Looking cool in black tie
November 25, 2013 | By:
It's time to get the party season started and, for classic style, black tie is a look that can't be beaten. But don't mess with the details, says Maggie Alderson
Black tie_composite_Clooney_Pitt_Ford 620 All images Corbis

Connery as Bond epitomised the look. George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Marc Jacobs get it right with classic styling. All photos from Corbis

There are some things in life that can be improved on; there are others that are perfect just as they are. How men look in proper, classic black tie falls into the second category. All men.

By classic, I mean the following. The rules.

  • A white shirt with a starched front, closed with studs or at least no visible buttons. and turned-back cuffs with cufflinks.
  • A black tailored jacket with satin lapels. It can have a 1950s-style shawl collar, wide 1940s notched lapels, or medium modern ones, whatever feels right for you.
  • No matter what’s going on in front, strictly no vents at the back.
  • Trousers with a satin seam down the outside of the leg.
  • A black bow tie, tied by hand.
  • Shiny black shoes.

There isn’t a man on earth who doesn’t look impossibly dashing in this uniform. It’s like taking a George Clooney pill. So why do men mess with it so much?

Interpretations of the black tie

The most irritating of these infringements is to interpret ‘black tie’ as a black ‘tie’, the hanging down kind, which used to be reserved for funerals. It’s a look that was first seen on younger dudes, who could almost be forgiven, but has now crept up the generations. (I’ve even seen Robert de Niro thus attired; now that is a shame.)

Meanwhile, novelty ties of any kind are awful and I’m not a fan of the starched wing collar with a dinner jacket either (although it’s de rigeuer with white tie). While it was considered terribly attractive in our collective Eighties youth – remember that Brideshead moment – with the wisdom of age, I can see that a normal flat collar looks much nicer.

Another major black tie infringement is a black tie (of either kind, though worse if it’s all-a-hangin’ down) with a black shirt. Mafioso no no. Cosa Nostra faux pas. Camora no more-a.

A further heinous development on the red-carpet-black-tie photo circuit is no tie at all. The dress shirt and the dinner jacket, but nothing at the neck except a bare gizzard. The full turkey-lurkey. That really is taking rule-bending too far.

Still, there’s nothing sexier than top buttons and proper bow tie undone, déshabillé after some vigorous shape throwing; a look I remember most fondly on handsome chaps at university balls. But you have to earn that right on the dance floor, you can’t just turn up in it.

It’s a style I always associate with Hugh Grant, but I can’t find a photo on the whole wide web of him thus attired, so maybe it’s just a fantasy. And certainly one I have drawn from when describing men in formal attire in my novels: high colour on high cheekbones and the black tie dangling. Yowser.

Why to keep it classic

So why do blokes feel compelled to contravene this most flattering of dress codes? I’m told some just hate the trussed-up feeling, and others just want to be individuals. Are you Sam Shepherd? (He once wore cowboy boots with a tux to the Oscars and I had to be scraped off the floor from my swoon.) Well, that’s fine.

Likewise, if you’re Billy Bob Thornton or Nick Cave, you can wear a lariat tie. But regular geezers, please just embrace black tie as worn by its greatest ever exponent: Connery’s Bond. Allow yourselves to be that glamorous. Let us be the girl who dances with you looking like that.

How about we make a deal? If we women promise never to wear culottes, jumpsuits and platform shoes, which my researches tell me are the three items of lady attire collectively most hated by men, will you just knuckle down and dress up right?

How to tie a bow tie