Going Formal

Despite All the Dressing Down and Casual Fridays, Formal Evening Wear Still Has Its Place
| By G. Bruce Boyer | From Danny DeVito, Winter 96

The question of the hour is, at the fin of this siècle: Are there any rules left? The answer to that is a definite maybe.

But perhaps the more interesting question is: Do we still have a sense of occasion? The idea of social ritual, where a certain etiquette and dress are prescribed? The answer to that is not as clear.

I'm thinking about what used to be called evening dress. It was worn in the evening, of course, but at its height in the Edwardian Age, evening wear constituted a variety of outfits worn for different occasions. There were smoking jackets and dinner jackets (worn for house dinners and informal evening parties, but never when ladies were present; it was a Victorian verity that the ladies were too refined and delicate to see a man's legs covered only by trousers), tailcoats (for evenings in public), and court dress (should one be lucky enough to be invited to an official royal function).

In the early years of the twentieth century, a gentleman's wardrobe was prescribed by the hour: morning coats till noon (or a short "stroller" jacket at a private gathering), lounge (business) suits until 6 p.m. (although swallowtails, striped trousers and top hats were still de rigueur in many professions), then evening clothes of one sort or another, depending on the occasion.

Of course, the high degree of prescription in dress was merely an objective correlative for the greater sense of rigidity and ritual about occasions. Every sport, for instance, not only dictated its own specific outfit for participants, but for observers as well. The most famous story about a breech in this etiquette took place one day in the early 1900s during the London season. King Edward VII happened to glance out a window and saw his master of the household, Sir Derek Keppel, entering the palace wearing a bowler hat. "You scoundrel!" the king yelled at the man. "What do you mean by coming in here in that rat-catcher fashion? You never see me dress like that in London!" Tough man with the proprieties, was Edward.

The king was a stickler for detail in an age of details. He once told a friend, who had proposed to accompany him in a tailcoat to a picture exhibition before lunch: "I thought everyone must know that a short jacket is always worn with a silk hat at a private view in the morning."

Edward would be rotating in his hand-carved coffin if he could see what some people's approach to coordinating outfits is these days. While we're mercifully relieved of all that stifling rigidity, the downside to it is that, when the rules are thrown out, unbridled freedom often leads to chaos, confusion, frustration and terrible insecurity. Not to mention that some folks should be given warnings about assaulting the environment--you know, like obscene billboards and such.

Fortunately, there's still one garment, the time-honored tuxedo, that prevents such fashion fiascoes. The one decidedly good thing about wearing a tux is that a man doesn't need to make any decisions or worry whether he's making a mistake: the prescribed outfit, top to toe, works perfectly fine. That is, works well if one knows the occasion calls for "Black Tie." There again the Edwardians provided the rules governing the occasion by stipulating on the invitation what type of dress was expected. These days "White Tie," "Full Dress," "Decorations and Medals" and other such instructions are quaintly arcane at most functions. And the best place to see a tailcoat is in an old Fred Astaire film. Generally, the only men who own their own tails are diplomats and symphony orchestra conductors. If you are escorting a debutante to a fancy ball, rent.

On the other hand, the tuxedo--which has been with us since the late 1880s--is very much still an option for sartorial p.m. elegance.

"There used to be a dress code," says Derrill Osborn, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of men's clothing at Neiman Marcus. "And we seem to have gotten away from it for a while. But we're noticing a movement towards dressing up--which includes the area of formal wear. There is a bit of protocol coming back into life, and our job is to educate our consumer about what to wear. For example, many invitations these days read 'Your Interpretation of Black Tie,' which can be fun. It's not protocol as we're accustomed to thinking of it, but it gets people thinking."

While the dinner jacket can be the simplest of outfits to wear because no choices or decisions need be made, that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of choices if you want them! In a sense, we've come full circle back to the Edwardians again--but without all the stifling rules. In other words, the choices without the restrictions.

There have never been as many alternatives to the tux. "One of the signals, I think," says Osborn, "that the opportunities for a more individual approach to evening wear is afoot is the growing interest in the odd dinner jacket. We've done a number of them, made for us in mohair wool by Oxxford Clothes, in wonderful iridescent colors like burgundy and green. That dimension of color is returning to formal wear, and it's a telling indication that elegance is again on the rise."

The tuxedo is still the unassailable black-tie outfit for an evening on the town. Perhaps a double-breasted one with sweeping shawl collar, done in a good year-round weight black or midnight blue barathea?

"Well, we could do you up something like that very nicely," says Bill Fioravanti, the incomparable custom tailor on 57th Street in Manhattan. "Traditionally, we'd use grosgrain facings on the lapels, or even a miniature striped velvet. Very elegant. But for something a bit different, we do a marvelous cardigan tuxedo, where we sew the facings directly onto the front of the coat. It's simplicity itself: no pockets, no flaps, no lapels. Sleeves and trouser legs are narrow with no pleats. It's a minimum amount of fabric, to enhance the slimness of the body. Very flattering for the figure." Decidedly sophisticated, for which Mr. Fioravanti will want $4,500.

