The Gowns Always Get All the Oscar Attention. It’s Time the Tux Got Its Due.

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Feb. 26 2014 11:52 PM

A Field Guide to Tuxedos

The gowns always get all the Oscar attention. It’s time to give menswear its due.

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Turning to the ideal shirt, the standard turndown collar is the default style now that the regal detachable wing collars of old are virtually extinct. The front of the shirt is double-layered like the collar and French cuffs so as to ensure a snow-white appearance. This formal bosom is tastefully decorated with subtle pleats or a piqué texture and closes with equally elegant studs.

To avoid buckling, the shirt’s bosom often stops short of the waistline. The remaining portion of the shirt’s front as well as the trousers’ waistband is therefore discreetly covered by a waistcoat or a cummerbund. The former features a uniquely low cut to align with the tuxedo jacket’s opening while the latter is constructed of fabric that matches its lapel facings. Both types of waist coverings are typically black to correspond with the rest of the suit. The choice of covering is purely arbitrary as a smart dresser will keep his jacket buttoned when standing so that it blends seamlessly with the trousers to emphasize his height.

The bow tie is also black and of the same material as the suit’s facings. It can be of various shapes but is always tied by hand for a personal touch.

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The shoes round out the outfit’s refined simplicity. Either pumps, loafers, or slim-soled laced shoes are fine provided that the toe of the latter is free of seams or decorations. Patent leather’s exclusivity to formalwear makes it an ideal choice but calfskin is also fine provided it is polished to a mirrorlike finish to complement the rest of the rig. Socks are ideally a luxurious silk or else a cotton lisle with a similarly swank sheen.

A white linen pocket square is a dapper but optional finishing touch.

The end result of this attention to detail is the stunning embodiment of a century of impeccable formal dressers spanning from Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy to Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra and James Bond. Note that embodiment is the key word here, not imitation. The modern-day matinée idol is very much open to modifying the golden rules of formalwear but ensures success by honoring a couple of crucial principles. First, he understands that “formal” is defined as the preservation of form. For this reason any transgression of conventional rules should be minimized in its quantity and visibility. Second, he seeks out variations that respect the time-honored refined understatement championed by his soigné predecessors. Recent examples of successful modifications include the fly-front shirt, the velvet jacket, and the velvet bow tie.

Now that we’ve defined the gold standard, let’s take a look at its most common deviations today and see how they hold up to this benchmark. As we go, keep in mind that these variations are just relative guidelines since real-life outfits often incorporate traits from multiple categories.

The Black Business Suit

Kevin Ryan
Actor Kevin Ryan at the 2013 Elton John AIDS Foundation's Oscar party.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Proving the old adage that quantity does not equal quality, this is the most common tuxedo interpretation seen on the red carpet today. It appeals to timid novices’ unfamiliarity with traditional formalwear by replacing its unique traits with pedestrian equivalents found in formal business attire.

The standard features of the pseudo-tuxedo are notched lapels and multiple jacket buttons. The former draw the eye down away from the face (the intended focal point of any good tuxedo) and often suggest stooped shoulders. The latter cause the coat to button higher on the chest thus reducing the amount of visible white shirt and thus the contrast found in the ideal ensemble.

On their own these features can have relatively minor impact on an outfit’s overall elegance, particularly when compensated for with a traditional bow tie and waistcoat. The problem is that admirers of this interpretation will sometimes try to compensate for its banality with a suit-style vest that only serves to conceal the decorated shirt-front even more

Worse still, the distinctive bow tie is frequently switched out for a long black tie. At this point the wardrobe has essentially been demoted to the level of undertaker attire.

The Frat House Formal

Matt Damon, George Clooney and Brad Pitt
Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt. Only Pitt is correctly covering his waist.

Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

The frat boy approach is predicated on getting through the dressing process as quickly as possible to maximize time spent at the open bar.

Particularly popular among pledges is the forfeiture of a cummerbund or waistcoat. The shirt’s undecorated waist and the trousers’ working waistband are thus left completely exposed when the jacket is worn wide open (as frat boys are inclined to do). Even with the coat buttoned up, simply outstretching one’s arms or reaching into one’s pants pockets exposes a glaring white patch of shirt navel that breaks up the striking verticality of the black suit. Think of it as the formal version of plumber’s crack.

A less common but equally lazy shortcut is to opt for ordinary dress shirts. In this case sophisticated studs are replaced by run-of-the-mill buttons and a pure white bosom gives way to a single-layer shirt front discolored by its translucence.

The Prom Rental

Matthew Lillard
Matthew Lillard at the 2012 Oscars.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Fans of prom wear are eager to dress properly but not yet sophisticated enough to view the tuxedo as anything more than a dressy Halloween costume. Consequently, said costume is poorly fitted and loaded with every clichéd novelty popularized in the 1980s: pleated shirts with flaccid attached wing collars, colored and/or patterned bow ties with cummerbunds or overly tall vests to match. White jackets are worn regardless of the season and are brightly bleached instead of the subtle cream or ivory that better complements most men’s complexions. It would never even dawn on the wearer to tie his own bow tie so he inevitably opts for the cookie-cutter uniformity of mass-produced pre-tied models.

This sartorial incarnation is relatively rare among style-conscious leading men and more likely to be seen at awards ceremonies for film technicians and professional athletes.

The Monochrome Mass

Christian Bale
Christian Bale onstage during the 2012 Academy Awards.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The least creative solution to appearing creative is the black-on-black ensemble. By stripping white out of the formal equation the outfit is robbed of its distinctive and striking contrast and reduced to a lifeless black monolithic swathe of fabric topped by a disembodied head.

The Couture Costume

Couture Costume
Pharrell, Usher after the 2014 Golden Globes; Russell Brand at the 2011 Oscars.

Photos by Getty Images

The evening wear favored by fashionistas is more concerned with incorporating or inventing new trends than honoring the timeless conventions that define true formalwear. These digressions can range from subtle to outlandish depending on the whims of the couture houses or the individual dresser. The crowd aping the latest GQ stylings can currently be identified by suits with such tight fits, narrow lapels, and low-slung waists that they could be reasonably mistaken for women’s attire.

The Maverick Misfit

Mickey Rourke
Mickey Rourke at the 2010 Golden Globe Awards.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The domain of misguided mavericks and smug smart-asses. Most often the tuxedo is left intact while one or more peripheral articles are swapped with sophomoric alternatives such running shoes, T-shirts, and even toques. Foregoing a necktie in favor of an unbuttoned shirt is another favorite trick. Sometimes the suit itself will be bastardized in the form of unorthodox cuts or colors.

Look to music awards ceremonies, more so than the Oscars, for abundant examples of these sartorial missteps.

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So there you have it: You’re now set to entertain/annoy your friends with your appreciation of the history and subtleties of men’s formalwear come Oscar night. Keep in mind though that this is not simply a field guide intended to help you spot the best and worst of men’s evening wear in the wild. It is also a practical primer for assembling a stellar outfit of your own should you find yourself an Oscar nominee or prom-night chaperone. Get it right and observers won’t need a reference manual to pick you out as the star attraction.

Peter Marshall is the creator of the formalwear primer the Black Tie Guide and its supplement the Black Tie Blog. He also lectures and consults on men’s evening wear.