It's gala season in Houston, and CultureMap has answers to all your black tiequestions
Browse through CultureMap’s events calendar, and you will find a slew of listings for galas and auctions for charities and nonprofits throughout the city. Some, like hipster art collective Spacetaker’s “SOLD OUT” are slightly more informal, asking that attendees dress up as their favorite artist who has “sold out.” But others, like Saturday night's Masquerade Ball benefiting the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, are strictly black tie affairs.
Everyone loves being able to have fun and support charitable causes at the same time – but events like the Masquerade Ball often leave men in a sartorial conundrum. For women, “black tie” means a formal dress. But for men, what exactly does black tie mean?
Trust me, it’s not as simple as you may think.
It’s no secret that our world is becoming more casual. Thus, in some circumstances, a suit can be acceptable for black tie.
“Unless you’re going to the most formal affairs – like, say, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – a black suit can serve the same purpose as a tuxedo. In fact, I don’t even own a tux,” Jim Moore, GQ creative director, writes. “But I always make sure to do it up right – that’s crucial. The suit I reach for has a sense of occasion – it’s not one I’d wear to the office on a Wednesday. The shoulder’s slightly more structured than I usually wear, and I dress up the suit with a crisp white dress shirt and slim black tie.”
Moore is one of the most stylish men on the planet, and I would never hesitate to take his advice. However, I understand that some men are “traditionalists,” and a black tie affair just isn’t complete without a tux.
Tuxedo tips: Stick with the classics
If you want to go the tuxedo route, follow this rule of thumb: Don’t rent. Rentals are overpriced, and the tux you end up with is most likely going to be ill-fitting and cheap looking. Basically, you’re going to look like you’re wearing someone else's tux.
If you find yourself going to multiple black tie affairs every year, then you need to invest in your own. Make sure it fits right and have it properly tailored. The jacket should hug your body and the pants should have little to no break. It’s also important to ensure that the sleeves are short enough to reveal a half-inch of shirt cuff: your white shirt and cuff links will provide a stunning contrast against the black jacket.
What kind of tux should you buy? Stick with a classic style: The jacket should be a one or two button.
Now that that’s out of the way, the next crucial decision involves the lapels: Peak lapel, notch lapel or shawl collar. On a tuxedo jacket, the lapels are satin-faced, giving them a sheen that is not found on the average suit or blazer.
- The peak lapel is the most classic, and at the recent Academy Awards, Justin Timberlake showed us how good it can look.
- The notch lapel is what you would find on your average suit jacket or sport coat, and many insist that this more modern option isn’t technically formalwear. But more and more designers are beginning to experiment with notch lapels on their tuxedoes, and it looks particularly good with a longer tie.
- The shawl collar is reminiscent of 1950’s glamour – think Mad Men – and rather popular among the fashion-conscience set.
Make sure the shirt looks as good as the tux
If you’re going to invest in an expensive, fitted tuxedo, don’t buy a cheap tuxedo shirt. I recommend having a custom one made at Houston’s own Hamilton Shirt Co. Guys tend to neglect the fit of their shirt, assuming that a jacket will be covering it.
But after you get in a bidding war over a Tuscan villa rental at the silent auction, you’ll want to have a few drinks and hit the dance floor. Trust me: The jacket will probably end up coming off, so it’s important that your shirt fits well.
The two most common options for tuxedo shirt collars are semispread and wing. Never wear a button-down collar shirt with a tuxedo. The wing collar is the far more traditional option, and is only to be worn with a bow tie. A semispread collar can also look great with a tuxedo, and is the best option for guys electing to wear a full-length tie.
The front of your tuxedo shirt doesn’t have to be pleated, and if it is, make sure that the pleats are narrow: Too many ruffles and you look like you’re wearing your grandmother’s curtains.
And yes, you need French cuffs. There aren’t too many other occasions that will warrant the use of the gorgeous cufflinks that you’ve inherited, so why not? Just make sure they’re clean and simple: No college mascots or skulls.
Tie it on: Bow or regular?
A lot of people think that black tie always requires a bow tie: I beg to differ. A regular tie is perfectly acceptable, as long as it’s black and slim. If you do go the bow tie route, it has to be hand tied: no clip-ons — ever.
It’s OK to go without a cummerbund. In fact, if you’re a younger guy, I recommend it. But some purists like the cummerbund, and I’m alright with that. But keep it black: no silver or baby blue.
The same rule goes for the vest: If it has some strange pattern or doesn’t match your tuxedo, you will look like a blackjack dealer. If your tux fits well, you shouldn’t need suspenders. But if you do, stick with black or white.
Another common misconception about black tie is that it mandates patent leather shoes (those are the really shiny ones). I disagree. You can wear the same well-polished black leather lace-ups with your tux that you wear with your black suit.
Break the rules
Yes, there are a lot of rules to follow. But I’m a big proponent of breaking them when necessary. Want to stand out in the sea of black tuxes and bow ties? No, I am not an advocate for white tuxes – unless it’s a white tie event. But you can change up things like your shirt, bow tie, and pocket square. The men’s design team at J. Crew are proponents of wearing chambray shirts with tuxes, but I wouldn’t go that far unless you’re ready for a lot of stares.
You can mix things up with a soft blue or pale pink shirt instead. But remember — only semispread collars, or, if you’re wearing a bow tie, a wing collar. You can also incorporate seasonal fabrics into your bow tie: if it’s summer, seersucker, and winter, wool. Make sure that the pattern is subtle, and don’t try this with a full-length tie.
The easiest way to mix things up is to add a pattern to your pocket square. A black-and-white gingham is perfect. Fold it square, and keep it crisp – nothing puffy.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can change your entire tux. Nowadays, midnight blue is considered to be an acceptable departure from the standard black tux. Keep the tie black, though. You can also throw on a white jacket or a burgundy velvet one with your black pants.
What if it's a masquerade theme?
So you think you have this whole black tie thing figured out — and then you find out that the event you’re attending has a masquerade theme.
“Ovarian Cancer often masquerades as a minor illness in its early stages, so a masquerade theme seemed to be not only appropriate to the cause, but who doesn’t love a masquerade ball? Mystery, luxury, intrigue, music, dancing… somehow when the masks go on, the inhibitions go out the door and can make something as typically stuffy as a fundraiser transform into an exciting social event,” says Masquerade Ball chair Maya Sanchez-Rotunno.
I’m with you Maya: Who doesn’t love a masquerade? But what are the guys supposed to wear?
Just follow my No. 1 rule of thumb: Keep it simple. A masquerade theme does not mandate a sequined tuxedo, unless you’re Elton John. Wear your standard tux, and carry around a fun mask.
Looking for somewhere to wear your great new tux? You can still buy $75 tickets to the Masquerade Ball benefiting the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Omni Houston Hotel. Light bites will be served, the bar will be open and lots of great items will be available at the silent auction.