Get festive! It's OK to bend rules of tuxedo dressing

December 19, 1990|By Robin Givhan | Robin Givhan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Consider the tuxedo. Adored by some; abhorred by others. Understand its social history, and set creativity free.

At some distant point on the fashion spectrum, the tuxedo was born. It struggled forth, fathered by white tie and tails and mothered by invention. It grew rapidly, feeding on the desire of men for a less conservative way to meet society.

In "Man at His Best" (Addison-Wesley, $24.95), written by the editors of Esquire, the birth date of the tuxedo is proclaimed as October 1886. Griswold Lorillard, moneyed descendant of an American tobacco family, strode into a country club that his father had helped found in Tuxedo Park near New York City. Other gentlemen were attired in white tie and tails, standard formal dress of the day. Lorillard entered in a tailored jacket reminiscent of a velvet smoking jacket that had been created for the Prince of Wales. Since Lorillard couldn't be summarily dismissed given his impressive genealogy he was embraced. The fashion press of yore christened that jacket the tuxedo.

Thus began generations of both joy and angst among men, young and old, over the proper attire for formal occasions. Some men savor the opportunity to bedeck themselves in the finery of high society. Even some younger gentlemen, in preparation for their wedding day, are surprisingly well-versed in the advantages of attached wing collars.

But pity the man who doesn't know his studs from his spats, the gentleman who quakes in his loafers at the mere thought of black tie.

Fear not. Black tie need not mean fashion death.

In today's vocabulary, formal implies tuxedo. (The only occasions for which gentlemen will ever need tails and top hats are at an inaugural ball or in a wedding party.) In this free-spirited world, black tie can mean a special moment when elegance conjures a display of individuality.

Who needs a room filled with men in matching tuxedos when the ladies dance in gowns of satin and silk? Just as we obey laws of the land, we look to rules of fashion, rules that set proper formal dress. One who violates laws may face prison; ignore a fashion rule, and hear gauche whispering behind one's back.

Of course, these basic guidelines exist to prevent a man who wants to experiment from looking like a wee-hours host of a disease-of-the-month telethon:

* Black and midnight blue are formal; powder blue is not. White dinner jackets are for summer.

* Tuxedo shirts should be pleated, never ruffled unless one goes by the name Prince.

* Pocket squares and boutonnieres are nice, but never together.

* Black shoes kid leather or patent leather are a must. Sneakers are childish.

* Black socks are traditional, but something patterned can be fun. Avoid visible calves.

* Above all, during this holiday season, when all the world loves a party, experiment. Ignore those who proclaim that ascots cannot be worn with tuxedos. Shun the hard-liners who rule that brightly colored ties cannot be formal. If an invitation reads "festive" and a tuxedo makes you feel like a party, then who says you cannot wear it?

In these festive days, gentlemen should be encouraged to choose an alternative formal ensemble to a tuxedo. With more formal parties, 'tis better to choose an alternative than wear a smudged wing-collar. With formal dress at intimate house parties, when better to experiment than with dear friends?

Although most gentlemen should own a tuxedo an all-wool, traditional style can be purchased for about $350 they need not be brought forth at every formal occasion. Weisman suggests the dressy dark suit or a different twist on a dinner jacket, perhaps something in smoky gray.

Every attempt should be made to maintain the elegance of a tuxedo in which even a rogue becomes a gentleman but allow personality to shine for the evening. A shawl-collared tuxedo jacket works over charcoal pants. Add a bow tie or dare to be different with a dramatic four-in-hand.

Formal dressing is an art distinguished from other forms of dress by scrupulous attention to detail. Everything from jacket to shoes should be of impeccable quality.

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