While the dress shirt functions as a backdrop for necktie, braces, jacket, and pocket square, there are two options in furnishing this stage. The first and by far the more popularly practiced method employ the dress shirt as a neutral foundation. As such, the elements are either harmonized upon it or one is emphasized over the others, such as the bold print tie against a solid white shirt. In this presentation, the shirt acts purely in a supporting role.
The alternative approach casts the dress shirt as leading man at center stage. This style emanated from England and is reasonably easy to execute if the principles governing its execution are well understood. In socially conscious London, an upper-class man would signal his membership in a particular club, regiment, or school through his choice of tie. Since these neckties' designs were fairly standard and limited in number (there being, after all, only so many organizations the wearer could claim as his own), he tended to punctuate his somber and predictable business ensembles with more strongly patterned dress shirt, the very reason that London's Jermyn Street became so renowned for gentlemen's dress shirts. In this approach, the tie and pocket square act as subordinate players to the shirt. A well-endowed collar was essential to convey the shirt's leading role and the wearer's loftier station, which is why English-bred dress shirt tend to have more prominent collars than their European or American counterparts.
As either of these approaches can project considerable sophistication, one last issue remains in guiding a man toward an informed dress shirt purchase. This concerns the stylistic consistency of the shirt's parts. For example, regardless of how beautiful its fabric or fit, a double-breasted jacket with a center vent remains a half-breed, a mixed metaphor, a sartorial mutt. A garment's detailing must be in character with its fabric, or else, like a pinstriped suit with patch pockets or flap pockets on a tuxedo, the wearable's integrity and classiness is compromised
Here are some general guidelines specific to the styling of men's dress shirts:
The smoother and more lustrous the fabric, the dressier the shirt. On the scale of relative formality, blue broadcloth ranks above blue end-on-end broadcloth which, in turn, ranks above blue pinpoint oxford, which in finer and dressier than regular blue oxford. But royal or queen's oxford, which is made of a two-ply yarn that gives the oxford weave greater sheen and a finer texture, is comparable to end-on-end broadcloth in its formality. The more white that shows in the ground of a check or stripe, the dressier the shirting.
Different collar styles also connote varying degrees of dress-up. Spread collars are generally dressier than straight point collar and become even more so with each degree of openness. White contrast collars dress up any shirt no matter its pattern or color, and should only be worn with a French cuff in either self fabric or contrasting white. However, a straight point contrast collar in white is as much a sartorial oxymoron as button cuffs on a dress shirt. White collars look even less authentically classy in collar models less open than a semi-spread, because their progenitors could only accommodate a four-in-hand if there was enough width to the collar opening. Tab, pinned, or eyelet collars can also give a fabric a more decorous look. If you see a blue oxford shirt decorated with a white spread collar or a button-down collar loitering on a dressy white ground English striping, avoid these mongrel offerings, for their questionable propriety will do nothing for yours.
Most of the criteria for purchasing a classically styled dress shirt have little to do with price or even the quality of the fabric. If a relatively inexpensive shirt made with a mediocre fabric has a collar that is flattering to your face and affords you the right fit, it will render greater value to you than a more expensively made shirt with neither of these attributes. Value has to do with longevity of wear, as ultimately, the most expensive clothes a man can buy are those that rarely come out of the closet.
If a man's suit ranks as the most articulate garment in the language of cloths, them his formal wear should guarantee sartorial eloquence. Due to the ritual surrounding the way it is worn and what accompanies it, formal wear's original spirit has been relatively well preserved. The simple combination of richly textures black accented by fresh white contrasts bespeaks refinement. And so it is that this last vestige of upper-class attire continues to live on in the dinner jacket, with its comforting certainly that all men look good in it.
Acquiring high-pedigree dinner clothes represents one of the more difficult challenges facing today's male consumer. That is not because, as with neckwear or sportswear, its variety can overwhelm one; rather it is because truly classic dinner clothes are so different from his normal business attire that the average man is ill prepared to accept it easily. This not only applies to commercially produced tuxedos, but to the majority of expensively hand-tailored ones offered in fine specially stores as well. In some cases, straying from the archetype particular trimmings is expensive because of the requirement of more labor. Often, however, its lack of pedigree is a function of simple ignorance resulting from not having been sufficiently exposed to the genuine article.
