Aside from members of royal families, most men are completely perplexed by tuxedos. It’s one of those pieces that you learn about almost entirely from movies, both the good (James Bond) and the bad (Dumb and Dumber’s Lloyd and Harry). Then there is usually an awkward first encounter in high school at a formal dance where you end up looking nothing like what you’d pictured in your head. Then the tux becomes something you have to wear at some function as an adult. By that time, the die is usually cast and men have a negative association with black tie that is tough to reverse.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. A lot of the suspicion surrounding black tie stems from unfamiliarity. You wear sneakers all the time, so it’s easy to know what works with your personal style. Since there are fewer occasions to don black tie (a point we’ll touch on later), it’s harder to develop that same sensibility. But the fact remains (even in our “post-truth” world) that men look terrific in a tux. And the more black tie is demystified, the more comfortable guys can be with it.
Brice Pattison is just the man to challenge traditional assumptions around black tie. Pattison is the fashion director and one of the founders of The Black Tux, a startup that upended the old ways of renting a tuxedo. Gone are the days of ill-fitting, poor quality suits that were never in style. In their place are tuxes that a man feels proud to wear and a user experience rivaling Amazon Prime for its ease and simplicity. Pattison understands what makes traditional black tie attire work as well as ways that it can be improved upon.
“Think of a black tie invitation as an opportunity to have fun. Jacket, bow tie, and shoes are ripe for playful interpretation,” he says. “As long as you have the scaffolding of a black tie look—the hallmarks that differentiate true formalwear from just wearing a suit, like taped seams on the pants or a bibbed shirt—you can bend the rules around it.”
The key is to not go overboard. The “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage still applies to black tie. So it’s important that you pick your spots. Says Pattison, “Don’t do ALL the “creative” things. Pick one, and keep the rest classic. And always tie your own bow tie.”
Aside from that advice, here are Pattison’s other rules for wearing black tie in a modern way.
1. BLACK TIE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE BLACK
Counterintuitive as it may seem, even the color of a tuxedo is up for reinterpretation. As Pattison notes, “this goes for the tie itself—color and texture are easy wins here—but also to the jacket.” Instead of a plain black jacket, try a pattern such as a tartan plaid or pin dots that add a level of distinction. For something bolder, don a white jacket, if it’s between Memorial Day and Labor Day. To switch things up from the traditional white pleated shirt, try a light blue or light pink. “It’s an advanced maneuver but totally doable if the rest remains classic,” says Pattison.
2. YOU DON’T NEED AN “EVENT” TO WEAR BLACK TIE
“A tuxedo would look absurd in the boardroom or at your niece’s birthday party,” says Pattison, but there are still plenty of other occasions other than a fancy wedding where black tie looks perfectly appropriate. “Any nighttime event that calls for festivity is formalwear fodder. Make America fancy again.”
3. GET CREATIVE WITH FOOTWEAR
Patent leather lace-ups or loafers used to be the shoe of choice to accompany a tuxedo. Now it’s a much more diverse playing field. Even the most staid and conservative approach to black tie is nicely accentuated with a fun choice of footwear. Velvet slippers from the likes of Stubbs and Wootton come in a variety of colors, almost all of which pair well with a black-and-white tux. Even sneakers can work, provided they’re the right ones. A crisp pair of minimal sneakers (heavy emphasis on the “crisp,” a black tie event is not a time for scuffed beaters) from Common Projects or Vans keep a tux from being too stuffy. While shoes are an excellent place for personal expression, Pattison cautions against doing the same with hosiery. “Stay away from crazy socks, that’s the lazy man’s answer to creative black tie.”
4. LET THE PANTS MAKE A STATEMENT
A tuxedo is traditionally worn as a suit, with matching jacket and pants. But the same way that men are increasingly breaking up their suits into separates, so too should they with tuxedos. Pairing a black tux jacket with pants that have some color or a pattern to them is like the sartorial and more classy cousin of the mullet, “business up top, party down below.”
5. HARNESS FLOWER POWER
Remember how awkward it was when your date tried to pin a flower on you at prom, pricking your upper chest repeatedly only to leave it dangling at an awkward angle? Well, the attachment process may be less painful, but rocking a flower is still a “boss move,” according to Pattison. No need to get some complicated bouquet, a simple white or red carnation will do the trick.
6. PLAY BY THE RULES
“Sometimes the best way to stand out in a sea of people trying to stand out is to return to the fundamentals,” says Pattison. While there are plenty of ways to tweak a traditional tux, the classic formula is still tough to beat and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.