The Turn of the Millennium is No Time to Ignore Your Formal Wear Needs
Your computer is Y2K compliant. You've squirreled away water, batteries, cash and firewood in case of a general meltdown. You've secured an invite to the best parties and the cases of Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët are chilling. Everything seems to be in place and under control for what will ultimately be the party of the century. But have you forgotten formal wear?
A date of this magnitude requires classic attire and now is the time to start planning. Buy early. Dan McCampbell, vice president and men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says time is of the essence. Not only since there could easily be a run on tuxedos in the millennium formal push for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion, but also because--like any good suit--there needs to be time for tailoring.
"Buy your tux immediately; don't wait until the last minute," he says. "We will tailor in two days, but the closer we get to Christmas, the more we might have to stretch that time. Earlier, like say in October, it won't be a big issue. But don't wait until the last minute." Is his point clear? The passage from one century to the next demands the utmost in evening wear. Suitable attire, so to speak, will speak volumes about a man, and suitably so. Role models to carry with you mentally are Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. And options include tails, top hats and tuxedos. Whatever formal millennium New Year's Eve event you attend, you want to make sure you don't come off looking like the maitre d', the waiter, or worse.
Professionals advise the purchase of a tux, opposed to a rental. You're not just making a purchase, you're making an investment in yourself. Designer Alan Flusser waxes philosophical: "A tuxedo is one of the items in a man's wardrobe that, as you get more upscale, you need more often. You should invest in it," he stresses, and recommends that you determine the quality you can afford and then start trying on different styles. Buying a tuxedo whose style is "fashion" isn't always advisable, either--you should transcend fashion. Another point: make sure you don't put on weight in the next five years.
Testing the waters early will give you the opportunity to shop with comfort and impunity, sort of like looking for a luxury car. And the price isn't that far off: some tuxedos and dinner suits, such as those from Kiton, can set you back $5,000. With that in mind you'll want to ensure that the style is classic and will drive your formal events for years. If the first trick is to think ahead, the second is to ask for help. "Most guys never ask directions when they're lost. It's the same with clothes," chides designer Joseph Abboud.
Ask which route to take. Then try on tuxes. For classic evening apparel, Flusser suggests looking for a tux in the midweight range of 10 to 10 1/2 ounces. That will allow you to wear it indoors comfortably enough to dance in it. Then, consider single-breasted or double-breasted silhouettes with either peak lapel or shawl collar variations. Double-breasted versions are elegant and very buttoned-up options; in fact, they are meant to be only worn buttoned up; as such, they do not require a vest or cummerbund to hide the waistband.
Single-breasted variations (really, only the one- or two-button model will do) necessitate searching for one of those two accoutrements. Although the cummerbund was once used as a virtual waist-wrapped crumb-catcher (please wear the pleats with their pockets facing up), today gentlemen often wear them to add personality to their ensemble. Novelty silk cummerbunds and vests with their cute patterns and wide palettes make a man feel he is more than just a stiff in a penguin suit.
Certainly an occasion such as this allows for much creativity. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wear something that's really an heirloom or pass-along piece," drawls Neiman-Marcus's fashion guru Derrill Osborn. "Black tie comprises many things. Supper suits are special suits. They could be a beautiful midnight blue with a peak lapel and soft covered buttons. There's a great desire to get dressed up for this New Year's. People are doing magnificent things, like renting helicopters to be in the air for the countdown, or renting out the oldest hotel in Havana."Your dress will want to mirror your ultimate occasion.
Be as adventurous as the event you will be attending, but start with a good black tux, or at least a good black jacket, perhaps in silk broadcloth, wool crepe, velvet (maroon and dark green are alternatives), cashmere, even pashmina. Flusser indicates that the "key element is always the jacket. People look 'not dressed' if they don't have the jacket." Add an interesting dinner shirt--with pleated or plain pique front and French cuffs--to take it away from the ordinary. As "traditional twist, you could make a fancy pair of trousers, in a paisley or leopard print or something insane," quips Flusser. "And if you're speaking non-tie altogether, wear a black silk bandless or banded collar dinner shirt." Otherwise, the shirt, in white, should have a pleated front or pique bib and a wingtip or point collar.
Other designers echo the importance of the formal suit, although discrepancies arise if the destination is tropical, such as a millennium holiday in Havana or in Tahiti. Choices include white dinner jackets--which are usually ivory, often in tropical wool or, for warm-weather environs, linen--and Sulka's reintroduction of the Nehru jacket. Trousers can then be gray flannel, navy linen, or tartan or black watch plaid. Abboud insists that "evening wear is one way for a man to step outside his regimen. This millennium New Year's Eve is probably the one night that everyone is going to go out and be dressed very special."