A more distinctive option--still well within the parameters of the tuxedo--is the colorful silk dinner jacket with black worsted evening trousers. The Italian firm of Brioni handmakes exquisite Dupioni silk dinner jackets in shades of apricot, maize yellow, periwinkle, emerald, pale claret and pearl gray (as well as the more traditional black and white), cut meticulously in single- and double-breasted silhouettes, with either peak or shawl lapels (priced at $3,200, including the dress trousers). These are reminiscent of the 1950s style pioneered by Brioni, and have that distinctive James Bond look. Brioni also creates '50s-inspired tartan dinner jackets, in the classic green-and-navy Black Watch pattern as well as truly sybaritic muted plaids of black-and-peacock, burgundy-and-navy and Prussian blue-and-olive, in lightweight and soft twist woolens (at $3,000, with black dress trousers).

Or, for the holidays, a double-breasted velvet dinner jacket. Alfred Dunhill does the perfect one: chocolate brown, with self-faced shawl collar and frogged (corded) closure ($795), to be worn with either black worsted or tartan trousers ($250).

If a dinner for eight or 10 at home is on the schedule, it's a different matter. The tuxedo is a tad too formal, but a business suit won't do, either. Fall back on the old blue blazer? The Duke of Windsor (who as Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936) solved this problem by wearing a kilt with a short Scottish dinner coat. Wonderful, but perhaps a bit much for the rest of us. However, there are other stylish alternatives to mannerly nonchalance.

What about a black 8-ply cashmere cardigan with a shawl collar ($1,950), worn with a band-collar cotton crepe shirt (with a fly front, so no studs are necessary, $250); or a black cashmere shirt jacket ($1,250), with a white polo collar or turtleneck silk-cashmere sweater ($595)--all to be had from Sulka. Sulka, by the way, is one of the few firms that still provide full dress kit: Super 100s worsted tailcoat with faille facings (and open gussets under the sleeves, to provide maximum freedom and coolness when dancing), with matching dress trousers, white pique dress vest, shirt and bow tie (tailcoat priced at $2,950).

Or perhaps a sybaritic smoking jacket or dressing gown? For $3,500, English tailor Bruce Cameron Clark will make you up a very country-house ideal (as he has for Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, that consummate English dandy): double-breasted, shawl-collared, in plum, bottle green, black or royal blue shades of luxurious Italian silk velveteen, complete with quilted facings and cuffs, frogged-toggle closure, and coordinated silk lining (add $900 for either black worsted or velvet dress trousers).

Custom-made midcalf length dressing gowns in antique Italian woven silks (with all the trimmings: tassel sash, corded silk piping, quilted lapels) are the same price as the smoking jackets. For something just slightly more sedate, Clark suggests a seven-ounce tropical worsted robe in a large variety of solid colors, or perhaps a discreet herringbone or Prince of Wales plaid pattern (like the ones he's made for actor Michael Nouri for his stint in Broadway's Victor/Victoria, priced at $3,000).

Literally at the bottom of any evening outfit are the shoes. Plain black oxfords are always appropriate, and unadorned black slip-ons are a comfortably nice touch if a dinner jacket isn't worn. But what about monogrammed velvet slippers? Sulka's come in five colors, with either monogram or decoration ($295). Or, particularly natty, a pair of tweed Albert slippers (from the English firm of Holland & Holland, at $210).

Last year, a professor at Cambridge, John Harvey, published a lengthy and complicated treatise on why men wear black. I'm not making this up, you know. The study runs to 280 small-print pages, including 18 pages of even smaller-print notes. It's slow reading, and I'm not sure what the conclusion was (it had something to do with gender-coding and power-assertive sociological aspects). I found a much more easily understandable answer reading a survey conducted in 1994 for the International Formalwear Association by a marketing research firm. The survey found that 64 percent of the women believe men are more attractive in a tuxedo than a business suit, while 68 percent of men think women pay more attention to a man in a tuxedo than in a suit. And, finally, 55 percent of the men surveyed say they feel more attractive in a tuxedo than a suit.

A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990). Black Tie Affair


Shopping suggestions for the best in formal wear:

Brioni / 57 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022; 212/376-5777. For other venues, phone 212/956-4155

Bruce Cameron Clark / 968 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York 10021; 212/772-7701

Alfred Dunhill / 450 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10022; 212/753-9292

William Fioravanti Inc. / 45 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019; 212/355-1540

Holland & Holland / 50 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022; 212/752-7755

Neiman Marcus / 1618 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75201; 214/741-6911

Sulka / 430 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10022; 212/832-1100