One of my favourite moments in the peerless sitcom 30 Rock – and believe me, they are legion – occurs when Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, mystified at what she sees as his misplaced function-less formality, asks her boss, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy: “Why are you wearing a tuxedo?” “It’s after six,” shoots back Donaghy. “What am I, a farmer?”
I’m completely simpatico with this view. The tuxedo/dinner suit/smoking jacket is, in many ways, civilisation’s sartorial apogee, and, with party & holiday season practically upon us, it’s once again coming to the five-star formal fore; nothing says “rakishly debonair” or “I’m not about to muck out the cowsheds” like an impeccably-cut tux.
For such a timelessly elegant garment, the dinner suit as we know it has a comparatively recent history; the story goes that, in 1865, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, aka Bertie, asked his tailor and friend Henry Poole to cut a short celestial blue evening coat – a less fussy alternative to the long tail-coats that until then had been de rigeur – to be worn at informal dinners at Sandringham, and this was the blueprint for what became the DJ. Henry Poole’s customers also included the founding fathers of the Tuxedo Club, the legendary country club in New York State; they copied the Prince of Wales, and introduced the dinner jacket – which thus became known as the tuxedo – to New York society.
The key to today’s black-tie look should really be simplicity; black has the aesthetic edge for evening, not only imbuing the wearer with an aura of authority, but also creating a bold contrast with white shirts and accessories. Midnight blue is also a classic, coming to prominence in the 1930s due to its ability to retain its richness under artificial light, where a more reflective black fabric, particularly if it’s a bit older, can sometimes give off a greenish or greyish cast. It’s also livelier in daylight, although that’s admittedly less of a consideration at this time of the year.
Here at TE, we like a bit of Barathea – a subtle textured weave that steers clear of affectation while adding that extra flair – in our eveningwear wools and silks. The bespoke dinner suit we made for Ralph Fiennes to wear to Skyfall’s premiere last year is a case in point; his single-breasted one-button shawl-collar jacket in midnight blue was crafted from the finest super-100 barathea, with midnight blue grosgrain facings, covered buttons and jetted pockets. The U-shape “horseshoe” waistcoat, in a beautiful blue-black honeycomb silk, set up a nice interplay of elegant textures. The single-pleated trousers had a fishtail back and a midnight blue side-seam braid, and we teamed the suit with a cream poplin dinner shirt with Marcella bib front (I’m a bit of a stickler for studs), cufflinks made from semi-precious blue tiger-eye stones set in silver, and, to top it off, a self-tied midnight blue grosgrain bow tie (though, and I may be courting heresy by saying this, pre-tied alternatives are getting better all the time). That would be my own black-tie blueprint, with plenty of scope for individual variations: peak lapels rather than shawl collar; turn-back cuffs; etc.
As far as smoking jackets go, I’d point prospective customers in the direction of the brown velvet number we made for Permanent Style’s Simon Crompton a few years ago; large peaked lapels, grosgrain facings, sleeve detail, and jigger buttons with silk fastening – more than a touch of the Noel Cowards (I personally love an Yves Klein blue velvet too, not to get too Bobby Vinton about it). Of course, you can go as far out on a louche limb as you like – I’m loving the psychedelic prints that Jake & Dinos Chapman designed for Kim Jones’ evening wear at Louis Vuitton this season, and while we can’t promise you owls with exploding eyeballs, there are a myriad of cloths, textures and styles we can explore to get you into that after-six, barn-to-barnstorming, black-tie-primed mood.