This season, many designers and formal wear manufacturers have added special millennium collections to their existing evening options. Brioni's silk "celebration" vests sport the Roman numerals for 2000 interwoven among Champagne glasses. Dormeuil's one-of-a-kind silk jacquard vests are made in Paris by Madame Danou Jacquard. Ermenegildo Zegna is producing "Millennium" suits (priced at $6,000 for the finest quality fabric, allowing for only 100 of them to be produced), which will be accompanied by an ownership certificate and "life insurance," a seasonal postpurchase check-up that lasts for three years. Kiton is creating cashmere dinner jackets that inscribe this coming New Year's Eve inside the pocket. Cerruti's label's will list the year and the place of celebration. Corneliani's jackets have special Bemberg linings jacquarded with "Millennium 2000" and carrying registration numbers.
Most of the flash, pomp and circumstance of formal fashions fit for all this millennium's bashes stem from the past. Take the term tuxedo itself. The dress suit is known throughout the rest of the world as evening wear, formal wear or the "smoking." It was society prankster Griswold Lorillard, scion of the tobacco company of the same name, who first broke American tradition and social rules to sport a shortened black tail coat with red vest (instead of the traditional coat with tails) to a formal ball in Tuxedo Park, New York, in 1886. The fashion effrontery, though scandalous, caught on and the garment was soon named after its place of notoriety.
If cheeky Grissy created a flap, you can bet the style-setting Duke of Windsor was not met with much derision when he later introduced the midnight blue tuxedo, feeling it looked less green and, in fact, more black than a black tux in artificial light. While most formal accoutrements have origins rooted in history, that doesn't mean you need to be a slave to tradition. Abboud notes that cutaway coats and those with tails, popular at the last turn of the century, are required for fewer and fewer events today. "They're more of a uniform than anything, worn with morning stripe pants and white tie. We don't sell or make those unless it's truly for blue-blood situations. It's very rare you get an invitation for white tie. It's wonderful to have the history of it, but it borders on costume."
Accessories are a big part of the historical formal quotient. With dinner clothes you're talking about form, and the best way to achieve that is through traditional routes. Wear a pocket square, most notably in the form of a hand-rolled white linen handkerchief. Cuff links, studs and shoes should add to the elegant attitude of evening wear. Look for jewelry in mother-of-pearl, rubies, even sapphires, recommends Muffie Potter Aston, executive vice president of Van Cleef & Arpels, US Group. "Men need studs, cuff links, a good watch. Buying studs and cuff links is an investment, and the man who goes to black-tie events is buying more than one set. He appreciates the finer things in life--the artistry, craftsmanship and quality of accessories."
Shoes can range from the elegant velvet slip-on to patent leather "pumps," as they're called. Warren Edwards, the shoe designer based in New York, says what style "depends on what you're doing that night. You can wear velvet slippers, patent leather shoes, black satin lace-ups with toe caps and thick soles. We also create custom-made shoes, for those men with extreme lasts. We've made black pony boots and loafers, black patent sneakers, patent leather animal prints. There's a lot of variety for men. You don't have to go the traditional route."
The most traditional--and according to nearly all designers--most important accessory, is the bow tie. Although only 2 percent of the male population knows how to tie one, it truly is as easy to tie as your shoe lace. Just ask your wife. Keep the tie simple, say most. This millennium business is no excuse to exploit bad taste.
Keep that in mind when bending the rules for creative black tie. A few years ago Ralph Lauren, as the story goes, wore a tux jacket with blue jeans and cowboy boots to a black-tie event, and met with some criticism. Although not everyone agrees upon how much bending can be done, the rules of creativity when it comes to black tie depend predominantly on the location of the party. Are you ending up at Madonna's home or the White House? Make sure to dress accordingly.
You may think about more than just your outer ensemble, too. Flusser admits that he would "want to be wearing silk underwear, silk hose, something custom made, something that feels like the best." You can enhance your enjoyment of the big night by getting a massage or splurging for a manicure.
Until modern medicine proves us wrong, this will be the only turn of the century we will witness. Ensure once-in-a-lifetime good spirits, good times and a damn good look for yourself.
Kimberly Cihlar, a freelance writer living in New York, writes frequently on fashion.
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