The invitation reads "Black Tie Optional." Translation: Show up in a tuxedo or keep your coat on and leave early.
The fact is, many men are expected to put on the ritz regularly during the holiday season. Sometimes, it seems, the only real options are whether to rent a tux or own one.
But there's a third option that even men with their own tuxes forget to exercise: figuring out how to stand out from the rest of the penguins at the punch bowl. Managing it can be as simple as donning a wacky print cummerbund-and-tie combination.
The simplest departure a man can make from the standard black-on-black look is adding a splash of color. Matching tie-and-cummerbund sets come in a wide range of floral, geometric and paisley prints, as well as conversational motifs, jacquards and traditional African kente fabrics. Most formalwear stores carry a large sampling.
To make a bolder color statement, men can cast off the traditional black jacket and pull on a colorful dinner jacket or silk sport coat instead. Gianni Versace's V2 collection, for example, features elegant wool double-breasted sport coats in gold, cranberry, blue and purple that are just perfect for holiday dress-up affairs. More conservative formal dressers might prefer the milky white dinner jacket featured in the Giorgio Armani men's collection.
The latest in formal jacket construction is the shawl collar that arcs dramatically down and outward from the neck to the waist. On single-breasted jackets the shawl collar smacks of neoclassic elegance; on double-breasted jackets the shawl collar looks more formal and sophisticated.
Not much has changed in the formal pants department except for the entrenchment of pleats and the baggier silhouette that tapers at the ankle.
Of course, not every invitation to holiday parties will read "Black Tie Optional." Some will invite male guests to come as they are. But stylishness goes a long way, even when the party is held at the office or in a friend's home.
For less formal occasions, men can dress up the dressed-down look by pairing a colorful cardigan with nice black slacks, a tuxedo shirt and bow ties. Another hot option is hailing the resurgence of vests with a silk dress shirt and coordinating slacks.
A tux to buy or rent?
IF YOU'RE BUYING:
Prices start at about $300, and it's a worthwhile purchase if you attend three or more black tie affairs a year.
The single-breasted, notched lapel designs are standard, safe bets; the double-breasted or shawl-collared designs will reign for seasons to come.
A double-breasted jacket with a rounder, oversized shoulder gives the illusion of more breadth.
Black tie-and-cummerbund sets should be the first accessories you buy, because they never go out of style. Later you can try "something in fashion colors and prints.
Tuxedo jackets should rarely be removed during an event; but if it's necessary, you'll want to have slacks with buttons for your braces.
Shawl collars accent roundness and should be avoided by heavy-set men.
IF YOU'RE RENTING:
A white or gray dinner jacket with black tie and cummerbund will give a look of distinction.
Tie-cummerbund sets are going the way of neckties: conversational, colorful and patterned.
Vests are making a comeback, with ties to match, to take the place of cummerbunds.
Cuffs may be acceptable in all other dress pants, but never in tuxedo trousers.
Wing-collar shirts look best with single-breasted, peak-lapelled and shawl-collared jackets.
Cummerbunds should be worn with single-breasted jackets only; and a cummerbund should be made of the same material as the bow tie and jacket lapels.