And Exploring New Modes of Formalwear
Today, we’re pleased to welcome Mr. Gary Harrison to our team of writers. We’ve long admired his astute eye and elegant prose and couldn’t be happier to introduce him to you here! – HSS
Style is inspiration. According to the most common retelling of the tale, it was Lord Dupplin who inspired the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) to eschew formal dress codes – casting off the rules and regimen associated with white tie in favour of more comfortable forms of clothing (which in turn would come to be known as black tie) when dining at home.
It was the ever stylish Prince of Wales who then inspired American industrialists to adopt the custom, one of their number taking it back home across the Atlantic to Tuxedo Park. Adopted by the residents of that privileged enclave en masse, it became that elite that regular people sought to emulate, so as to taste elegant living themselves, in so giving widespread acceptance and allure to the tuxedo as a paragon of soigné sophistication that endures to this day. Dressing for dinner, especially at home, has become one of those things that has largely been phased out. In our more casual age, with white tie so rare as to have disappeared, black tie is now typically associated with a sense of occasion, formal events and grand scale entertainment.
As a result, to traditionalists, it has become rigid and as regimented as the white tie it was supposed to replace. As a result, a chasm opened in the man’s wardrobe and invitations such as “creative black tie” offer proof that confusion reigns where rules don’t exist.
Designers and artists in any medium naturally seek to challenge norms, bend rules and create solutions to life’s challenges. Black tie of no exception and we’ve long seen some playfully combining dinner suiting with more casual elements.
Ralph Lauren’s dinner jacket, denim and cowboy boot ensemble offers arguably the most notable example. Rooted in the British-inspired living of the American industrialists, the Polo brand and Purple Label, seemingly find their spiritual origins in Tuxedo Park itself – the name, quite appropriately, as I recently found out coming from the Algonquin name “ptauk seet tough”, meaning “The Home of the Bear.”
Like a classic fougère, Ralph Lauren offers up an alluringly distillation of a glamorous past, swelling those mystic chords of memory and evoking the better angels of our nature so as to inspire us all to not forget a more elegant age and way of life. More than that too, his designs so strongly evoke Americana, taking inspiration from the full melting pot of American history – no social group, strata or period, less worthy of 15 minutes on the red carpet than another – American democracy to the last.
Ralph has always been a pioneer, unafraid to chart the farthest frontiers of good taste. Here is where we find Western and workwear sitting comfortable in the frame alongside sophisticated Park Avenue penthouses.
I’ve often looked in admiration at such compromises to the rules. When it came to black tie however, it was not a look I felt comfortable to explore myself. I would struggle to think of a typical black tie occasion where such a look might work for me personally. The allure of black tie is about dressing up, whereas these elements seemed to suggest dressing down.
If the pandemic of the last few years has taught me anything however it’s to seek occasions out where none might otherwise exist. So want of an outlet to express myself and elevate the day-to-day I’ve ended up often wearing cravats of an evening.
Devoid of opportunity to leave the house, silk dressing gowns, smoking jackets and opera pumps have come to fill my growing search history. The danger with some of these elements is that there’s a certain dandified air (although interestingly, it is one that Ralph always managed to successfully avoid).
One of the looks I’ve come to like more as I’ve seen it done effectively however is pairing denim and chambray shirting fabrics with traditional black tie elements – something that I’ve seen Benjamin Phillips (formerly of Drakes), Lyonnel Ahouissoussi (of Cifonelli), and writer and general all-around bon-viveur Matt Hranek, all adopt with typical elan and style; Matt even going further and having a denim-and-black tie book launch party (coincidently at Ralph Lauren’s The Polo Bar). So inspired, it’s a look I’ve started trying to pull off myself too.
All sartorial experimentation should begin at home and so I’ve taken to testing this out by wearing a Drake’s chambray button down that is a wardrobe staple. Owning several, it is perhaps my most worn shirting option – perhaps tempering any affectation even further by natural familiarity.
I’ve taken to pairing this with an old J.Crew Ludlow shawl collar dinner jacket that might otherwise have sat unseen in the wardrobe. On other occasions, I’ve also tested this with an Ede & Ravenscroft double breasted dinner jacket but find the shawl collar more fittingly casual and better suited.
A similar velvet smoking jacket would perhaps work best of all and I saw something in Cifonelli’s London boutique around the holidays. My bow tie is vintage Sulka Paris which I bought on a whim because I loved the unusually soft construction and silk. This too would however have sat unused because I found it more suggestive of formal morning dress but here I think it works particularly well.
On the whole whilst the final outfit is not something I’d wear to a black tie event, appropriately, it is a look I could happily wear when dining at home – either just for a quiet, late evening meal with my wife or if entertaining on a small scale with close friends. Notably I think the casual touch works in this setting too. The shirting alone changes the outfit completely to suggest ease and comfortable deportment in a way that traditional black tie simply wouldn’t.
Whilst still relaxed, this is undoubtedly dressing up, something that has been so missing of late. It offers a sense of occasion and enrichment to daily life just as much as an evening martini or glass of Champagne – both vital black tie accessories in any setting.
Thanks for reading.