With the last restrictions of the pandemic due to be lifted in mere weeks, we all deserve to celebrate. We think of the run-up to Christmas as the typical ‘party season’, but Yuletide seems a long way off. Let’s claim this summer for celebrations, and burst out of lockdown with a grateful song in our hearts.
People like to dress up. I know it’s not a universal impulse, but I also know I’m not alone in feeling that a social event is just that little bit more special when you take care over what you’re wearing, take your time to get ready, and step out into the world feeling you’re looking your best. Inner confidence projects outwards, and if you’re going to a party you want to be at the top of your game, witty, charming, elegant and immaculate. And I know too that people have sighed during our enforced enclosure and wondered when they’ll next get to wear that suit or that jacket or that dress that’s hanging in the wardrobe in silent reproach.
I went to the sort of university at which dressing up was—if you wanted it to be—part of the rhythm of life. Societies and clubs flourished and drinks parties and dinners were frequent. For me, the weekly meeting of the debating society meant black tie and gown, and it was honestly a relief to put on the familiar clothes like trusty armour. Yes, we were probably bargain-basement Bright Young Things, but it was fun. Many of us thought that when we grew up and moved to London we would continue in this glitzy milieu, and, for a time, some did. But reality intrudes, of course, and with the cocoon of university, small, intimate and familiar, the working week seemed to occupy our time with alarming ease.
The epiphany for me was that adulthood brings agency. No black-tie events to look forward to? Make your own. Because, suddenly, you make the rules. You may be worn down by a busy week in the office—you remember offices, we all used to go there to work, sitting together in groups—but if you have a dinner with friends on a Saturday night, and you all want to dress up for a party, you can. It is a black-tie event because you said so.
Some people struggle with black tie. This is a shame, because it has clear rules and almost always improves a man’s appearance. I could (perhaps will) write a whole volume on the dos and don’ts, but here’s the guidance in brief.
Firstly, “black tie” does not mean you wear a black tie. Hollywood has led the way on this dreadful habit of wearing straight ties with evening dress and it simply won’t do. What you need is a dinner jacket and trousers (a tuxedo, for American readers), a black bow tie and a proper evening shirt. That last may have a pleated front or a marcella bib; I would advise against a wing collar for any but the hardest core as they are difficult to get right and need a lot of starch. A black cummerbund, socks and patent, or highly polished, shoes and you really are ready to go.
Here are the pitfalls to avoid. Coloured bow ties and cummerbunds are generally to be avoided, unless it is a club event and you wear the appropriate tie. Belts should not be seen: wear braces, and your trousers will sit properly on your waist, not around your hips, and you will not display an unsightly buckle. Do not wear clumpy or heavy shoes: leave them to policemen. And, a personal plea, don’t wear a pre-tied bow tie. One club of which I was a member at university banned them and they were burned if detected. That was an extreme reaction, but they never look right, and in any event, tying a bow tie is one of those skills you should just have. It’s not difficult and YouTube is full of instructional videos.
Women have the freedom and agony of greater choice. Some believe that only a full-length dress is appropriate but it would be a very stiff occasion indeed which arched an eyebrow at a knee-length cocktail dress. Go shorter if you feel comfortable: women know better than men what suits and flatters them. In any event, less tends to be more. A simple, elegant dress in a plain colour will serve well but there are dozens of ways to embellish discreetly with accessories or small details.
The overwhelming factor is that you should feel at ease in what you’re wearing, both physically and mentally. Obviously your ‘best’ clothes should fit as well as possible, showing off the good and hiding the bad, but you must also feel that you look good. It will add to that aura of quiet confidence which is one of the most attractive qualities going. Make sure you can sit down with ease, and you may want the freedom of movement to shake a leg if the occasion includes dancing (planned or not).
Let’s be honest: evening dress looks good. Think of your favourite Hollywood stars, and use them not as models against which you can only look second-best but as guides to getting the best out of yourself. For men, George Clooney and the Prince of Wales generally nail it. On the distaff side, Gwyneth Paltrow and Julianne Moore rarely put a foot wrong. But browse the glossy magazines and see what inspires you.
The Spanish flu was followed by the Roaring Twenties in the last century. Let’s make sure the same happens this century. Dig out your glad rags or buy new. Make sure your outfit is perfect. And then go forth, and party. We can make it a summer to remember.