Formal Dressing for Ladies and Gentlemen - The Seasons

Formal Dressing ... The Seasons

by Alexander S. Kabbaz, Bespoke Clothier

What Gentlemen Need to Know | What Ladies Need to Know

Formalities. Formal season ... Fall/Winter. I'll venture to guess that you didn't even know there is a Fall/Winter formal season. The number of orders we receive during September-November offer indisputable testimony to procrastination!

Over the past 40 years of dressing ladies and gentlemen, we've found the majority of formal events take place in the Spring ... with April/May/June being the height of the season. Late November and December rank second ... and are the most often forgotten in the Holiday season rush. Are you prepared? Learn more about Formal Dressing for Ladies and Gentlemen.

Number One for Men: Formal dressing has Rules with a capital R!

Number Two for Men: Dressing has Rules ... the top one on my list being Comfort with a capital C. So how do we accomplish Rule Two without making Emily Post turn over in her grave? ...and all the while observing the other Capital C - Caveat - from old friend and renowned menswear scribe G. Bruce Boyer: "...find freedom within the rules. Anyone can be different because it's easy to be outrageous. The trick is to be just that bit different."

The author's son Damien and beautiful bride Leilani at their recent nuptials->
The groom is wearing a bespoke tuxedo by renowned NYC tailor Jon Green
with a Kabbaz-Kelly wing collared shirt & bespoke bow tie
as is Best Man Conrad Kabbaz.

Gents: Are you prepared to answer your date's inevitable "what should I wear?" questions? You should be ...

Leilani Dias Kabbaz and Damien Alexander Kabbaz with Best Man Conrad Fox Kabbaz

Leilani Dias Kabbaz and Damien Alexander Kabbaz
with Best Man Conrad Fox Kabbaz

What Ladies Need to Know

The rules for women are considerably less rigid than those for men ... which makes certainty somewhat more difficult. Let's get the easiest ones out of the way first:

Heels and hosiery (nude preferred) are mandatory in all cases. For Black Tie and semi-formal events heels should not be higher than 4" nor are "kitten heels" or lower appropriate. Black is the preferred color unless a more boldly colored dress has been selected. Jewelry should be plain - gold, pearls, silver - usually limited to necklace, rings, and earrings although a bracelet would not be out of the question with the cocktail dress.

1. Black Tie: For formal events listed as "black tie", the traditional dress is usually referred to as a "dinner dress". Generally floor length , the dinner dress is of wool - usually crepe - in Winter and light silk or cotton in Summer. Dinner dresses are plain with no embroidery or decoration and not too low cut front or back. Womens' formal "black tie" dress is a bit more "fashion-sensitive" than mens'. If the formal fashion of the season is to wear a dress shorter than floor length, don't fight the trend.

2. Semi-Formal: Contrast the black tie wardrobe with the "cocktail dress". Usually worn to cocktail parties, more elegant dinner parties and dances ... this is the favored attire for less formal events not classified as black tie. This dress would be a bit lower cut, knee length and of wool or cotton. For more formal, yet still not black tie parties, the cocktail dress can be of a bolder silk or satin. Can it be other than black? Black is preferred but not required. Not wearing black? Be sure to match the shoes to the dress.

Traditional Dinner Dress

Dinner Dress

3. Other Formal: Finally, there is the "evening dress". Created of the most ornate satins or brocades, replete with myriad decorations, the evening dress is reserved for ballroom dances, opening nights at the theater, the opera, and a few other very special events.

Evening dresses are sleeveless - sometimes strapless - and usually low-cut both front and back. Black is neither expected nor usual. Shoes should compliment the dress color. Jewelry can run the gamut bearing in mind the color theme of the dress.

The Evening Dress

The Evening Dress, shown here at the opera

What Gentlemen Need to Know

What do gentlemen need to know? Sorry, fellows. Your formal wardrobe falls into a more rigid structure. Before I begin ... there are quite a number of formal wardrobe pieces which could be discussed at great length. The Tuxedo - so-called in the United States - is known as the Dinner Jacket on the Continent. There are the Morning Coat and the Tail Coat (properly termed Swallowtail Coat). There are double-breasted tuxedos. Peaked Lapels and Shawl Collars. This article, penned on the K.I.S.S. principle, will center around the most commonly worn, simple, tuxedo. Perhaps, should the fancy strike, I'll cover the lesser-worn formalities at a later date.

But I digress. Let's get to work ... starting from the bottom up.

Shoes: Plain Black Slip-ons. Patent or highly polished black leather. No ... not the penny-loafers you saved from your college frat days. Plain! Have none? Wear your Oxfords instead.

Socks: Winter: Black silk, over-the-calf only. Plain weave with a tonal side-stripe. Summer: Flat weave, lustrous and shimmery pure Sea Island cotton is an accepted substitute.

Tuxedo: Black. Wool. Single-breasted. For purposes of this K.I.S.S. article ... End of discussion.

