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Sartorial Musings: Decoding the Dress Code for gentlemen

With practical recommendations for hosts and guests.
by Peter Chong on May 23, 2016

 

Dress codes. They are confusing. Or are they? Are we just complacent, and don’t bother to comply to the host’s wishes as expressed in the dress code, or are we just ignorant? In this article, we explore the original definitions of the four main types of dress code, and propose an adaptation for warm climates like Singapore.

Menswear follows an English tradition. The classical men’s suit can be traced to either the equestrian origins or from the military. The history of how the gentleman’s suit evolved is beyond the scope of this article, and we will come back to explore that in another article later.

By definition, there are four main standards for dress code, viz Formal, Semi-Formal, Informal and Casual. We examine each in turn.

 

The Dress Code trap

 

When the invitation says Dress Code: Formal, what does  it mean? When it says Smart Casual, does one turn up in a t-shirt and bermudas? Decoding the dress code is a minefield of traps. It does not help that the origins of these traditions hark from the heyday of the Gentleman’s Elegance Era of the 1920s to 1930s. In those days, the clothes were worn in unheated rooms in England. Would there be alternatives in our current air-conditioned environments?

If we want to be traditional, and elegant, what can we do? Here we explore the definitions, and make some suggestions.

 

Formal

 

For day time, this should be a Morning Suit. The Morning Suit is a special suit, where the coat is a cutaway from the long frock coat of former days. Typically the coat is single breasted, in black or very dark grey and worn with a lighter grey, or buff colored waistcoat and striped trousers. An all grey ensemble is considered less formal, but acceptable as well. Traditionally the morning suit is worn with a formal hat, like the Homburg, but these days, the hat is often dispensed with. Shoes are formal, and should be closed laced. Oxfords with cap toes are the standard. No brogues, or double soled country shoes. Boots, if closed laced either plain toe or cap toe may be worn as well. Brown may be worn these days.

Avoid the frilly shirts, and messy swirls of cloth masquerading as cravats that many wedding consultants tend to recommend for shoots. But instead, stay with the traditional and classical. Take the example from the Royals, who for centuries have been the caretakers of the gentleman’s tradition.

 

Prince William, Prince Harry in their morning suits with Kate Middleton. Photograph was before the Royal Wedding. Both William and Harry were wearing proper Morning suits. Note the dark grey coat, and striped trousers. They can play with the color of the waistcoats. The Royals have dispensed with their silk top hats, and this is a cue that this is now acceptable.Note that at all times, the left breast pocket should carry a pocket square. Additionally, a flower may be carried on the boutonnière on the left lapel.

Prince William, Prince Harry in their morning suits with Kate Middleton. Photograph was before the Royal Wedding. Both William and Harry were wearing proper Morning suits. Note the dark grey coat, and striped trousers. They can play with the color of the waistcoats. The Royals have dispensed with their silk top hats, and this is a cue that this is now acceptable.Note that at all times, the left breast pocket should carry a pocket square. Additionally, a flower may be carried on the boutonnière on the left lapel.

 

Other than an audience with royalty, very formal weddings, or to attend the Royal Ascot, the Morning Suit is not normally required.

For the evening, the prescription is also known as the White Tie. The coat is a cutaway single breasted with tails. A black matching trousers is worn with two stripes down the outside of each leg, with no cuffs. A white waistcoat, which may be single breasted or double breasted is worn. And a white starched shirt with a white bow tie (no options for other color…that is why its called White Tie) is worn. It is important for the coat to fit well, as it is cut such that it cannot be buttoned, and remains open to display the waist coat and shirt front. A well cut coat should also just cover the waistcoat bottom, and it is incorrect to have the waistcoat peeking out from under the tailcoat.

Traditionally a silk top hat accompanies the ensemble. Shoes should be patent leather oxfords or bow slippers.

 

Jack Buchanan and Fred Astaire wearing the classical white tie. This photograph was taken in 1953.

Jack Buchanan and Fred Astaire wearing the classical white tie. This photograph was taken in 1953.

 

Full National Dress or a Military Uniform (No.1 Dress) for military personnel is also always acceptable. Medals may be worn on military uniform if it is earned by the wearer.

