The dinner jacket is the foundation of the black-tie ensemble. The model, style and facings chosen for the jacket set the tone for the formality and swank of the remaining attire. It also embodies the refined minimalism that sets evening wear above a simple suit through the clever concealment of each garment’s working parts.
Jacket Model and Style
The original and most formal model of dinner jacket is the single-breasted model. Unlike regular suits it has only one button which allows the front to be cut in a deep “V” shape that mimics the ideal male torso. Because the single-breasted model is often worn unbuttoned it requires that the trousers’ exposed waistband be covered by a cummerbund or waistcoat. This in turn provides more opportunities for versatility in a man’s formal ensemble.
The double-breasted model became accepted as an informal alternative to the single-breasted in the 1930’s and is now considered equally correct. This model looks better buttoned when the wearer is standing so there is no need for any sort of waist covering. However, because men usually prefer to unbutton their jacket when seated the double-breasted option could be considered less convenient. This type of jacket traditionally has four buttons and fastens with either the bottom row (known as 4-on-1 style) or both rows (4-on-2) depending on the cut.
The peaked lapel and shawl collar are equally authentic and correct.
The peaked lapel is derived from the tailcoat and for that reason it is considered the more formal of the two styles. The upward and outward sweep of this style, also serve to emphasise height and shoulder width. The shawl collar, on the other hand, is influenced by the smoking jacket and conveys a softer image than its angular counterpart. This is considered less formal due to its origins.
Although the notched lapel is by far the most popular style today and proponents point out that it has made occasional appearances since Victorian times, the style’s derivation from the common lounge suit has traditionally limited it to a fashion-forward alternative. It was not until the late 1970’s that etiquette and style experts began to consider it to be correct for formal attire and even then its acceptance was limited.
The original dinner jackets were made without vents then later offered with side vents. While side vents provide easier access to trouser pockets and are more comfortable to sit in, they can also make the jacket less slimming and somewhat compromise the intended formality of the tuxedo.
The center (aka single) vent is unacceptable not only because of its sporty pedigree (it is a horseback adaptation much less refined than the tailcoat’s) but also because it opens up when a man reaches into his trouser pockets thus exposing the seat of his pants and often a white patch of shirt to boot. Despite its inappropriateness, the single vent is becoming more common on dinner jackets as mainstream manufacturers save money by patterning their tuxedos on standard suit styles. Fortunately, a good tailor can convert these jackets into ventless models by closing the vent.
Ever since the British perfected the process of making and tailoring cloth, refined dressers have harmonised their clothing with their environment. This is seen in the customary association of dark finished worsteds with urban settings, earth-tone coarse tweeds with the countryside and pale lightweight fabrics with the summer months. Thus it is only logical that the darkest and most refined materials would be reserved for after-dark socialising.
Besides its natural association with night, the deliberate use of black for traditional evening wear has two distinct aesthetic advantages. First, it imbues the wearer with an aura of dominance and power. Second, when worn with a white shirt and accessories the juxtaposition of black’s complete lack of color against white’s complete spectrum of color creates the greatest contrast possible.
Formal suits are typically made from finished or unfinished worsted wool (a type of yarn that produces a firm, Naples fabric). Because tuxedos are worn far less frequently than business suits and don’t have to stand up to the same amount of wear and tear over time they can be made of a much finer wool than their everyday counterparts.
British tailors generally consider Barathea to be the norm for eveningwear wools and silks.
There is no such thing as a year-round weight for suit material. However, since formal affairs almost invariably take place in climate-controlled environments, experts concur that a 9-10 ounce fabric (300-340 grams/square metre) is the most practical choice.
One of the most distinctive traits of a tuxedo jacket is the decorative covering on the lapels known as facing. This not only provides a jacket with an elegant flair but also emphasizes the “V” effect created by peaked lapels. The best facings are made of pure silk, while less expensive ones contain a synthetic component. The silk can take the form of smooth satin or the dulled ribbed texture of grosgrain. Although the former is much more common in North America – and particularly well suited to the shawl collar – the latter, according to Flusser, is preferred in England due to its association with custom tailoring.
Be aware that the facing chosen for the lapels will determine the type of material used for the bow tie and cummerbund and possibly the waistcoat. Here too, grosgrain may be seen as preferable because it permits some variation in textures for the bow tie while satin facings require the neckwear to match which may result in an affected look.
Classic sartorial pundits strongly recommend that all dinner jackets have a working buttonhole on the left lapel for a buttonhole in UK – the literal translation of the French term (boutonniere in the USA). Ready-to-wear jackets may have to be taken to a qualified tailor who will know where to locate the hole and how to skillfully add it to the silk-faced lapel. Custom-made formal jackets will also sometimes have a stem holder on the reverse side of the lapel. This is typically a small cord that keeps the stem in place so that the flower does not fall out of one’s lapel over the course of an evening of dining and dancing.
