The genius of the black tie dress code is its enduring simplicity. You could be fitted for a dinner ensemble on your 21st birthday, and, provided you stayed off the creamier canapés and the second-passing of the port, it’ll take you through till your death bed (though you should really pull out white tie for your last rites).
But that doesn’t stop some men from getting it badly wrong. So, as we career headlong into party season, here are the five of the most heinous black tie faux pas, and how you can dodge them.
Must you be so literal? Yes, the invitation says ‘black tie’. But it also says ‘carriages at midnight’ — and, unless you’re at one of Elton John’s dos, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be taken home by a horse (Elton’s bashes actually tend to go on a lot later than midnight, while we’re on the subject).
Wearing a black necktie to a black tie function is scruffy, vaguely teenage, and far too ‘indy-director-at-the-Baftas’ for most tastes. It also interferes with the gleaming white triangle of the shirt, which should be left largely uninterrupted. Go for a simple, elegant bow tie instead.
The entire point of black tie is to make you look anonymous and uniform. It is not to make you stand out. The dress code is the blank canvas for your conversation and your manners, and perhaps for the companion on your arm. It is not an opportunity to show how artsy you were at school or how many branded goodie bags you are gifted per quarter.
Black tie events are about the most serious of endeavours: the pursuit of fun. As such, a sombre, simple ensemble is all that’s appropriate. A white pocket square is as fine an accessory as any. The following are de trop: cravats, brooches, novelty studs, any hats(!), most silk scarves, a lapel pin (unless you’re the president), ‘humorous’ ties, coloured cummerbunds, waistcoats (you are not a snooker player, fortunately) or colourful socks.
(There are exceptions, of course. These Turnbull & Asser dress shirts are an excellent example of how to dandy up an ensemble while staying on the right side of ornamental.)
The wrong shoes
Plain, un-brogued leather oxfords are the go-to here. (Whole cut oxfords are particularly elegant) Plain tasselled loafers are fine. Brogues are too decorative and informal. Nothing in suede, thanks. (There’s actually a bit in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies where a gossip writer invents a trend for black suede formal shoes — the most ridiculous thing he can think of — just to see if it will catch on. Things haven’t changed all that much.)
Velvet slippers are meant for ‘at home’ invitations or country weekends, but are fine, if a little impractical in the puddles of Berkeley Square. (Tip: describe them as ‘smoking shoes’ for an easy, if charitable, laugh out on the terrace). Patent leather shoes are traditionally for white tie. Fine, actually, but not strictly right.
A proper dinner jacket has contrast lapels. A business suit does not. Proper black tie trousers have piping or brading down the leg. A business suit does not. A decent dinner jacket is made from grosgrain or silk or a heavy twill. A business suit is not. The two are simply incompatible. You may also be confused with a waiter.
Hollywood has grown slightly fond of wearing ordinary black suits, which is all the more reason to avoid them like you might an 18 stone executive producer. A black lounge suit is a bit lazy, and simply not as smart or flattering or grown up as a decent dinner suit. (And while we’re on the subject — why would you own a black business suit anyway? Are you a spy? Do you work in a funeral parlour? Are you a Mid-Westerner?)
Wing collars are for white tie only. All a bit high school prom when worn with a black tie ensemble. (The contrast of the black strap on the white shirt band looks odd, to say the least.) Wing collars with dinner jackets are reminiscent of overdressed sommeliers, or 1950s concert pianists, or people from Delaware.
(A few indiscretions that defied the word count: calling a dinner jacket a tuxedo [that’s what the Americans do — not wrong, just not us]; renting a dinner suit; wearing a shabby coat over the top; black shirts [in fact, any colours at all apart from black, white and midnight blue]; skinny lapels; high contrast lapels; anything diamanté; sports watches; sneakers; novelty cufflinks.)
For some historic inspiration, why not check out 10 Style icons who wore the dress code the best.