The Style-o-fax: how to wear mens formal wear

3 Posted by - January 23, 2014 - All, Fashion

Morning dress. White tie. Black tie optional. Mens formal wear encompasses a myriad of style conundrums, not least of which is often interpreting what dress codes actually mean. Nail that and you’re then onto the potential minefield of accessories, shirt choice, footwear options… formal wear may be one of the mainstays of every man’s wardrobe but it sure can throw up a barrage of bafflement.

Mens formal wear

In truth, mens formal wear has changed very little over time; subtle evolutions are of note, certainly, but the basics remain the same as ever. Stay true to them and you can’t go far wrong. Traditionally, there were very specific differentiations between events which called for black or white tie, morning dress or morning suit. Nowadays, definitions are far more ambiguous, standards much looser. Whilst it is undeniable that most modern men will have only of a handful of occasions throughout life which call for evening wear, should a dress code be suggested there is simply no excuse not to take note. Hell, if your host is so kind as to offer up some helpful guidelines to ensure you feel at ease, not taking heed is nothing other than poor form. So, dear Gentlemen- buckle up and let us guide you through the baffling world of mens formal wear, from dress codes to accessory guidelines…

Mens dress code guide: Evening formal wear

Black Tie

When to wear black tie: formal evening events

What to wear: black tie = tuxedo. No exceptions. Opt for a classic black tuxedo and accompaniments for the most elegant look: a black dinner jacket and matching seamed trousers, a black formal waistcoat or cummerbund, a white shirt, a black bow tie or long black tie, black dress socks and black formal shoes.

Style notes: Traditional tuxedos are black however midnight blue can offer up an acceptable alternative which is less harsh. Whilst wool is often the fabric of choice, a mohair blend will play on the light and offer up a luminescence which is elusive of a flat wool. On the topic of lapels, despite many differing possibilities, there is only one true ideal- the peaked lapel. Whilst many factory made styles feature notched lapels these are not correct for black tie and should be avoided if possible, states Alfred Dunhill’s tailor Ben Allen. Shawl lapels have had their time in the sun and should also be given a wide berth- Sean Connery you are not.

Craving elegance? A double breasted style can often offer up an extra dash of panache, but requires some serious consideration; invariably warmer than single breasted styles, it must be worn buttoned at all times. Under 6 foot? Don’t even consider it. If you do opt for this style, however, be sure to select a contemporary cut which is neat in the body and relatively short- look to US designer Thom Browne for inspiration and leave any Prince of Wales connotations at home.

Trousers must always match your jacket and should not feature turn-ups. For black tie dressing, a single braid running down the side seam is correct- this should match your jacket lapels and is commonly found to be either satin or grosgrain, with the latter often considered most elegant.

To navigate the minefield of accessorising safely, keep it classic. A single breasted suit is traditionally worn with a black cummerbund, or for a more modern look a formal black waistcoat. Double breasted jackets do not require anything other than a well cut shirt underneath. The collar of the shirt should ideally be turndown; wing collars are unflattering and should be reserved for white tie dress. Throw a white silk pocket square and well shined patent leather shoes into the mix and you’re good to go.

Black Tie optional

When to wear black tie optional: semi-formal evening events

What to wear: for safety, stick to your trusty tux. Brave enough to read between the lines? A suit should just about see you through, as long as it’s dark in colour and sharply accessorised.

Style notes: Opting for the suiting option? Keep your shirt simple and use accessories to add some personality. Menswear accessory guru Pete Skibinski has these words of wisdom: “in the age of eclecticism and choice, be sure not to overdo accessories. If one accessory is flashy or in stark contrast to the colour or texture of the suit, never pair it with another flashy accessory. Steer well clear of a matching pocket square and tie combo; instead look for similar tones in a multi-coloured, patterned pocket square which compliment a single colour tie- or vice versa.”


When to wear cocktail: trendy evening events

What to wear: a dark suit and a splash of creativity. Articulate your personality through quirky or unexpected accessories; be that a bright pocket square or elaborate footwear.

Style notes: The one occasion when you can really let your style run wild. Look to Tinie Tempah for inspiration- eternally stylish yet utterly unique.

White Tie

When to wear white tie: the most illustrious of social occasions

What to wear: white tie comprises an evening tailcoat with matching seamed trousers, a white pique waistcoat, high wing collar shirt, white bow tie, black dress socks and black formal shoes.

Style notes: originating as the most formal type of civilian apparel, white tie is the most exclusive of formal wear. Whilst certain designers will attempt to alter the style’s specifications from time to time, there really is very little alternative to the traditional look. Always in black or midinght blue, jackets are always double breasted- but not intended to close (yes, an exception to the rule…). Lapels should be peaked and trousers should feature a double side seam braid, without turn-ups. The waistcoat can be single or double breasted but should ideally be low cut and backless.

Black tie mens formal wear

GQ black tie mens formal wear

GQ mens formal wear

Day Formal Wear

Morning Dress

When to wear morning dress: formal affairs held in the morning or afternoon. Worn by wedding parties at formal church weddings.

What to wear: traditional morning dress consists of a black or charcoal morning coat, striped trousers, a light gray or creamy yellow waistcoat, shirt, four in hand tie and black lace-ups.

Style notes: morning coats can be cut from from flannel or worsted wool, with a herringbone pattern if a splash of interest is desired. They should be single breasted with either a single button or link closure and peaked lapels. For the most formal of events, trousers should be black striped dark gray; otherwise, gray houndstooth or herringbone will be more than sufficient. Waistcoats can be either single or double breasted and shirts can be coloured if so wished; we recommend light pink or blue. Cufflinks offer room for eclecticism, whilst a pocket watch and chain is the most traditional of accessories.

