Tying up your black tie

Magdalen Christie 29 May 2015

Black tie gets a bad rap. It’s elitist, stuffy, uncomfortable, boring, unbearably Cambridge and so on and so forth ad nauseam. White tie gets a worse one. It’s like someone took all the bad qualities of dinner jackets and cranked them up to 11. White-tie balls are a paradigmatic example of a Bad Cambridge Tradition.

I could try to persuade you that black tie and white tie are the fantastic dress codes that they are and that there’s really nothing wrong with having them as dress codes for our balls. Alternatively, I could spend a few hundred words ranting about the standards of black tie usually seen at May Balls and the undeniable inferiority of the notch lapel for evening clothes. But honestly, I think I might end up butting my head into a brick wall with either of these. Instead of trying to convince the sceptics or win approving nods from fellow sartorial reactionaries, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on how to ameliorate the black tie experience, starting with your earliest preparations and leading all the way up to the big night. I’ll be talking about black tie, but the ideas will generally translate to white tie perfectly straightforwardly. If you like the idea of black tie, maybe some of this can make it even better for you.

First, buy a shirt that fits. The feeling that ties are restricting or uncomfortable stems primarily from too-tight shirt collars. Get an idea of your neck size and make sure above all that your shirt has a collar in this size. While we’re on the subject, a black-tie shirt does not need a wing collar. An ordinary turndown collar is in fact more appropriate. A white-tie shirt, on the other hand, does.

Next, make sure your dinner suit fits comfortably. Don’t get one that’s too tight or swamps you. There’s no need to visit Savile Row, but don’t just grab the first rental you see and expect it to do. You’ll likely be wearing it all night, and jackets and trousers really needn’t be uncomfortable.

Buy and learn to tie a proper black bow tie. Pre-tied bow ties just reinforce the idea in your own mind that you’re wearing a costume and look ridiculous, and if you’re going to get the most out of this it’s vital that you don’t feel either of those things. It really doesn’t take very long to learn how to tie a bow tie; go on YouTube and give it a go. Practise a couple of times before you need to put it on in earnest, and if you can’t get the hang of the shape of the knot try doing it around your thigh. I’m more than happy to try to teach anyone who wants a lesson from a live human being. Buy an adjustable tie and adjust it to your neck size, but don’t be afraid to move up or down a quarter of an inch or so if it’s not quite right.

On the night of whatever it is, it’s important that you don’t just try to throw it all on in five minutes and get flustered, or else spend the entire time you’re getting dressed feeling angry about the fact that you have to wear this. If you put on your dinner jacket hating the experience all you’re going to do is put yourself in a bad mood, and that’s hardly a good move before a party. Put on some music that you enjoy and give yourself plenty of time so you’re not getting stressed. Personally, I like to have a small glass of whiskey, but I’m not sure that I’m allowed to suggest explicitly that you drink alcohol as a solution to your problems so I’ll just offer that fact without comment.

The reasoning behind what I’ve said is essentially as follows. The first issue is often comfort. Once that’s out of the way, the problems with black tie are essentially psychological, and can be broken down into ‘I look ridiculous’ and ‘I’m giving in to insert-negative-stereotype-here’. I don’t know that I could produce a piece on the dinner jacket’s egalitarian credentials good enough to convince someone who was determined to hate the concept, so I’ve focused on looking as good as possible in your black tie as a first step to feeling as good as possible about it. Once you’re physically and mentally comfortable, you can forget about the fact that you’re wearing black tie and just relax and enjoy yourself.

And if that’s not the point of a party, I don’t know what is.