TC’s lack of class

| March 10, 2011

It occurred to me the other day that, for what is alleged to be an Ivy League institution, TC sure doesn’t have a lot of formal social events. Maybe I was spoiled by my undergraduate University, where we had ‘formals’ twice a week and the opportunity of several black-tie events per semester, but I still think the complete lack of black-tie events at TC is both a shame, as well as a missed opportunity.

And this isn’t just a TC thing: I’ve been monitoring the formal scene across the street on the main campus, and it seems you could count on one hand the number of University-wide social events each year, only some of which stipulate that black-tie is compulsory.

Speaking entirely selfishly, here, I rather lament the paucity of occasions a man has in this day and age to dress at his finest. Even in New York, one of the world’s most sophisticated cities, and a true cultural capital in all senses of the word, how many times do you come across an invitation to a black-tie event – let alone to that most formal of all events, one requesting you wear white-tie and tails?

Most people would probably scoff at the thought, and maybe one or two would mutter a reply something along the lines of “why bother with all of the effort involved? It’s just a stuffy throw-back to an age when elitism and imperialism was still OK, and people were not afraid to show it…” But, if you forgive me the presumption of answering my own rhetorical question, I would say that this misses part of the beauty of wearing black-tie.

For, rather than being a distinguishing marker of social class, it in fact operates to put every man in the room on the same level – after all, everybody will be wearing roughly the same thing, or experimenting within a set of pretty narrow, traditional parameters. And, if your objection to this is that it reduces what men wear to a simple uniform, then I would point out that your lack of opportunity to wear black-tie has led you to overlook the many nuanced ways in which a man can, whilst remaining entirely within accepted convention, demonstrate his individuality within the elegant confines of appropriate evening wear. Take a look at no less a man than James Bond, himself (Daniel Craig), appearing at the 2009 Oscars.

Good lad, Danny. Didn't like you in those speedos, though...

Notice anything about his dinner jacket (if you’re British, or ‘DJ’ in slang; ‘Tuxedo’, if you’re American) and trousers? That’s right – they’re blue, not black. Surely, you’re wondering, blue dinner jackets are the province of 70’s throw-backs and naive and uninformed – not too mention tasteless – prom-goers? Well, no. The difference is linguistically small – understated, you might say – but amounts visually to an entirely different category of sartorial achievement. For Mr Craig is, in fact, wearing midnight blue, the very same colour that no less an establishment figure than the Prince of Wales himself took to sporting on his evening clothes way back in the ‘roaring’ 1920’s.

And this was no mere whim, or royal fad. It is said that the appearance of traditional black dinner clothes suffer under certain types of indoor light, taking on a green tinge which is somewhat bathetic, especially after all the effort and care expended by an individual who has opted to wear black-tie. Midnight blue does not suffer from the same light-related defect, and so can be counted on to retain its deep, rich appearance, regardless of the light. So, in a sense, Mr Craig was not merely exercising the option to inject a tasteful element of individuality into his formal wear, but was using a nuanced understanding of both history and the science of colour to bend the rules to sufficiently to achieve an impact, though not at the expense of elegance.

People who opt to wear electric blue tuxedos, or bright red shirts, patterned bow ties and the like, lose the effects which the simple contrast between the white – or off-white, if you want – of the shirt and the rich darkness of a black bow tie, black or midnight blue jacket and trousers achieves so effortlessly. And, that’s the point about evening wear for men: the ‘rules’ (guidelines, really) are there to safeguard what is tasteful and appropriate, and so, to follow them, all but guarantees a desirable effect.

But, within these same guidelines is enough scope to experiment a little, to put a slight stamp of individuality on the overall impression of refinement. Thus, keeping in mind that the main effect is to frame everything in black and white, you wouldn’t opt for a black or coloured shirt (Hollywood stars at the Oscars are particularly bad at this), but it would be an option to include a dark maroon pocket square, OR cummerbund. Note that this is a strict either/or, as matching non-black items always detracts from the refined effect of the convention to frame everything with black and white. And, with that same effect in mind, it becomes obvious that you shouldn’t ever opt for a tie that isn’t black/midnight blue, or else you unbalance the whole effect, as has happened here:

There is also ample scope to express yourself in understated fashion through the smaller, periphery details such as your choice of shirt collar (wing or turndown), the lapel of your jacket (peak or shawl, never notch), whether or not you wear a double- or single-breasted jacket, how many buttons you have, the trim of your lapel (silk/satin or grosgrain), and so on. As ever, the traditional options may be restricted, but they do admit of combinations – and therein lies the greatest scope for variation on a classical, and highly effective theme.

The upshot of all of this? As with life, so with evening wear. In life, achieving the effect of individuality arises from the task of productively experimenting with variations of what might broadly be termed existent social conventions. To  express your individuality successfully when wearing black-tie is to vary the details through combining the conventions which most suit the character you wish to project.