We don’t tend to make a habit of plumbing the depths of evening dress conventions, but we have been requested to write a full commentary on the gents’ dress code for the Cambridge University Gilbert & Sullivan Golden Jubilee Ball and, slaves of duty that we are, have obliged.
The Dress Code
The dress code for the ball is “white tie”. The chances are you’ll already know roughly what it entails. It’s a fairly well-known style but, if you’re drawing a blank, think Fred Astaire, Gio Compario, and Mandrake the Magician from Defenders of the Earth.
White tie, sometimes called full evening dress, or simply full dress, is up there among the most formal of dress codes, but don’t let that put you off, because it’s really very simple…
Ostensibly, it differs from black tie (with which you should all be familiar) by the replacement of the dinner jacket with a dress tailcoat, the replacement of the black bow tie with a white bow tie, and the addition of a white waistcoat.
The overall effect, I’m sure you’ll agree is very elegant and I would defy any lady not to swoon in the presence of such an outfit!
Being a man, you are probably thinking that this is all very well, but how much is it going to cost me and where on earth am I going to get it from? Well read on, and you will find out.
Getting Hold of Evening Dress
The organisers of the ball have arranged for a 20% discount on hiring a white tie outfit from here:
Anybody interested in taking advantage of this offer should contact Alex Outhwaite at firstname.lastname@example.org . You may need to supply the following measurements: chest (this is measured at the fullest point – don’t tense, and don’t overestimate to make yourself feel more impressive), waist (measure this just above the hips), inside leg (from crotch to top of shoe), and height (obv).
Obviously when hiring clothes you get what you’re given, and it would be pointless to give you a whole load of information about what looks best. However, it is worth giving a few pointers for making the best of a hired suit:
1. Try and wear a shirt with a wing collar as it will add a nice element of formality.
2. Wear black shoes and polish them to within an inch of their lives.
3. Generally a midriff of crumpled shirt on display between waistcoat and trousers doesn’t look as wonderful as it sounds, so get hold of a pair of braces. If you must end the evening with your trousers round your ankles, we recommend achieving this by personal charm rather than sartorial insufficiency.
2. Super Budget Option
If you really can’t get on board with evening dress, or you want to put your foot down at having to spend £40, then this is the option for you. Basically, it involves just buying a white bow tie and wearing it with what you would usually wear to a black tie dinner. You can get white bow ties pretty cheaply from loads of places including Amazon, so there is no excuse! If you want to go all out, you could also wear a white waistcoat and simply forgo the tailcoat element. This, in fact, is quite an old school look and if pulled off with aplomb can look quite elegant…
Again, try and wear shiny shoes and a wing collar shirt for that additional air of sophistication.
The Good Stuff
If you’re happy hiring or want to go with the budget option, STOP NOW, because if you read on, you will have your eyes opened, your world turned upside-down, and you won’t be happy with any of the above as you gaze at the startling reality inside Pandora’s gaping, cavernous box. You see, pulling off evening dress correctly is a fine and delicate procedure which is ill suited to the “put these rags on and smile for the camera while we rob you blind” mentality of the hired suit. There are a variety of reasons for this – the main ones being that people’s idea of what fits these days is rubbish, trousers are made terribly, no care is given to waistcoats, and the kind of fabrics considered appropriate are far too flimsy.
The dress tailcoat is tailored such that it fits the wearer’s body extremely well. Modern ideas of fit seem to be at least two sizes too big.
For some reason the prevailing conception of what constitutes a person’s waist seems to have fallen by several inches in the last few decades such that the ‘waist’ now means the hips. Now, this doesn’t really matter for a lot of clothes but unless you want your trousers to be crumpled all the way down and for them to split after a couple of dances, then with evening dress they have to both hang from the shoulders and continue up to the true waist of the person. In the photo below, Barack Obama’s trousers are not hanging from his shoulders and so are crumpled all the way down. In contrast the Duke of Edinburgh is wearing braces and the trousers ‘break’ once just before they reach his shoes. This looks far more elegant.
You will also notice another sad consequence of falling waistlines in that all the interest in Barack Obama’s suit now lies at his hips – the widest part of his body – thus making him look remarkably rectangular and even dumpier than than Lizzie. You will notice that although Phil is noticeably shorter than Barack, the interesting part of his suit (medals excepting) is higher up, making him actually look quite tall and elegant. This is not a difficult issue to correct in suit making, but no one very much seems to care anymore…
You might read in various places that it is A RULE that your waistcoat must not protrude from beneath the cutaway part of the coat. Elsewhere, you may be reliably informed that no such ‘rule’ exists. However there is also no rule to say that you mustn’t spread Nutella on your face and crow like a cockerel every time someone says the name “Rufio”. As in the rest of life, there are some behaviours you are simply better off avoiding.
Here you will see that the DoE’s waistcoat does not protrude from underneath his tailcoat. Compare this with GWB however, where there is a good inch showing. This was considered perfectly normal pre-1920ish, but then so was tuberculosis.
Getting Hold of the Good Stuff
You are probably thinking that it’s all very well coming up with all these problems with modern evening dress, but how are they to be solved? The solution is either to buy old evening dress, or ‘vintage’ as it’s commonly called, or to spend £3000+ getting it made for you. This is a sad indictment of men’s mass market tailoring today. They are so obsessed with ‘attention to detail’ that they completely miss the most important elements of what constitutes a quality suit. Take this image below – none of the key elements of it were made after 1938.
Getting hold of this stuff is not particularly easy, and you have to be in it for the long haul. If you are convinced by our case for the true beauty of evening dress then let us know, and we will keep a look out for something in your size. Alternatively, you can scour ebay and vintage clothing shops and hope to get lucky!
Developing Your Evening Dress
Once you have managed to get hold of a good dress suit, then you can start to worry about the details – the design of the waistcoat, the cut of the lapels, the stiffness of the shirt, and the nature of the studs. Compared to morning dress, evening dress is a uniform and deviation from the uniform is frowned upon, so the details can be very important. For instance in the image above, a slightly rarer double breasted marcella waistcoat is worn along with onyx studs, which are usually worn for black tie. Two slightly unusual features which nonetheless are do not deviate from what is essentially ‘the uniform’. Probably the principal variation one can get is in the colour of the waistcoat. Historically, silk damask waistcoats in cream and ivory tones were often worn with evening dress, though these rarely look as good as white cotton. More interestingly, though extremely rare these days, it was once thought perfectly appropriate to wear a matching black waistcoat with one’s evening attire instead of the usual white. In the photo below we see Hitler pulling it off quite nicely whilst nibbling on a lackey’s hand.
You might also recognise the vanity fair caricature of George Grossmith who is rocking this look with a shawl lapel evening jacket. V rare!
Hopefully you will realise that there is a great deal more to evening dress than might at first meet the eye and the more people that demand hire companies and mass market tailor make decent clothing, the more likely they are to!
For a more complete, well sourced explanation of white tie, visit the Black Tie Guide (ironic, I know) at: