Q I ordered your book "Dress for Excellence" today; does it include black-tie attire? If not, do you have a separate guide for this? I recently made a purchase at Brooks Brothers, and, yes, I should have been better prepared. I bought black-tie attire with "notched" lapels on the jacket. No one thought to point out the three options to me at that time, I would have chosen the "peaked" lapels. How bad will the notched lapel look at the Metropolitan Opera this year? Thank you.
A I'm glad you were able to order my book. Although it is now out of print, it is still available online. And, yes, it does indeed include information on black-tie attire.
I agree that the store's salesperson should have given you more complete advice, but the truth is that Brooks Brothers has somewhat changed its focus in recent years from the elegance of traditional attire to a more loosely presented group of options. Here are some guidelines for proper black-tie choices that will help answer your concerns.
The suit is always black. The shirt is always white with vertical pleats in front and with French cuffs. (In summer the jacket can be white. All else remains the same.)
As you stated, suits are fashioned in one of three different collar and lapel styles: shawl, peaked or notched. The shawl is the most staid and the most traditionally formal. The peaked is more of a fashion look and is found most often on double-breasted cuts. The notched, which is the usual way most daytime non-formal suits are cut, is therefore the least formal. In the past, some super traditionalists did not accept the notched lapel as correct for formal wear, but I really think that attitude has relaxed in today's less uptight era. The jackets' lapels are either made of satin, a silk-like, smooth, glossy fabric, or of grosgrain (pronounced grow-grain), a heavy, ribbed fabric resembling a twill. Grosgrain is also known as faille (pronounced file).
Along with the three types of lapels, there are two types of closings -- single-breasted and double-breasted. Double-breasted jackets are kept buttoned at all times. A double-breasted should not be your first and only evening suit, because it will come and go in style.
Naturally, the trousers match the fabric of the jacket. A ribbon runs down the outside of the trouser leg; it matches the lapel material. Thus, if the jacket has a satin lapel, the ribbon down the side of the leg is also satin, or they are both grosgrain.
Another note on trousers: This is the one time when cuffs are never worn. The style of wearing cuffs on trousers originated in England. They were called "turn-ups." They resulted from a man's turning up the bottoms of his trousers to protect them from soiling as he walked around his country estate. Accordingly, men wore cuffs on their tweedy suits or country flannels, but not on their formal evening wear.
I can pretty much assure you that many men at the Metropolitan Opera will be wearing black-tie suits that have a notched lapel. You will not feel that you are dressed inappropriately. And, as evening clothes are generally worn at social events with women attending, I'll tell you something you may not know, but should. Like James Bond, every man looks wonderful -- debonair, sexy and in command -- when he is in formal attire. Ask any woman.
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