I was at an industry awards event a couple of weeks ago. These are some of the few remaining types of events in my line of work where a black tie dress code is still standard and, generally, adhered to. That is to say... it's adhered to, but with a lack of effort or respect for the rules that a lover of formal dress codes such as myself finds disappointing.
Clothing aficionados generally fall in to one of two broad categories (albeit with almost infinite slight variations) when it comes to black tie. Many adhere rigidly to a set of rules laid down some time in the 1930s and '40s and by and large unchanged since then. They might argue that a dress code implies rules and that failing to respect the rules is failing to respect the dress code and, by extension, the host who has set it. Perhaps more importantly, many people in this camp would point out that the rules are there for a reason, and that following them gives you the best chance of looking smart, elegant and at-home in your outfit.
The other view is that clothing conventions do, and must, alter, and that getting overly hung up on 'rules' that are sixty years old is self-defeating. As long as one is dressed well, and appropriately for the occasion, details of collar, shirt, tie, lapel and waist-covering are of small importance.
My own view has always fallen much more in to the first category, and I take some effort to make sure that my own black tie outfit obeys the 'rules'. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if I am unfair to be as judgmental as I am of people like those at the awards who were breaking quite a number of the black tie rules. I have come to the conclusion that what I really object to is not so much that the rules are broken, but that people break them without any awareness that they are doing so, or caring very much. A wing-collared shirt with black tie is not the worst crime in the world, and indeed there was a period when it was perfectly acceptable, as white-tie accessories such as a wing collar were frequently worn with black tie. Yet I cringe whenever I see someone wearing a soft, limp, wing collared shirt with black tie because I am almost certain they have not made any conscious style decision, but have simply picked it because it seems at some level more formal than a turn-down collared shirt, and they know nothing of the difference between black tie and white tie.
A friend of mine insists on wearing an ordinary white shirt with his black tie. In my opinion, the visible buttons and single-layered fabric are too informal for black tie, but my friend knows the rule and breaks it deliberately. I think, indeed, because he likes the slightly louche, informal look of it. In all other respects, his outfit is perfect and, in fact, his bespoke double-breasted dinner jacket is far smarter than my own . He is not breaking the rules out of laziness, or lack of awareness, but out of a genuine style choice.
It is my suspicion of laziness that most frustrates me about people who get black tie 'wrong'. That they dress badly out of laziness is quite ironic given that wearing black tie that conforms perfectly to the rules is actually the laziest way possible to look great at a party. When I see a black tie dress code I know that I can wear an outfit I have worn many, many times before, with no thought whatsoever, and still look good in it. If I wanted to break the rules, I would need to put far more thought in to how to do this properly and still look good. It seems sad that people can be so lazy in how they wear black tie and still miss out on the opportunity to look the smartest most of us men will ever look.
I suppose my conclusion is that you can either be lazy, or you can break the rules, but you shouldn't do both.