In spite of male evening clothes being highly formulaic and regimented by their very nature, opportunities to observe this particular masculine attire being worn correctly today are surprisingly rare. Mens wear designers offer their alternative renditions for each year's televised awards ceremonies. Most of the innovations they concoct are motivated by the desire for individuality and comfort, and the resulting confection usually turns out to be less than classic. The fact is that many men go to considerable effort to look special in a tuxedo when to do so is simply a matter of having the right information.
I feel that before one attempts to improvise in the ceremonial world of men's evening attire, it's important to understand the original design's intention and aesthetic logic. Trying to improve upon its ordered predictability in an effort to achieve a more personal expression is to be encouraged. But to create something unique and stylish, one should base such decisions on practical knowledge, rather than personal opinion or ephemeral fashion.
Since the culmination of the dinner jacket's final format in the late 1930s, nothing has improved upon the genius of its line or the refined aesthetics of its component furnishings. This does not mean that to own a fine tuxedo, one must have it cut or even tailored like those from the tuxedo's heyday. It does mean that its modeling and detailing must respect the exquisite relationship of form and function that were worked out through the collaboration of English tailors and shirt makers with their fastidiously dressed customers of that stylish era. No other period could have produces such a success, because each step of the new form's evolution was being compared to and measured by the perfection of the outfit it was intended to replace, the grand daddy of male refinement, the evening tailcoat and white tie. Not only did the tuxedo's final form end up projecting the same level of stature and class as its starched progenitor, it did so while providing considerably more comfort.
I will introduce briefly the dinner jacket's unusual history and its relationship to the tailcoat-and-white-tie ensemble, so that we may apply its rationale to selecting proper dinner clothes today. As W.Fowler said in his 1902 book, Matter of Manners, "The man who knows what to avoid is already the owner of style."
THE HISTORY OF THE DINNER JACKET
Black Tie, Tuxedo
As the name suggests, the original dinner jacket was to be exactly that, a less formal dining ensemble for use exclusively in the privacy of one's home or club. The original design was created during the mid-nineteenth century for the English prince who later became Edward VII. He decides there should be a comfortable alternative to the constricting swallowtail evening coat and bone-hard white-tie getup worn at the dinner table. The consensus is that the very first model of this shortened jacket must have been a rolled collar (shawl) double-breasted lounge suit in black worsted with grosgrain facing. The same design in velvet was worn as a smoking jacket by gentlemen at home, its grosgrain facings lifted from that of the tailcoat's lapels. Victorian ladies did not smoke and insisted any husband who did should confine this activity to his den. The smoking jacket could then be left there, in situ, so as not to radiate the noxious fumes around the rest of the house.
Edward's dinner jacket was admired by the husband of an American houseguest visiting him at Sandringham, his country estate, and the man asked the prince if he could copy it. Edward consented and the American brought the innovation back to his millionaires' club in Tuxedo park, New York. In 1886, one Griswald Lorillard, sporting his version to the club's autumn ball, scandalized his hostess and hastened his departure, but forever established the jacket's place alongside the tailcoat-and-white-tie ensemble.
From the point in the late nineteenth century up through the early days of the 1920s known as the golden age of the British gentleman, black-tie attire continued as an option at home or in a men's club. However, for an evening in public, white-tie remained the dress of choice by polite society. The 1920s produced men wear's first unofficial designer, the new arbiter of fashion, David, the Prince of Wales, who was later crowned as Edward VIII but is better known by the title he took after his 1936 abdication, the Duke of Windsor. Clothes-conscious and bit of a maverick, he was determined to throw off the stuff formally of his father's generation of court-ruled attire and make clothes more comfortable for himself and his fellow aristocrats.
The prince often arrived for dinner in dinner coat and black tie when everyone else was decked out in full tails. Sometimes he would wear a lounge-coat-like double-breasted dinner jacket with silk facings on the lapels or he would take the pique dress vest from the tailcoat outfit and wear it with a single-breasted dinner jacket. Before giving up the throne, he abdicated the boiled-front evening shirt and its separate stiff wing collar, replacing them with a soft, pleated-front dinner shirt and its attached soft turndown collar. He devised a backless a waistcoat with lapels to wear in warmer climes. Although he was not the first to wear it, he helped popularize midnight blue for dinner clothes, which by artificial light looked richer than black. By the end of the 1930s, with his international coterie of friends adopting such elegant comfort in public, the dinner jacket, an amalgam of the tailcoat and lounge suit, began to replace the swallowtail dress coat and white tie.
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