Vest or cummerbund or high-waisted trousers: Your choice. End of discussion.

Tie: Bow-tie. Black (preferred) or color to match your cummerbund. Small or large bow? Your choice. Self-tie or clip? One of most men's greatest - and competely irrational - fears is tying a bow tie. I understand that and no matter how many times you're told "It's the same as tying your shoes" the fear doesn't abate. After all, you don't wear shoes on your neck nor tie them while gazing at the mirror. That said, give it a try. Fail? Contact us for one of our hidden-clip bows. :-)

Jewelry: Silver is preferred; gold if you must. Small pearls or diamonds may decorate studs and cuff links. Stay away from colored stones.

The Formal Scarf

: Formal silk scarves are always acceptable as an accessory. They are generally white or white-one-side and black the other. Usually made from a silk with some sort of tone-on-tone pattern.

Tom, Elton, & Rod gloriously violating the basic principles

Not the K.I.S.S. Principle's finest hour :-)

Shirt: Remember this: About the only things which will be noticed are your shirt, tie, and cummberbund if you wear one. Why? Everything else will be black or midnight blue and will be the same as every other monkey suit in the room. So pay attention to what can be different ... your shirt. For that reason ... and because it's what I do most ... I'll give a bit of extra attention to this article of wearing apparel.

Good taste virtually mandates that the shirt body be white. Yes ... you'll see pink ones and blue ones and teal ones and grey ones with pink pique, blue ruffles or grey pleats. If you're past the time when your high school prom was the ultimate concern on your list, leave the colored shirts to the 12th Graders. Start with a white shirt body.

What should the shirt be made of? You have two basic choices: Standard Poplin/Broadcloth or Light-weight, Breatheable Voile. Does it matter? Only in terms of the Top-on-my-List Rule: Comfort. Face it. Most tuxedos, tails, and the like are hot. They're black. They're generally made from a substantial 10-12 oz wool. And generally, you don't take them off and show the shirt ... at least until everyone's had sufficient liquid refreshment so as not to notice the fabric of your shirt body. Were it my choice and I were not in the Yukon, I'd be going for the voile body. In the Yukon or getting ready for Winter season> Poplin will offer more warmth. (Click here for more fabric information.)

Pique Bosom with 3 Studs

Elegant Plain Broadcloth Stiff Bosom shown with 3 studs

Wolfe's unusual collar, called a "Stock", is seen in action in the above photo of Wolfe, Stewart, and John

Next consideration: Wearing a cummerbund? A vest? Nothing but trousers? Why? How much of your shirt will show determines how long the bosom need be.

Bosom? We have a box here just above my cutting table labeled "Unique Bosoms". Most folks coming into our studio give me that 'you're a dirty old man' look and assume it's my porn collection. Actually, the shirt maker's term for the decorative front of a formal shirt is "bosom". Now that what there was of my dignity is restored ... let's discuss bosoms without gawk or giggle.

You'll need to know how long the distance is from your collar down to whatever (vest or cummerbund or trousers) which will cover the bottom of the decorative bosom of your shirt. Then make the bosom 1" to 1.5" longer ensuring no peek-a-boo twixt bosom and the lower, plain shirt front. Why not have the bosom go all the way to the shirt bottom? The bosom is bulky and thicker than the plain shirt body. Aside from the discomfort of this heavy material down there, the additional bulk will do it's best to push back up out of your trousers creating unsightly wrinkles in the shirt front.

The Bosom: Here's where formal shirts get to be fun ... at least for me. So share my joy! Let's start with the basics: Do you want the front to be pleated? Or would you prefer the more subtle pique look? One important note: If the shirt is to be worn with tails, pique is the only acceptable very, very, very much preferred front. Did I say Very Much?

Pleats: ... come in at no fewer than dozens, if not hundreds, of different types. At least they do at a good custom shirtmaker. The most standard is a very traditional 1/2" pleat with 8-12 of them on each side of the front. There are 1/4" pleats, 1/8" pleats, even smaller ones we call "pin tucks".

There are pleats which vary in size called "variopintuck". There are pleats designed with a complimentary set of smaller pleats to be used in the shirt's center front.

And yes ... there are colored pleats. Reds, blues, black & white. There are white pleats with sparkely trim. There are pleats with metallic threads intertwined. There are white pleats with interspersed colored rows. Suffice it to say you should have a wide choice of pleats.

In addition to the traditional hand-made pleats, many weavers such as Switzerland's Alumo offer stylized pre-made bosoms.

Pin-Tuck Pleats

Pin-Tuck Pleats. Obviously not just for men, this beautiful treatment can also be used to create stunning blouses.

Having had the privilege for decades of creating Leonard Bernstein's "formal" (he called them "conducting") shirts, our repertoire of pleats and our variety of piques grew to be rather enormous. We actually have boxes labeled 'Unique Bosoms II", "Unique Bosoms III" and more ... but for the reasons outlined above I now store these in a couple of drawers.

