THE ART OF FORMAL WEAR
LONDON EVENING STANDARD'S MAURICE MULLEN DISCUSSES THE DILEMMA OF DRESS CODES
From society weddings and state visits to mayoral banquets and the Royal Enclosure at Ascot we Brits can’t resist an opportunity to dress up. In doing so we’re not only celebrating a sense of occasion but also the traditions of formality and ‘appropriateness’ observed in civilised society over hundreds of years.
When it comes to menswear the writer Will Self observed that evening dress was, at least arguably, a great leveler ‘making it possible for everyone to assume a lordly bearing even if it’s only in a rental tux’. Whilst the aficionados of Clements & Church wouldn’t countenance the concept of ‘rental’ I think it’s undeniable that Will had a point since there’s only the shortest of distances from the realisation that one is surrounded by the similarly dressed to the assumption that one must therefore be surrounded by the similarly minded and who isn’t seduced by the comfort of ‘fitting in’ ?
If we disregard those occasions demanding ceremonial dress – military uniform, religious vestments, national costume and the like – there are three principal ‘formal’ looks each conferring its unique elegance on the wearer.
The first is ‘morning wear’ which, in its most basic form, comprises of a morning coat, striped trousers worn without turn-ups & single or double–breasted waistcoat. The morning coat is cut with tails so if differs both from a ‘frock coat’ which has a knee-length skirt all the way around the base and the evening tailcoat which has a squarely cut away front (contrasting with the morning coat’s gradual taper). Morning wear is properly worn with black lace-up shoes, a cutaway-collared shirt with long tie and - on the right occasion - a top hat. Original silk toppers are no longer manufactured so ‘vintage’ models command extremely high prices but a visit to Oliver Brown www.oliverbrown.org.uk who have a huge selection will nearly always meet your requirements.
The second is the familiar ‘black tie’ or ‘dinner suit’ which, when worn well, has a timeless panache – think Daniel Craig at the gaming table in ‘Casino Royale’ – but, when done badly, screams ‘used car salesman’s annual dinner dance’. The secret is to go monochromal & classic and eschew the novelty waistcoats, pre-tied adjustable bowties and anything with frills or ruffles. Footwear is important with evening wear as nothing spoils the look as much as clumpy outdoor shoes. Go for black patent leather or, if you’re feeling brave, those elegant slip-on pumps with the flat grosgrain bows favoured by HRH Prince Charles.
The third is ‘White tie’. This is the most formal eveningwear and unless you move in very grand circles is rarely seen on invitations nowadays. It involves full tails (the ‘claw hammer’ coat), starched white shirt with detachable wing collar fastened with front & back studs and white hand-tied bow tie. The look is finished off with a low-cut white Marcella waistcoat and if you can source a Ginger Rogers to lead onto the dancefloor so much the better.
Fred Astaire stars in the 1935 movie Top Hat wearing white tie and tails.
As with most things in life the devil is in the details and the temptation to over accessorise and end up looking like a Vegas magician needs to be strongly resisted. That said a restrained silk square in the breast pocket is always acceptable as is the ongoing renaissance in lapel adornment. Check out James Sherwood’s brilliant site, www.jewelleryforgentlemen.com, and in these disenchanted days, let’s raise a glass to the age of elegance.