White Tie events are also becoming extremely rare. We have seen it being prescribed if one is to receive one’s Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden. Or typically on musicians in an orchestra. But the practice of dressing up for dinner in a White Tie is now mostly defunct.

 

Semi-Formal

 

The original definition for semi-formal is specified for daily wear in work which does not require a special uniform. Back in the day, this meant that this was the standard wear in an office for business or government.

In the Victorian and Edwardian era, the traditional Frock Coat was the semi-formal dress. This was a consisted of long coat which can be single or double breasted,  a waistcoat and a starched shirt with a stiff collar. It can be worn with a bow tie, or with a regular long tie. And accompanied by a silk top hat.

 

Heads of government wore frock coats at the formal signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Heads of government wore frock coats at the formal signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

 

The stroller replaced the Frock Coat as the semi-formal standard. The coat may be double breasted in oxford grey (very dark grey) or single breasted, peak lapel. If single breasted, a waist coat should be worn. A pair of trousers which is not matching the coat is worn. The trousers should have no cuffs, and may be striped, plain lighter grey or checked. Houndstooth is a rather handsome alternative.

 

The gentleman shown wears a vintage stroller. This photograph is taken from an article by Gentleman's Gazette, and shows the oxford grey (almost black) coat, striped trousers, double breasted waistcoat.

The gentleman shown wears a vintage stroller. This photograph is taken from an article by Gentleman’s Gazette, and shows the oxford grey (almost black) single breasted coat, striped trousers, double breasted waistcoat. In this example the trousers are a bit too long, as seen by the generous break in the front crease. Note the perfect amount of shirt showing under the coat cuffs.

 

Here, as with the Morning Formal, we see that the non-matching coat and trousers are seen as more formal. The matching coat and trousers for a regular suit is considered informal. The stroller and daytime semi formal is not common these days, and usually dispensed with. And is replaced with the regular lounge suit.

For evening, the prescription (we don’t use this word lightly, it is a prescription, and one is obligated to follow the prescription fully, no variations) is Black Tie. This typically comprise of a coat and trousers cut from the same material. The trousers should have one single row of braid on each outside trouser leg, and no cuffs. If the coat is double breasted, one may dispense of a waistcoat or cummerbund. But if the coat is single breasted, a waist covering of some form is mandatory. A waist coat or cummerbund in grosssgrain or the same cloth as the coat is essential. The coat may have peaked lapels for both single or double breasted. A shawl lapel may be worn for single breasted coats. Black, oxford grey or midnight blue are the only permissible colors for the ensemble, with the exception that white may be used for the coat in warm climates or during summer. Shoes may either be patent oxfords, pumps or black, plain oxfords in calf. A black bow tie is mandatory. No long ties of any sort is allowed.

 

After several failed attempts, POTUS Barack Obama shows up for the official dinner with Chinese president Xi Jinping in a proper black tie. SOURCE: NBC News | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty

After several failed attempts, POTUS Barack Obama shows up for the official dinner with Chinese president Xi Jinping in a proper black tie.SOURCE: NBC News | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty

 

And black is the only color permissible for the bow tie…that’s why the ensemble is called black tie. There is no room in the prescription for alternatives, like those we sometimes see in Hollywood events like the Academy Awards, where Creative Black Tie is an abomination of the Black Tie prescription.

 

Prince William attends the premiere of the Bond movie "Quantum of Solace", immaculately attired in a double breasted coat in Black Tie.

Prince William attends the premiere of the Bond movie “Quantum of Solace”, immaculately attired in a double breasted coat in Black Tie. We note that he is in non-regulation shoes. A Penny loafer is not correct. He should have been wearing a patent leather pumps with a grossgrain bow if he wanted to wear a loafer.

 

The is no room for variation because the intent of formal clothing for men, is for all men to look similar, so the ladies may shine in their glorious gowns. In military dress, a Mess Tunic for evening may be worn. Medals may be worn if they have been earned.

For events which specify Black Tie, we recommend our readers to take the prescription seriously, and attend in a proper Black Tie ensemble. More useful information can be found at this excellent site: The Black Tie Guide.

