I recently received an invitation to a Black Tie Optional event and it caused me to wonder: am I being granted the option not to wear a dinner jacket and bow tie because it's a pain to get so dressed up? Or to save me the infinite bother of having to go out and rent one? Or is the "optional" part to be taken as a pleasant alternative? After all, I might want to wear a formal outfit so I can look like the suave dude I think myself to be.
But! If I decide for one reason or another not to sport the black-tie option, what should I wear instead? These days any kind of suit is formal dress, so why would folks differentiate?
Let’s talk about the whole black tie thing for a minute.
In 1896, a twentysomething bon vivant named Griswold Lorillard wore his father’s tail-less, black, dinner jacket to a party at the Clubhouse of an exclusive New York enclave known as Tuxedo Park. Pierre, the elder Lorillard, tobacco magnate and Anglophile, got the idea for the new and more stylish version of the swallow-tail dinner jacket from the Prince of Wales. Young Gris, intrepid fashion plate and apparent heir to the Beau Brummell school of dashing dress as well as to the cigarette fortune, had some fashion influence, it seems, and soon his pals were bothering their tailors to make them this new, shorter, formal jacket. This innovative fashion was at the time laughingly called Griswold’s Folly. We know it as the “Tuxedo.”
The Lorillard story, while a cute anecdote to amuse one’s friends, (“Oh, did you know that the “tux” was invented blah blah blah…”) contains, between the lines, a pair of fundamental and perennial issues with men’s dress in general, and formal wear in particular. Over time, in the evolution of style, common usage creates correctness, as in grammar. If everybody says, “Neither of these are blue,” instead of “neither… is blue,” the mistaken use of are becomes correct. It’s sort of like common law marriage. The same thing is ultimately what makes for correctness in the wardrobe. One goofy rich socialite with a bunch of his young and impressionable buddies can make something acceptable to wear just by persisting in wearing it.
So, our accepted conventions of dress are liable to sudden, whimsical change. And this is even more true in today’s Global Village of instantaneous world-wide media and celebrity-mania. Wardrobe "innovations" of any and every description observed by millions. There he is! ShaWannEee! The Hip Hop star, or Ricky Bunns! Hot country idol! Wearing the most amazing get ups at the awards programs, on TV, on magazine covers! Silver-sequined suit with skull-and-crossbones silver belt, ruffled shirt open to the navel. Rhinestone-studded baseball caps! The new Tuxedo!
[Side Note: In this way “business casual” became accepted in the Halls of Commerce. Bob, Bill and Benny threw off their suits and dress shirts and donned their wash-and-wear Dockers, oversized Izod golf shirts and their Reeboks, and, tolerated by bosses who were convinced that letting them dress so inexpensively was tantamount to giving them a raise, just kept on wearing them. Today, if you could get People magazine to run a story on it, you could bring back the loin cloth as proper business attire. I can see it! Gunga Din at The Four Seasons!]
Dinner clothes were appropriate for formal occasions because they were all the same. Gentlemen could show no rank or station, no evidence of wealth or the lack of it, no ostentation at all in such a uniform. Dinner clothes made the social gathering completely democratic, and thus more enjoyable, by ruling out the showy display of dash. A social gathering was easier, more fun, when you couldn’t tell the millionaires from the professors, the movie stars from the clothing salesmen. Formal dress was the great equalizer. Not anymore. Once the uniformity is gone from the event, all hell breaks loose. If you have ever seen the Hollywood crowd arriving at the Oscars, for example, I rest my case. Formal wear is formal because it is uni-form-al, or else there is nothing formal about it. No wonder black tie became optional. Who cares? And yet...
It is a good thing that young Griswold had reasonably good taste, because instead of choosing a black suit and black tie, he might have decided to put on a light blue, striped satin suit with contrasting shiny piping on the lapels, a ruffled shirt and a silver four-in-hand. Instead it took another fifty years or so, until clothes initially designed for stage performers and musicians like Elvis and Liberace made it to the Tuxedo Rental Stores, with the baleful result that very many American men can now look back at their wedding photographs and wince, with a cold chill of deep embarrassment, at how asinine they looked.