Ironically, the most elegant and sophisticated of garments is the most ecumenical. What makes a tuxedo formal is that everyone is wearing the same thing: basic black suit with satin trim. What make it a "monkey suit" are the typical accoutrements it's matched with: bow tie, black studs and cummerbund. What can make it ridiculous is "creative black tie," the idea that bow and sash decorated with motley doodads somehow bespeaks a formal fashion statement and not a sartorial cry for help.
So how to distinguish yourself on formal occasions without looking like a brat-pack refugee from the Oscar ceremonies? Our first suggestion is lose the cummerbund and get a waistcoat. It is, after all, the real thing—not the accessorial equivalent of a dickey that catches crumbs. You could go basic black, but why not invest in a silk vest that pays dividends? Oxxford's gray paisley waistcoat ($750 as shown, www.oxxfordclothes.com,) peaks interest as it subtly peeks out from behind a black coat. But certainly bold color is an option as London's Favourbrook (www.favourbrook.com) and America's Robert Talbott (www.roberttalbott.com) have proven with embroidered waistcoats that invite style speculators.
In a room full of bow ties bobbing at the Adam's apple, a four-in-hand formal tie speaks eloquently for its wearer. Our script says not to shout too loud. Say it best with shades of black, gray or near-white (as shown, Oxxford, $125). A pleated, wing-collar shirt (Turnbull & Asser, $285, www.turnbullandasser.com) may be the best foundation, as a standard collar can look like you're ignoring the dress code.
From this solid base, you can further dress up the form with the myriad of elegant accessories. Here, we've chosen a formal suite of studs and cuff links inlaid with black onion and white mother-of-pearl on sterling silver (Robert Talbott, $650) in place of the standard black. Expert tie maker Talbott also supplied the cashmere and silk scarf with hand-knotted fringe ($425). The shoes are hand-burnished diamond-grain European calfskin Palmers from Martin Dingman ($325, www.martindingman.com).