Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

How To Be Lovely: Eveningwear I

Penned upon the 21st of February, 2007

A guide to men’s clothes, exploring their artistic facet, their historic, their practical; of interest to gentlemen who wear clothes and women who wear gentlemen’s clothes (a commendable practice.) Those seeking how to tie a bow-tie, whether wide or narrow lapels currently grace the magazines, or which combination of shirt and shoes will avoid attention at a company lunch, already have many avenues available to them. How To Be Lovely will instead address clothing first at a purely aesthetic level, next at the level of historical evolution and symbolic status.

Gents’ formal eveningwear is white tie. This is fairly simple: black tailcoat, black trousers, white waistcoat, white shirt, white bow tie, black shoes. At the start of the twentieth century, the waistcoat could be black instead of white, but this is usually only seen now as part of a uniform (a waiter’s or a musician’s, for instance.) White tie is as formal as it is because it looks good on more or less everybody, big or small, short or tall and most certainly male or female. Don’t let anyone get snooty if you have fun with it: white tie is just what chaps in the early nineteenth century wore everyday for riding around and being windswept on moors, nothing more important. The rules are most certainly to be treated as guidelines. That said, here are the guidelines:

Mr Diosy of the Japan Society: What a moustache! I knew Orientalism birthed taste.The tailcoat is the usual for formalwear: black wool, with covered buttons and black satin facing on the lapels. There are buttons on each side, such as for a double-breasted jacket, but it’s cut to be worn open: good for dancing. Peak lapels are the favourite, though shawl lapels would also suit for a softer, more wonderfully feminine appearance. You can find all sorts of different cuts for tailcoats: wide, narrow, buttons on a diagonal, vertical buttons, four buttons, six buttons, more buttons, big lapels, small lapels, high gorge, low gorge… design your own, if you like! The only important thing is that it looks good. Formal evening trousers are supposed to have two black satin ribbons down the side, while semi-formal trousers have one. This is to show that you’re wealthy enough to purchase and maintain two otherwise useless pairs of trousers. Who gives a Quaker’s? Wear one ribbon, two or three, or wear none and let the sides of your legs be un-shiny.

Formal shirts have a stiff, sometimes quilted ‘bib’ at the front, which is the part which shows out from the waistcoat and looks smart. Detachable collars are a fun and practical touch – you can clean them separately, and choose different shapes and sizes as your fancy strikes. You attach them with small studs – generally a flat edge with a protruding bulb (the flat edge resting against your neck, then shirt, then collar, then bulb) and sometimes unscrewable. A wing collar is the most popular for eveningwear: upright, with the points angled down in front. A straight upright collar works just fine too, and gives a nice vertical line, flattering the body and face. Detachable cuffs are an option, but have been out of popular usage for a while so can be hard to find.

The rules dictate the bow-tie and waistcoat should be cotton, for no particularly good reason. The waistcoats were originally the same black wool as the tailcoat – some king or another probably just tucked the tablecloth into his trousers at dinner and it caught on. Wool, cotton, linen, silk… perhaps a doting uncle could knit you a tie and waistcoat; whatever you like! A paticular cut is worn for these evening waistcoats – a low neckline and a shawl collar. Some mass-produced modern waistcoats end the lapels abruptly at the bottom, creating a horizontal line which draws the eye – for some reason – to the navel. Useful if you want to show off your navel, of course. Single- or double-breasted can both look splendid. If you opt for a white waistcoat, the uniform colour will let your tailcoat shape the lines: a more vertical front on your coat, then, will help you appear taller and slimmer.

Your bow-tie can be quite narrow or quite wide, as you like it: some boutiques offer three standard sizes. Instructions for tying are not at all hard to come by, and if you’re worried about looking too stuffy in a bow-tie, recall that the bow knot was first popularised for gents’ cravats by Lord Byron himself, and for a while, bore his name.

Purists demand gold studs for the shirt and waistcoat and gold cufflinks. Or, sometimes, they demand silver. Purists can be remarkably inconsistent. Wear gold, or silver, or exquisite gemstones; just wear whatever looks absolutely smashing. Shoes are traditionally patent leathers or opera pumps: basically, plain shiny black shoes or plain shiny black shoes with a buckle instead of laces. Not hard to find, even for vegans. Other possible accessories include white dress gloves, a black silk top hat (no longer widely produced and a devil to find,) a cane, and an overcoat or opera cloak. If by good fortune you have a collapsible opera hat, this is the ensemble to wear it with. These are all part of the coat-check ritual at the door: given the relative underabundance of coat checks these days, you can take them or leave them.

Those in or planning a trip to Colonial Capital MELBOURNE can view the links in the Biographie section for a few tips for finding formal finery new or vintage!

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