Fashion-conscious men put their individual mark on the traditional black tuxedo

FORMAL WEAR WITH AN ATTITUDE

November 14, 1993|By Vida Roberts

Monkey suit, a manly, slangy reference to black tie, is definitely a misnomer. Put any man in a monkey suit and he suddenly stands taller, sounds more intelligent and exudes handsome homo sapien charm and wit.

Black-tie dressing does all that, which is why the traditional basic black dinner jacket, white shirt and black tie combination has gone virtually unchanged in this century. Once men got on to a good thing they were not about to tamper with it. Why, in some Baltimore families, Papa's tux is passed on to junior, and with judicious use of mothballs, pressing and alterations, goes the social rounds with yet another generation. And a shiny patina or a discreet tobacco burn never hurt any young man's social ambitions as long as his shirt and manners were immaculate.

But there's change in the social air: Invitations calling for "creative black tie" are raising eyebrows and fashion-consciousness on the gala circuit. This holiday party season, a Frosty the Snowman tie will not be sufficient to establish a man as an original dresser. The right look needs more thought.

The creative dressers among us just shrug -- they've been

bending the rules to suit their own style all along. The rest of the male population will just have to catch up.

Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, Maryland's former film commissioner and now full-time artist, fills his tux fronts with an easy T-shirt from his collection when he steps out, which rounds out to about a dozen times a year.

"The T-shirt becomes the focus of attention," he says. "I look for a T-shirt with a statement, whether it's political, artistic or just plain funny."

He loves to tux, inasmuch as he doesn't own a suit.

"I didn't have enough money to shift fashion gears on a black-tie outfit. With a T-shirt, no one looked at my tux. Having 15 or 20 T-shirts for formal wear is a lot more flexible and fun than wearing a $100 shirt and expensive accessories."

He tries to theme the T-shirt to the event, and sometimes it's a challenge.

"For my one-man show two years ago I designed a T-shirt to go with one of my paintings. Everybody wanted the T-shirt but not the painting," he remembers.

"Among the dozens of T-shirts I own, the predominant colors are black or white because they blend in with the black-tie theme," he says. It's his own twist on tradition.

Restaurateur Greg Mason believes in going with the flow of the evening and changing personality along with his half-dozen tuxedos.

"I look for the feeling of the event, the space, my mood and who I'm going with," he says. He sets himself no limits and would be pressed to draw the line on the outrageous. "I don't know what I would consider outrageous -- designer ribbons in my hair? But I have a wide range of accessories, most of them good-luck stuff, rings, belts, pendants. I'll change things on the chains I wear depending on the moon's alignment."

Planning and plodding are not his thing.

"I'll wear pins -- things people have made for me or I'll make my own stuff. I'm not craftsy at all, but I can manage to create an interesting something if I'm in the mood."

At other times he may just pair a nice bowling shirt with a dark jacket. The man has style to spare.

Painter Tom Everhart, who draws inspiration from the world of the Peanuts cartoon kids, takes his fashion cues from grandfatherly styles. "I wear vintage tuxedos from the '40s and also shop for antique studs and ties," he says. He's a tie believer and counts between 300 and 400 bow ties in his collection.

Attorney Barry Wasserman likes to dress in black tie with color. He admits to owning more than one and less than 10 evening suits. But his shirts separate him from the penguin pack.

"I have my shirts custom-done in Mexico. They're hand-painted and may be trimmed with stones, embroidery or leather," he says. His business dealings in the Southwest have given him a taste for the Western idea of formality, which skips the jacket altogether in favor of an original shirt, interesting cowboy boots and a vest.

Looking onstage and creative is as easy as hitting the right key for Nathan Carter, chairman of the fine arts department and director of choral activities at Morgan State University. He says he varies his formal looks to keep his choir from being bored, not that it has ever happened, according to people who know Mr. Carter's sartorial style.

"I may have about 20 variations on formal wear -- short mess jackets, tails, frock coats, vests," he says, adding that he thinks nothing of mixing elements to strike the right creative note. He will add a pin or a pendant as the mood moves him. He has an eclectic collection of accessories that he has picked up all over the world during his travels with Morgan's choir. Turtlenecks or collarless shirts are his favorites. He has been wearing them for years, although fashion experts are just now rediscovering them. Some men just have the knack.

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