Black tie: What does correct mean?
During comments on a recent posting, discussion of the use of the word ‘correct’ came up in reference to black tie. Unfortunately, that word has almost no firm meaning today in reference to menswear. Even with regards to black tie, which as an area where the dress code is specifically stated, you would assume would hold onto ideas of correctness. Have you followed the dress code or haven’t you?
Black tie can mean many things. Or rather, it means a range of things, some of them far more formal than others.
Correctness was a question of propriety. It depended on dress being so unsuitable for certain situations that it would be punished. If you are a Member of Parliament and turn up to the House of Commons in flip-flops and swimming trunks, you will be punished. But gone are the days when the Duke of Wellington can be refused entrance to a club because he was wearing trousers, not breeches. Even a traditional men’s club in London, which requires a neck tie for entry, will provide you with one rather than punish you in any way.
There is very little propriety and so very little that is not ‘correct’. It’s an easy word to use, as I have done myself on occasion, when what you mean is nothing so definite. Like saying rule when you mean tradition or guideline.
So, black tie. A white waistcoat is the most formal thing to wear underneath your jacket. Next down the list is a black waistcoat. Last is a cummerbund. If you’re not going to wear anything under your jacket, it makes sense to wear a soft-fronted, pleated shirt. A stiff-fronted shirt will leave space underneath it specifically to be covered by one of these items.
These are grades of correctness. But then, most men today would take their jacket off at some point anyway, which is beyond the pale for anyone that established these grades. What’s the point in anything on the front of your shirt if you take your jacket off?
A black single-breasted jacket is the most formal. Next down the order is a shawl-collar jacket. Next a double-breasted jacket (odd that it should be less formal, but then tails or a frock coat – obviously more formal – are open as well). Next a velvet jacket, not matching the trousers. And last is a smoking jacket.
These are more grades of correctness. To the men when these grades were established, some would only be worn for entertaining at home, some just for dining alone at home. But then, most men today would wear any single-breasted jacket with notch lapels. Which is absolutely beyond the pale. No black-tie jacket should have a notch collar.
So what’s the point in arguing over the propriety of a velvet jacket when no one’s got the collar correct?
Oops, did I say correct?