The MANual: Formal Wear

The Ten Commandments of Black Tie

If the wedding invitation says “black tie,” you’ve got a clear idea of what you need to wear.

A tuxedo.

Black tie is the classic wedding look precisely because it never goes out of style. Why? Because every guy looks good in a tux. No matter how dire your usual style, once you put on that tuxedo, you’re George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven, Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. You’re Sean Connery’s James Bond (Ok, maybe not Connery’s—that’s a high bar—but Daniel Craig’s at least.)

That’s the power of black tie—provided you get it right. Pay attention, would-be 007s – because wedding photos, like diamonds, are forever.

Rule #1: YOU SHALL NOT WEAR A SUIT

By which we mean: you’ll wear a tuxedo, not a regular suit. A tux has major-key characteristics that elevate it above your everyday two-piece, like pointy peak lapels in a contrasting fabric, and braiding down the side of the pants. Notch-lapel is technically incorrect, but we’ll allow it; shawl-lapel is nice, and we’ll applaud it.

Really technically, a tux shouldn’t have vents—those slits up the back—either, which makes it even more streamlined and slicker. But many do.

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Rule #2: YOU SHALL NOT (NECESSARILY) WEAR BLACK

The tux can, of course, be black. But midnight blue is cooler, historically more correct, and looks blacker under artificial light. But there’s a whole spectrum of less conventionally hued tuxedos out there.

Again, be conscious of respecting the occasion. Special note for the groom: a non-black tux is actually a good way to distinguish yourself. If everyone is in dark tones, you can flex on them by wearing a mid-grey tux, for instance. It shows them who’s boss, which on this day of all days is perfectly acceptable behavior.

Rule #3: YOU SHALL NOT WEAR A BLACK TIE

Confusing, we admit. The point is, you don’t wear a standard black tie with a tux. Unless it’s preceded by the word “Hollywood,” black tie calls for a bow tie. Black or dark blue is the prefered color. Try to match the color of your lapels. Whatever you do, stay away from red, which will make you look like a Christmas present.

Get an actual bow tie, and learn how to handle it. There are tons of YouTube tutorials on how to tie a bow tie that are way easier to follow than any diagram. A clip-on only denies you the glory of undoing it later in the evening and leaving it hanging around your neck like Clooney.

Rule #4: YOU SHALL NOT WEAR A WING-COLLAR SHIRT

It’ll fly, but strictly speaking, a wing-collar shirt is meant for white tie, which is a level up from black tie in formality.

You want a shirt with a turndown collar—but not just any shirt. A legit evening shirt will often have a decorative “bib” front that’s pleated or dimpled, and sometimes studs instead of buttons. Whether it comes with them or not, your shirt will definitely need cufflinks.

The black tie police won’t raid your ceremony if you show up in a normal shirt, but it should at least be double-cuffed, with some decent hardware. It’s a special occasion, after all.

Rule #5: YOU SHALL NOT WEAR FANCY FOOTWEAR

Your shoes should be plain and black.

Assuming you don’t have a pair of formal leather pumps in your rotation, then you want sleek, minimalistic lace-ups of some shape or form: Oxfords, derbies, bluchers or whole-cuts, which are made from one piece of unbroken calfskin. The less adorned, the more appropriate. Wingtips, for instance, have too many fussy details, which ironically makes them more casual, not less.

Patent leather—the kind that’s as shiny as your fiancee’s engagement ring—is not essential, and some find it over the top. But, like wing-collar shirts, it’s not strictly wrong.

Velvet slippers are supposed to be for Downton Abbey-style “at home” events. But if you want to feel comfortable on your big day, who are we to argue?

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Rule #6: YOU SHALL NOT BARE YOUR MIDRIFF

Nowadays, a cummerbund is an optional extra, and a lot of people look down on it. But it does perform an indispensable function, preventing any of your white shirt from showing between the top of your pants and your tux jacket button. A cummerbund is also good for counterbalancing the expanse of shirt that a normal tie would otherwise cover.

If you don’t want to wear a cummerbund, just make sure your pants sit on your waist instead of hanging off your hips. Or wear a vest.

Rule #7: YOU SHALL NOT WEAR WRIST SWAG

There are those who think it’s uncouth to wear any type of watch to a black tie event. We’re not that dogmatic, but we agree that you shouldn’t be checking the time—”Jesus, when is this shit gonna be over?”—during the ceremony. Otherwise, we view wrist candy as the icing on the cake, not to mention a pretty sweet present.

You know what is uncouth though? Wearing a big metal-bracelet sports watch with a tuxedo. A dress watch should be slim and unadorned, with a black leather strap. The metal of the watch itself should match your cufflinks and shirt studs.

Rule #8: YOUR COAT SHALL HONOR YOUR JACKET

Depending on the location and time of year, you might not need a coat at all. But if you do, it should be a tailored top coat in a dark color (or maybe camel if you’re feeling saucy.) Above all, it should complement—but not outshine—your tux jacket.

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Rule #9: YOU SHALL NOT RENT (UNLESS YOU REALLY CAN’T AFFORD TO BUY)

We’ve discussed this at length elsewhere, but in short: unless you’re never, ever going to wear black tie again, you’re way better off buying an inexpensive tux and having it tailored than renting a good quality one that fits you like somebody else’s glove.

Rule #10: YOU SHALL NOT BE TOO CREATIVE

The whole point of black tie is to create uniformity among the male guests, and let the women hog the spotlight. So unless the invitation specifically stipulates “black tie creative,” follow the rules above.

Bottom Line

If the invite says “black tie,” make sure you know the rules. Treat them as if they were the Ten Commandments, shouted at you by Moses standing on top of a mountain with a white beard and an impeccably tailored tux.

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