Q: Are there any acceptable alternatives to the standard tux? Does a black suit or a three-piece cut the mustard? As the social calendar fills up with holiday parties — many of which are black-tie events — what should you wear?
Black Tie on the Red Carpet
A: The words “black tie” on a party invite denote that the event is the most formal of functions. You may well yawn at the stuffiness, but back in the late 19th century, the wealthy elite used to change into a dinner jacket for practically every evening meal.
Now, the rare instance you’re asked to do the same hardly seems like such a drag. To save you and everybody else from embarrassment, don’t bend the rules.
“Stay with the tried and true,” says Karl Clausen, head of bespoke at Alfred Dunhill. “One should only wear a plain black suit as a last resort.”
Here’s what you need to know:
The vagaries of fashion have not dislodged the dinner jacket from its perch. Unless you’re Scottish and own a kilt, the traditional dinner jacket — sounds better than “tux,” doesn’t it? — remains the only acceptable clothing.
As for the color of your ensemble, stick to black. Navy is acceptable; white is for waiters and Humphrey Bogart.
Your black-tie attire should consist of the following foundational components: a black, single-button, single-breasted jacket with a peak lapel (the points of the lapel point should point upward, whereas they point down on a regular suit) and trousers that have a silk stripe or braiding running along the outside seam of the leg.
Your shirt should be of white marcella, a cotton that is starchier than that used in regular shirts, with a bib front.
Other shirt details to watch: French cuffs are a must, and a regular fold-down collar, as opposed to the smaller-flapped winged collar, is the purist’s choice.
The bowtie is the recommended choice — and learn to tie it. You’re not going to the prom, you’re an adult now.
A cummerbund — the fancy waistband — is also de rigueur, and make sure the pleats are facing upward.
The shoes: Patent-leather Oxfords are the classic, but a pair of well-polished regular Oxfords could do just as well.
Mr. Clausen says that the one part of the dinner-jacket uniform that is up to personal taste is the collar. A shawl collar — a more rounded shape that looks a bit like Hugh Hefner’s smoking jacket — is acceptable, but less formal.
When shopping for a tux, remember that the fit is slightly different than your business suit. “Dinner suits are traditionally worn closer to the body,” Mr. Clausen says.
How else can you express your personal style in such a rigid uniform? Your pocket square, cuff links, watch (which should match your cuff links) and good manners. Anything else and you’d just be flouting 150 years of sartorial tradition.