The double-besomed jetted (slit) hip pocket is the only style understated enough to complement the dressy dinner jacket. Flap pockets are not appropriate for formal attire’s refined minimalism due to their busier and bulkier design and are simply an attempt by tuxedo manufacturers to save money by using standard suit patterns (although sometimes they will trim the edges of a flap pocket so that the flap can be tucked in or removed if desired).
The dinner jacket should also have a welt breast pocket to hold a pocket handkerchief. Ticket pockets are for functional day suits and would only create unnecessary clutter on a dinner jacket.
The jacket’s sleeves should be finished with four buttons with their edges touching, just like the sleeves on the tailcoat and better business suits.
All of the jacket’s buttons can be plain black or covered in the lapel’s facing.
Black-tie trousers are made of the same fabric as the jacket.
The waistband is meant to be covered either by a cummerbund, waistcoat or closed double-breasted jacket so it is essential that it sits high enough to remain hidden throughout the evening. Men with a trim waistline and an expert tailor can accomplish this by means of custom-made trousers with adjustable side tabs. Everyone else will require trousers cut for braces (suspenders in the USA). Belts are out of the question as they add bulk to the waistline and will invariably become exposed as the trouser waist gradually creeps downwards.
A trimmed waistband is a relatively recent invention designed to replace the cummerbund but its inability to cover the shirt’s waist makes it a poor substitute.
The side seams of formal trousers are also covered. Employing a technique common to military dress uniforms, they are concealed by a single band of facing that is either satin or grosgrain to match the jacket’s lapels. In the past braid was also used for this purpose but today the term is often used generically to refer to the more common silk stripe. This elegant detail also serves to emphasize the suit’s vertical lines thus enhancing the wearer’s height.
The formal trouser’s minimalism is rounded out by strategically placed side pockets and the absence of cuffs. Side pockets are usually cut on the trouser’s side seam making them virtually invisible and more easily accessible, particularly when wearing a cummerbund or waistcoat. Trouser legs are always plain because turn-ups (cuffs in the Us) are too casual (they originated as a mudguard) and would interfere with the side braid.
The absence or presence of pleats is a matter of comfort and personal preference and does not impact a dinner suit’s formality.
Classic Black-Tie Shirts
A Tale of Two Collars
Once upon a time the dinner jacket was born as the informal offspring of the majestic tailcoat and had no accessories to call its own. For many years it borrowed the stiff-front wing-collar shirt from its full-dress parent. Then the jacket came of age in the glorious sartorial days of the 1930’s with a unique dress code that included a soft-front shirt with a turndown collar. This soon became the standard black-tie shirt and remained so until a very dark time known as the seventies when an evil imposter appeared.
The Full-Dress Original
Rarely seen since the 1940’s some pundits argue that the wing collar should remain the domain of white tie for aesthetic reasons; I tend to agree with this.
Popularized in the early 1930’s by the future Duke of Windsor, turndown-collar dinner shirts offered a more comfortable and practical alternative to the cardboard-stiff full-dress model in that they were softer, did not require extensive starching and laundering and could be buttoned in front instead of in the back. Initially considered too informal for any occasion outside of summer, they soon became the black-tie shirt of choice following the war.
The body of a soft evening shirt is typically constructed of a thin fabric that provides maximum breathability such as fine broadcloth, poplin, batiste or voile. The turndown collar can either be spread or semi-spread as shown in the pictures to the right. The spread version is more formal and because its tips are hidden under the jacket lapels it is well suited for the streamlined shawl-collar. The sleeves of soft-front shirts always carry double cuffs (French cuffs in the US).
The final visible portion of the shirt, the bosom, is a bib-shaped or vertically rectangular double layer of fabric unique to formal shirts. The bosom is traditionally decorated with pleats or piqué. For the first option, wide or “box” pleats were the most common style during the 1930’s but the narrow pleats that are so popular today have been around since the 1940’s. A dressier alternative was devised by London shirtmakers of the 1930’s who decorated the bosom, cuffs and collars with the piqué normally associated with the full-dress shirt. This combination is commonly known as a Marcella shirt after the British term for the birdseye pattern that is used in the piqué.
Black-tie shirts are traditionally closed with two to three studs depending on the wearer’s height although it should be noted that some classic etiquette authorities limited studs to stiff-front shirts only and prescribed pearl buttons for soft-front models instead. Bosoms can be unstarched (“soft-front”) or lightly starched (“semi-stiff”). In the latter case, the bib should end above the waistline to prevent it from billowing out when the wearer sits down. And to keep either type of shirt front from pulling out of the trousers when the wearer stands up, higher-end models will have a tab that attaches to a button on the inside of the trouser waistband. Like the bottom of the shirt’s bib, the tab is hidden by the formal waist covering.
There are no pockets on formal shirts as they are not considered dressy and would interfere with the reinforced bosom.