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Black tie, white noise

Insider Engage filters out the noise around the classic black-tie look and offers some modern alternatives

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Realistically speaking, it will be some time before black-tie industry events return to our schedules. However, such a long time away from the traditional shindig means it’s a great opportunity to modernise your look.

There are several simple ways to bring more character and individuality to this classic outfit.

In recent years, black-tie has begun to relax with fewer men wearing pleated shirts, satin lining on trousers becoming rarer and cummerbunds now nearly non-existent. Even the “black” element of black-tie is now subject to change.

“Black is still a big seller, but we are seeing more people go for midnight blue and even navy blue,” says Reto Peter, co-founder and director at men’s tailor Edit Suits. “And we now and again see loud ones like purple or orange velvet jackets paired with a black trouser!”

Peter says that rather than a desire to look less traditional, the shift in tuxedo fashion is driven by a need to be more comfortable. Men shouldn’t be afraid of giving this more consideration.

“A very classic tuxedo has no backflap, which is kind of the old style and is uncomfortable to wear,” says Peter.

“So, we do a lot of side vent tuxedos because it leaves that back panel intact but affords more flexibility. It is important to feel comfortable in a tuxedo; it shouldn’t feel like a costume.”

For Rupert Wilson, director at etiquette consultancy Debretts, modernising a black-tie look can be as simple as incorporating a few slight tweaks – but given the traditional nature of many black-tie events, he advises caution.

“Context is key!” says Wilson. “The more formal the event, the more traditional the style of dress. The more glitz and glamour, the more latitude there is likely to be. An official dinner would be more formal than a party or awards ceremony.

“The great thing about black-tie is that it is timeless, but you can adapt it with a splash of colour here and there. Socks, bow tie, braces and pocket square are the most common items to be injected with a little pizazz. A shirt with studs (black or pearl) looks great too.”

It may be increasingly common for wearers to adjust their black-tie wardrobe, but this is not to say total experimentation should be advised. This is the view of Adrian Barrows, founder of The Bespoke Tailor, who has been fitting tuxedos for 26 years.

“There’s nothing more formal in a man’s wardrobe, and it’s ultimately a uniform. You shouldn’t really deviate from the rules,” says Adrian. “However, tailoring is all about evolution and things will always move forward.

“The one thing you cannot change is wearing black shoes or wearing a [white] shirt. In black-tie there’s quite a few ‘don’ts’ and if you went to certain events or establishments you would be asked to leave because dress codes can still be quite strict.”

Likewise, Peter says the bow tie itself should be respected and advises against men choosing the black-necktie-with-a-tuxedo look.

“Personally, I think a bow tie with a tuxedo is a nice thing, whereas a neck tie is a very different look and can almost take it down a notch,” he says. “Don’t underdress; you don’t want to stand out negatively or feel awkward.”

Wilson also advises against following this more US fashion statement: “This is a little funereal in appearance and would not be observing the spirit of the dress code. It could risk you being seen as thinking you were above your fellow guests.”

Beyond ballgowns

Of course, the black-tie conundrum is often more tricky for women. But, as Jill White – founder of made-to-measure womenswear brand Distinctively Me – explains, it’s time to move on from the days of buying a new outfit for every big event.

“The fact that black-tie is quite a broad term is great because it means it’s not restricted to cocktail dresses,” says Jill. “The choice is yours and for 2021 I think women will be looking for something that they can wear in multiple ways. The ‘buy less, buy better’ message is only getting louder, so wear something that you can wear forever.”

Therefore, White sees the suit as the “real style hero” for women in 2021. Made to fit, the right suit can allow the perfect transition from the workplace to a black-tie event seamlessly.

Personalised, stylish details can be added to help “stand out from the crowd”, she adds. “Detailing on the hem of the trouser or leather on the collar of the jacket can make all the difference to the overall look.”

White adds: “Black-tie doesn’t mean black, so don’t be afraid of colour or mixing up the textures. A hot pink dress can look fantastic to make it really stand out. But if a bright [colour] is out of the question, opt for a rich velvet in plum or navy.

“Dresses can be any length but right now, a mid-length dress is the ultimate in style and elegance. A beautiful silk blouse with a chiffon puff sleeve can look stunning teamed with a silk palazzo trouser, and these are pieces that can be dressed down for daywear.”

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