chain that you wish to display, you may prefer the waistcoat.
The waistcoat or vest for a dinner suit is most traditionally black and either of a black fabric matching the trousers and the body of the dinner jacket, or it may be made of the fabric of the lapel facings. It normally will have lapels and will be very low cut. Avoid backless faux-vests as, again, these scream "I am wearing a rental suit" as nothing else will.
Less traditionally, but equally acceptable in most settings, colorful vests in a formal cut are a way to personalize your dinner suit. These may or may not match your bow-tie. If you are wearing a colorful vest that does not have a matching bow, be sure that you restrain yourself to a traditional black tie.
The cummerbund is a sort of faux-sash worn about the belly as an alternative to the waistcoat. It normally has several pleats and is of a fabric to match your lapel facings and your bow-tie. They fasten in the back with a small buckle. Again, these may be worn in interesting colors or patterns and, if so, your cummerbund should match your bow-tie.
ShirtThe formal shirt is white cotton. It may have a pleated front, a plain front or, atypically, a stiff front as worn with white tie.
The collar on your formal shirt should be the turn-down type as found on your dress shirts. Prior to World War II, formal shirts generally had plain collar bands, and winged collars were starched and put on separately. In imitation of this look, after the war many formal shirt producers started manufacturing formal shirts with attached winged collars.
TieThe traditional neck-wear with a dinner suit is a black bow-tie of the same material as the lapel facings on your black dinner jacket. This is the correct neck-wear, and, if you are invited to a formal event that is not on the lawn, stick to the traditional black.
Additionally, learn to tie a bow. It is a very simple procedure that may be learned online from sites such as Tie-a-tie.net or Ben Silver, among others. A genuine bow always looks appropriate whereas a pre-tied bow looks as if you do not care.
Since the 1960s, colorful and patterned bow-ties have become popular with dinner suits. If you feel the urge, try to resist it. If it is overwhelming, be very careful in your selection of ties. The rule of thumb is, if you are in any doubt whatsoever, go with the black tie. With black, you cannot go wrong.
You may have noticed in various Hollywood functions in recent years that Windsor knotted ties are becoming popular. Again, resist this temptation. The bow-tie is definitive of the dinner suit. Remove the bow-tie and you are left with a black business suit.
FootwearThe most traditional, formal footwear to wear with a dinner suit is the black patent leather opera pump or court shoe. These are thin soled and look a bit like ladies' ballet flats. They have grosgrain bows on the toes. As long as you are not hiking or dancing a great deal, they are actually quite comfortable. They are also mind-bogglingly expensive for shoes that you may wear three times per year. An alternative to the opera pump is a simple black patent lace-up oxford shoe, but, again, it is a special investment for a shoe that will not get that much wear. If you have a good quality pair of black oxfords, as you should, put a high polish on them and wear those with your dinner suit. They are perfectly appropriate and you will certainly get more use out of them in the long run.
An alternative to shoes, if he is entertaining in his own home, a gentleman may wear black velvet Albert slipper with a toe monogram. Again, terribly expensive, but oh, so stylish.
The stockings worn are most traditionally black sheer silk and they are held up with suspenders or garters. If you are wearing opera pumps or Albert slippers, you should definitely get the silk hose. Otherwise, opt for a sheer, black over-the-calf stocking.
AccessoriesThere are many accessories for dinner suits, but be selective.
- Studs and Links. Your formal shirt will require cuff links and studs to fasten the front. Traditionally formal shirts require three studs, though stud sets come in sets of four. Many modern shirts do require four studs - if not you have a handy extra for the one that you will surely lose. On dinner suits, black onyx studs are traditional, but white mother-of-pearl is also acceptable. Furthermore, if you have a pair of tasteful cuff links that you would like to wear, it is perfectly acceptable to wear links that do not match your studs. For formal studs and links, my personal preference is for vintage models, readily available from eBay.
- Watches. Your wristwatch should be slim and elegant or eschewed altogether. If you have an antique fob or chain that you wish to wear, you may wear a pocket watch. Generally speaking, you are not at formal events to watch the clock, so a watch is completely optional.
- Handkerchiefs. A white linen handkerchief. As mentioned elsewhere, silk and cotton pocket squares are out there, but the best choice is white linen.
- Boutonnière. A cornflower, rosebud or carnation may be worn in the lapel if a buttonhole is provided. Your florist will want to "gild the lily" by tying it up with all sorts of extra vegetation, but that is wrong. You want the simple flower, and nothing else. Gardenias are often worn in France, but never with a pocket handkerchief.
- Topcoats. Your topcoat should be black or dark gray. A velvet collar is an acceptable touch, though not necessary. If gloves are worn, they should be gray leather – white kid is strictly for white tie. If a scarf is worn, white silk is the most traditional.
- Hat. Again, if a hat is worn, the most traditional is the black homburg. In the summer, a straw boater with a black grosgrain ribbon is best. Top hats are wrong with dinner suits.