Morning suit

When to wear a morning suit: Summer weddings, races

What to wear: a black or grey tailcoat with matching trousers and double breasted waistcoat, shirt, long grey tie, black dress socks and formal shoes.

Style notes: the morning suit differs from morning dress in that all components match, yet similarly leaves little scope for interpretation. A sense of personality can be brought to the affair with accessories, however- stick with classic colours and focus on pattern or texture to add interest.

Mens formal wear morning dress

To clear things up… some common confusions demystified

Do men really still wear cummerbunds?

On occasion, yes; however the style is undeniably becoming irrelevant. Traditionally worn under a dinner jacket to conceal the waistband, the accessory is slowly being rendered redundant as we become accustomed to the sight of an exposed waistband. Should you wish to stay true to tradition, ensure you wear your cummerbund with the pleats facing up the way; this harks back to yesteryear when menfolk would utilise their cummerbunds to store theatre tickets. Seeking a younger, more stylish look which is equally formal? Opt for a horseshoe shaped, double breasted waistcoat.

Do I have to wear a bow tie with my tux?

Not necessarily, but without it there is often little to seperate such a look from any other black suit. A long black tie can add a modern twist to a formal look but it’s worth bearing in mind that nothing says laid back, suave insouciance like an undone bow tie. In a rush? Opt for pre-ties and make it to the church on time…

What footwear should I opt for?

Tradition suggests either black or patent leather. Comfort dictates black. Ensure they are a simple capped toe style and polished to a shine you could see your face in.

Cufflinks advice?

Keep it classic in silver or stainless steel or add a splash of panache in a patterned or colourful pair. The simplest way to jazz up formal wear, cufflinks are a great way to help you stand out from the crowd without letting the side down. Use cleverly.

Pocket squares- classic or colourful?

Traditionalist? Plump for dark blue or gray and don’t overfold. If you’re feeling brave pocket squares ate a perfect way to inject a splash of colur into your look; but do so with care, please.

What style of watch is best to team with formal wear?

Formal events call for subtle watches- no exceptions. Pack away the bling and break out the leather; to keep things sporty and masculine, go for a square face.

Should I carry a wallet?

Fellas, a plea: leave the phone at home. Nothing screams unsophistication like an overstuffed pocket and its not-so-subtle vibrations. The only true essentials for the most illustrious of occasions are sheets, ID and an invitation- all of which can be neatly nestled inside a slick money clip. Job done.

Which tie styles look best with formalwear?

Go garish and you may as well go home immediately. The slickest looks ruminate around a solid black, silver or blue tie in a muted tone. Dying to stand out from the crowd? Throw some pattern or stripes into the mix if you must…

Black tie mens formal wear shoot

Black tie mens formal wear shoot

Suiting 101



How should a suit fit?



Ideally, suits should be cut like a second skin and show no signs of stretching or pulling. Other pointers to look out for are:

  • the jacket should be as wide, but no wider, than your shoulders
  • the collar should sit flat against your shirt collar
  • the back should fall in a fairly straight line from the shoulder blades
  • the armpits should be fairly neat
  • the buttoning point should match your belly button
  • there will be enough shape to create a waist
  • the jacket should close around the waist without any tightness




How long should suit trousers be?



Currently, fashion dictates that trousers should fall anywhere between the shin bone and the top of the shoe. The former is a tricky look to ace; if feeling brave, be sure to combine perfectly tapered trousers with exquisite socks. If opting for the more traditional length, hems should hit the top of the shoe and have a maximum of one break in the fabric.




Trouser basics



No turn-ups! Pleated styles are often considered traditional but a more modern look is the flat front. The current zeitgeist style is fairly slim with a single side braid for black tie and a double braid for white tie or tails. And remember- perfectly cut trews require no belt loops.




Can I go tie-less?



Occasion dependent and definitely worth considering the repercussions of such a choice at a super swanky event. If you must, be sure your collar stands up. If you find a tie uncomfortable, re-consider your collar size. Other than that- suck it up.




Why are there so many short jackets available at the moment?



Two words, dear gentlemen: Thom Browne. Love him or loathe him, the US designer has had an undeniable impact upon formal mens wear of late. If you have a keen interest in fashion, dive right in and shorten those jackets- just ensure you stay on the “fashionable” side of the fence and steer well clear of “overgrown schoolboy”.




Can I wear velvet?



Absolutely- but best not head to toe. See Matthew McConaughey for a great example.




Can I mix colours?



According to Pete Skibinski- yes. “Black and navy are a great combination for formal mens wear. I’d suggest a midnight blue velvet blazer paired with a black satin bow tie- simple and classic.”


Top mens formal wear brands

There is a reason the menswear collections show in London, Florence, Milan and Paris: Italians know their tailoring, and quality tailoring makes for a top notch menswear wardrobe. Take note. For the ultimate inspiration look to milanese designer Massimo Piombo. If you can afford it, Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and Tom Ford cut the best. For middle of the range, look to the likes of Ted Baker, Kenneth Cole and T. M. Lewin. Reiss are always a safe bet and high street names such as Topman and Burton are really upping their game in the tailoring stakes.


Bloggers who nail the look

He Spoke Style offers up the perfect combination of formal and day wear, What Ali Wore provides an entertaining take on the classics and Dapper Lou perfectly combines cutting edge styles with traditional classics. Put This On is the go-to for grown-up dressing whilst I Am Galla and Jan Marcel do modern, good looking menswear superbly.

He Spoke Style mens formal wear

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