Although a lot of people (me included, to a certain extent) will get very wound up about getting black tie 'right' or 'wrong', one of the nice things about it is actually how flexible it is. Unlike more formal dress codes like morning dress or white tie, it's possible to have a table-full of people at a dinner party all wearing 'correct' black tie, and all looking broadly uniform, but actually all dressed quite differently. Pleated shirts or marcella, with studs or fly fronts. Double breasted or single breasted jackets with peaked or shawl collars. All are acceptable, and all look great in their own ways.
I thought I would make this week the first of what I hope will be a small number of 'feature weeks' and cover black tie in a bit of detail. My hope is that by the end of the week I will also have my new dinner jacket back from Cad and the Dandy (I had another fitting yesterday, but it needs a few small adjustments) so I can conclude the week by finishing my review of that.
The best way to start seems to be by defining black tie. This is best done not through listing precisely what must be worn, but by considering the purpose of black tie. Foremost it is, paradoxically for people who are used to only wearing it to award ceremonies and weddings, an informal dress code. Originally acceptable only in male company, in a private home or members club, it is designed to be a more relaxed and comfortable version of white tie. This leads to soft shirts, turn-down collars and more relaxed jackets. The jackets themselves, as mentioned, come in varying styles. Some are obviously similar to a white tie tail-coat, while others are much closer to the smoking jacket which might originally have been worn with black tie in a gentleman's home. Regardless, they are distinguished from a mere suit jacket by means of less common collar and lapel formats, by the silk facings, and by being made from evening-appropriate black or midnight blue wool. The bow tie matches the silk facings, for reasons of style and formality and, again, to distinguish the whole ensemble from more colourful daytime wear.
As long as these essential guidelines are understood, it is possible to experiment a great deal with black tie, and come up with an outfit that is personal to your taste but still acceptable at any event you should go to. This sort of experimentation is far more stylish, and far more interesting, that making do with the lowest-common-denominator black tie suits worn without thought by too many men. Hopefully, the next few articles will help give some understanding and inspiration to make changes to your dinner suits.