JZ and I attended a gala a couple of weeks back for one of Boston’s cultural institutions. Because it was a museum, along with the usual black tie dinner and dancing deal, there was an “open” party for the public where, for thirty bucks and a cash bar, anyone could come and enjoy music and dancing and lovely passed-around desserts, all while strolling through the exhibits in the evening hours. It was a wonderful event but I must say the most intriguing displays were the outfits. You cannot believe what passes for formal wear these days. Or maybe you can. Anyone who has watched the Academy Awards or, heaven help us, the Grammys, knows that men’s formal wear has become decidedly, well… informal. Some of the things I saw at the event I attended: wrinkled shirts, no cummerbund or suspenders, brown shoes, buttons instead of studs, bad ties, NO ties. Okay, okay, this is not the end of sartorial civilization, but there is a reason these events are called FORMAL.
I think a lot of the fashion infractions are committed simply because a lot of young men in particular, don’t know any better. Dressing up is so rare these days that there are few occasions for a guy to learn what’s stylish and what’s stupid. It used to be that a man’s first formal outing was the prom. He’d go downtown with Dad to rent a tuxedo where the owner/tailor would ask about the event and explain all the necessary components. Not anymore. Now some part-time, pimply guy, in a tee shirt no less, offers you an outfit right out of Costumes-R-Us, the more outlandish the better so as to one-up the classmates, and hands it off like the basketball in the final seconds of a playoff. I’ve even seen this with my own eyes at a wedding fitting. You can bet THIS mother of the groom was saying, “Hold on just a minute. You can’t be serious!”
So what should I look for, Mom? First off, if you can possibly afford it, buy a tuxedo. Even if it’s worn once a year, or even once every five years, you’ll look so much better in your own clothes. And really, you can find one for not that much do-re-mi considering you’ll only need one. Pick a classic look and it’ll last for a LONG time. But if to rent is your bent go for something traditional. The best dressed man at the Oscars is always George Clooney. Why? Because he wears a simple black, shawl or slightly notched collar tuxedo, white shirt and bow tie. If you’re very trim pleated pants and a double breasted jacket are fine, but unless you plan to star in a Noel Coward play, opt for flat front trousers and a three button, single breasted jacket (only the top two are buttoned). Pants, which should be worn at the WAIST, should graze the top of the shoe with a slight break in the leg.
Of course you need the accessories! Choose an all-cotton shirt that will be professionally laundered with light starch. A pleated front is nice with what they call a “laydown” collar and don’t forget the collar stays! (Ask the dry cleaner). Few people can pull off the wing collar and tie so leave that for your local orchestra member. A proper formal shirt has French cuffs and little notches for studs, so pick up a set. You can find classy looking ones at any of the department stores and many of the discount outlets like Century 21 and Loehmann’s. The cummerbund covers the button at the bottom of the shirt. And by the way, cummerbund pleats are worn facing up, not down, (that was so you could stick your theatre tickets in them!) and it should be snug around your middle. Go for a black or small patterned tie and if you can tie it yourself, even better. It’s really not that hard. Skip the patterned cummerbund and stick with black. It’s more flattering in the belly area. If you are buying a tuxedo, don’t bother with vests, pocket squares, long ties, patterned jackets or colored (especially black) shirts. They go in and out of fashion and never look as stylish as the sales help want you to believe.
Lastly are the shoes. Traditionally black patent pumps (plain slip-ons with a bow) were worn but let’s get real here. A simple pair of black patent or polished leather will look great. Leather soles please. The better to spin you round the dance floor, my dear. Don’t forget a white handkerchief and NOT in the pocket of the jacket. Keep it in your pants pocket for when your date starts weeping at how great you look.
And see you on the dance floor, Handsome!