For hosts who want their guests to be attired in a Black Tie, please specify “Dress Code: Black Tie” on the invitation.

 

Informal

 

Informal dress code means a Lounge Suit for the gentlemen. The suit may be single breasted or double breasted. And may be worn with or without a waistcoat. Typically the suit will comprise of either coat and trousers or coat, waistcoat and trousers. All these components should be cut from the same cloth. Shoes may be open laced or closed laced, but the gentlemen is advised to wear single sole shoes, as the bulk of the double or triple welted soles are too bulky and will spoil the elegance of the ensemble. Black or brown are acceptable colors, though the traditional advice is no browns in town, or after 6pm. This is often relaxed these days. Also brown shoes are more interesting sartorially.

 

Our friend Jeff Chua showing a beautifully cut single breasted suit in grey. Note though the tie and pocket square are similar in hue, they do not match. Note also the beautiful patina on the brown shoes.

Our friend Jeff Chua showing a beautifully cut single breasted suit in grey. Note though the tie and pocket square are similar in hue, they do not match. Note also the beautiful patina on the brown shoes.

 

A long tie in silk, which may be woven or printed is worn. And a gentleman never removes his coat. This is because the shirt is considered underwear (it is a garment which touches the skin), and not to be fully exposed. To be in your shirtsleeves is a often used as a signal to dispense with formality and get down to work. This imagery is often exploited by politicians in an effort to identify with the voters to gain trust and familiarity.

 

Colin Firth as Gallahad in the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, wearing a double breasted suit, standing in front of Savile Row, the mecca of men's tailoring.

Colin Firth as Gallahad in the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, wearing a double breasted suit, standing in front of Savile Row, the mecca of men’s tailoring.

 

If a double breasted coat is worn, it should always be buttoned. If a single breasted coat is worn without a waistcoat, it should also always be buttoned. But if a waistcoat is worn, the wearer may have the option to unbutton his coat.

Both day and evening wear are the same, though darker colors are more sober. Traditional colors are grey and navy blue. Stripes, windowpanes and discrete patterns may be worn.

Our recommendation for hosts is to be specific, and write in the invitation: “Dress Code: Lounge Suit”.

For our readers, our advice is to be so attired when the Dress Code says “Lounge Suit” or “Formal” or “Business Formal”.

 

Casual

 

Casual dress means a coat, long sleeved shirt, and no tie or a knit tie.

 

Roger Moore as a character impersonating James Bond in the movie Cannonball Run. He demonstrates casual with style. Navy Blue blazer with metal buttons, beige grey trousers and open collar shirt. And with pocket square.

Roger Moore as a character impersonating James Bond in the movie Cannonball Run. He demonstrates casual with style. Navy Blue blazer with metal buttons, beige grey trousers and open collar shirt. And with pocket square.

 

And George Clooney oozes with class. Simple plain white shirt, dark blazer. Casual elegance.

And George Clooney oozes with class in this still taken from a Nespresso commercial. Simple plain white shirt, dark blazer. He forgets the pocket square, but he then is George Clooney, so he looks elegant anyway.

 

For hosts, we recommend you specify “Dress Code: Smart Casual”. There is no need to specify any dress code if you wish for your guests to be more casually attired.

For our readers, we recommend this is the minimum you would wear to attend any event, regardless of dress code. Unless its a pajama party, or some other creative Dress Codes.

 

Some further thoughts

We hope we have covered the definitions, and made our recommendations for hosts as well as guests on how they should be attired for an event. We have tried to simplify the maze. For this day and age, it is unusual to require guests to turn up in Morning Suits, White Tie, or Strollers. We sometimes see Black Tie which have become somewhat evening formal, though we know from the definition above, it is not. Black Tie is evening semi-formal. If you attend an event where the invitation says Black Tie, please follow the prescription.

The lounge suit has become ubiquitous, and is almost always suitable. One can always turn up in a lounge suit (with tie), and if the occasion turns out to less formal, take off the tie, and the ensemble turns into a smart casual outfit.

 

 

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