Looking dapper in black tie is about keeping it simple

Timothy Barber
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WITH the City’s party season imminent, it’ll be time for chaps to dust down their tuxedos. The going wisdom is that men have it easier than women when it comes to formalwear, since there’s a prescribed uniform to stick to. But even within the black tie guidelines, there are a number of decisions to take to ensure you’re at your most debonair. You want to look as though wearing black tie is utterly normal to you.

“I think that when you wear a dinner jacket it is best to keep it simple and not try to jazz it up with a clever bow tie or fancy silk facings,” says menswear guru Jeremy Hackett. “It’s a monochrome affair and as I often say, formal dress is not fancy dress”.

The dress code is named after the tie, so don’t even think about wearing a fake, pre-tied bow – they can be spotted a mile off, and suggest you simply can’t be bothered. Knuckle down and learn to tie the thing – a good way to practice is tying one around your leg, tying the knot as you would a shoelace. Ideally the tie should match the material of your dinner jacket lapel. While large, Seventies-style versions have been appearing here and there – notably, Tom Ford has been sporting them recently – remember you need strong, angular bone structure to pull that off.

It’s worth seriously considering having a dinner suit made, and at the very least shelling out for a good quality off-the-peg number. You may only wear it on the odd occasion, but those will be the times you’ll want to look your best – particularly when you consider that you’ll be in a room where all the men are dressed the same way.

“The only way to stand out from everyone else in black tie is to carry it off better than them, and it’s not possible to carry off a cheap, machine-cut dinner suit well,” says James Sleater of City tailors Cad & the Dandy.

The first thing to consider is the colour. Yes, really. Black tie may suggest just that, but tailors actually recommend midnight blue, which looks black under artificial lights (whereas black takes on a purple hue). The best dinner suits are made from barathea cloth, a twill with a subtle texture which ensures it doesn’t shine too much – a sure sign of a cheap dinner jacket.

Avoid shiny satin lapels – good dinner jackets have lapels of grosgrain, an understated ribbed silk. As for the lapel shape, Selfridges buying manager Adam Kelly says it’s a matter of choice. “The shawl lapel [a smooth, continuous curve originally seen on the Victorian smoking jacket] is still a key part of the tuxedo, though some designers like Dolce & Gabanna and Tom Ford are now favouring a wider, peaked lapel.” Never choose a simple notched lapel however – that’s just common.

Steer clear of wing collars – unless you’re attending a white tie event they’re distinctly non-suave (fact: no James Bond has ever worn one, so neither should you). Go for a dress shirt with a marcella front panel (a kind of honeycomb weave) rather than the pleated front that hire shops tend to offer. Some dress shirts have studs – if you wear one, make sure your cufflinks match.

Cummerbunds have been out of fashion for a while now, though Kelly reckons the popularity of the pocket square may suggest a move back into favour. “These kind of additional features are coming back into trend,” he says. However, a low-cut dress waistcoat with two or three buttons adds a lot of dapper class.