Do you know your morning wear from your evening wear? When to wear a frock coat or a waistcoat?
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.
THREE KEY LOOKS
When it comes to menswear, the writer Will Self observed that evening dress was, at least arguably, a great leveller, “making it possible for everyone to assume a lordly bearing even if it’s only in a rental tux”. While the aficionados of Clements and 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 a morning coat, striped trousers worn without turn-ups, and a single or double–breasted waistcoat. The morning coat is cut with tails so it 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 square cutaway 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, 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. However, when done badly, it screams ‘used car salesman’s annual dinner dance’. The secret is to go monochrome and classic and eschew the novelty waistcoats, pre-tied adjustable bow ties 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 evening wear 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 and back studs, and a 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.
As with most things in life, the devil is in the detail 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, jewelleryforgentlemen.com, and in these disenchanted days, let’s raise a glass to the age of elegance.