Pique: The most basic, traditional, often-seen pique is called 'birdseye'. Why, you may wonder. Because, son, the little itty-bitty pique thingys are shaped like birds eyes. Duh!

Is that it? Of course not! There are square piques. There are basket-weave piques. There are cord piques (picture narrow wale corduroy). Actually, there are some really interesting piques for folks like us who look at them through magnifying glasses.

Don't fret if your shirt maker or men's shop has only the standard birdseye. Stand back 18" and you'll never know the difference. Reminder: Wearing tails? Select a pique.

Leonard Bernstein in Basketweave Pique and matching DB Vest

Leonard Bernstein conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic

Wearing a basket-weave pique wing-collared shirt and matching pique double-breasted formal vest

While we're still on the shirt front, let's deal with the studs/button issue. You have three basic choices: Studs, buttons, or concealed closure (also called "fly-front").

Most acceptable? Studs. That measurement above from your collar to the bottom of the bosom. Was it 15" or less? 3 studs will suffice. More than 15"? spring for the additional, fourth stud. If you don't you'll have too much space between the last stud and the bottom of the bosom. The shirt front will gap open. Studs require advance decision: Your shirt maker must make holes in both the left and right fronts to accomodate the studs. There is a "cheating" alternative. Specify the shirt for studs. Then ask your maker to provide a "button strip" with small black buttons. This is a narrow strip of fabric adorned with black shank buttons which imitate studs. The wearer can use it when choosing not to use his studs. A note about tails: shirts specifically for wearing with tails traditionally use only one or two studs. In that case you'll need a fly to close the remainder of the front. Alternatively, your shirt can be made as a pullover or rear-opening style.

The second alternative is to use buttons as on a regular shirt. Ugh. This ain't a regular shirt.

Antique Formal Stud/Cufflink Sets

Three beautiful antique Studs & Cufflink sets from the author's collection

The final choice is concealed buttons. Personally, I've never understood that one. You've got these wonderful nature-made iridescent mother-of-pearl buttons - the absolute top of the button food-chain - and you're gonna hide them? What ever for?

Formal Shirt Button Strip

Button Strip stud-substitute accessory shown on the Birdseye Pique bosom

Formal Shirt Front Treatment

Guide: Birdseye Pique bosom made for 3 studs with Wing Collar

Left photo shows how a bow tie should be placed with the wings behind.

Right photo shows cummerbund covering the bottom of the bosom

But wait ... there's more!

French Cuffs! Of course a formal shirt has French cuffs. Sorry. Wrong! Although French cuffs are sort of (severe nose curl here) acceptable on a shirt for wearing with a tux, they are absolutely, definitely not acceptable for a shirt with tails.

Link Cuffs. Single Link Cuffs. They have only two holes. They do not fold over. They are actually the first cuff ever used on a shirt (back then they were tied closed with a string through the two holes). They are the most formal cuff. They are the most comfortable cuff.

Let's do some name dropping here. Leonard Bernstein wore only them. Tom Wolfe wore only them.

Personally, I prefer them on all but my casual shirts if for nothing more than their understated elegant appearance and unparallelled pure comfort. Have I sold you yet?

Bernstein showing Single Link Cuffs

Leonard Bernstein showing Single Link Cuffs

Kabbaz touting the virtues of Link Cuffs

Kabbaz touting the virtues of Link Cuffs

Wolfe's Beautiful Single Link Cuff Design

Wolfe's Beautiful Single Link Cuff Design

Top of the top: The Collar. Let the arguments begin!

Which is the proper collar to wear with tux? With tails? In the morning? Evening? For the type of occasion? And to that I say Balderdash!

Yes, the wing (properly called batwing) collar is the correct one to wear with a tailcoat. And, frankly, you'd look rather stupid in a tailcoat with a turndown collar. Furthermore, a properly made batwing collar can be as beautiful and distinctive as it is tasteful and flattering.

Back to Rule Two: Comfort. If you're uncomfortable in a wing collar, then have your (not for tails) formal shirt made with a turndown collar.

Planning to use the shirt for both tux and tails? Have the shirt made with two, detachable collars. They're a bit of a pain-in-the-*** to work with, but that way you can have one shirt fill two purposes. You'll have no choice but to select the pique front if you are going to use the same shirt for tux and tails.

Two last but important things to remember: The bow-tie needs a bit of tie space to sit properly with a turndown collar so make it a semi-spread. Finally ... and the most often answered question: Tuck the "wings" of a batwing collar behind the bow tie. The only time to leave the wings up above the tie is never.

Formal Ensemble

J.C. Leyendecker's best formal drawing

As always, thanks for reading. We would love to hear your thoughts or answer your questions any time. Most comments will be appended to this article, anonymously of course.