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The era of black tie is ending

No phrase in the men’s clothing world is as misleading as ‘black tie’.

On the face of it, all it means is that not only should you wear a tie but that it should be black.

 

But of course, it doesn’t mean that at all. “Black Tie” means modern evening dress, which involves a dinner suit, a formal white-shirt and a (in an ideal world) black bowtie. Wear your normal clothes with a black tie and you will look like an idiot at any gathering that requires evening dress.

 

   In case you think the whole bowtie-fancy-jacket thing is ridiculously formal (which, frankly, it is), then thank your lucky stars that we are not living in the 19th Century when ‘black tie’ meant a tailcoat. In fact, till the 1920s (as fans of Downton Abbey and other such period dramas will know), a dinner jacket was considered informal. It wasn’t till the 1950s that the only people who were forced to wear tailcoats were schoolboys at Eton College (where it remains the uniform) while the rest of the world was allowed to move to modern black tie.

 

   Judging by most photos I have seen of the Raj, the British loved dressing up. Despite the heat (and there was no air-conditioning in those days), men would dress formally at the slightest pretext and tailcoats and dinner suits were part of regular wear.

 

   Perhaps because of the Raj associations, Indians had difficulty with the whole bowtie look. In the post Independence era, when Indian diplomats abroad were invited to black tie events they were encouraged by the government to wear sherwanis and later, to scale back and just go in normal bandhgallas. That remained pretty much the norm for formal dressing in India for all of the 20th Century. I don’t recall seeing my parents, their friends or indeed, anyone at all, wearing a bow tie and a dinner jacket to a formal event.

 

   Of course there were exceptions: characters in Hindi movies sometimes wore formal bowties. And the hotel industry decreed that managers at certain top restaurants should wear bowties and dinner jackets in the evening.

 

   Oddly enough, this had the effect of devaluing dinner jackets even further. If you saw a man in evening dress at a fancy party, the chances were that you could ask him to bring you a drink. As no guests ever wore evening dress, the black jacket-black-bowtie look screamed “waiting staff” or “part of the entertainment.”

 

   That’s begun to change in this century. Many high profile Indian weddings now have black tie functions, presumably because they give the guys a chance to dress up as much as the women. And whereas once upon a time, a formal event meant that all the Indians would turn up in bandhgallas, more and more people will now wear full back tie. You can tell how popular the look is by the number of stores --- all the way up from Marks and Spencer --- that now sell dinner jackets, bowties and so-called tuxedo shirts.

 

   But Indians have come to the party late. And we may have arrived just as the party is actually winding down and the era of black tie is ending.

 

   I won’t bore you with the history of black tie but essentially the story involves (as all such stories do) the British royal family and Savile Row. The Prince of Wales asked Henry Poole, a Savile Row tailor (the shop still exists and trades) to make him a dinner jacket because he did not want to wear a tailcoat.

 

   In 1865, when Poole received the commission, even those who followed the royal example and wore dinner jackets, treated the modern version of evening dress as being only slightly different from the old evening dress. They still wore turned up collars, white bow ties, waistcoats etc. Only the jacket was shortened to get rid of the tails.

 

   But slowly, the modern dinner suit emerged. Its main constituents now comprise: a white shirt, a bowtie, and a suit with satin (or something like it) on the jacket lapels and a stripe running down the trousers. Some people still wear waistcoats, studs on their shirts, turned up collars and even cummerbunds but nobody regards any of these as necessary any longer and frankly they look slightly ridiculous in the twenty first century.

 

"The dinner jacket will, I think, probably stay but I doubt if people will want to wear trousers with stripes running down the leg."

   In America, the dinner jacket came to be called a tuxedo after Tuxedo Park, a club in upstate New York whose patrons began wearing dinner jackets, rather than tailcoats, following the lead of the British royal family.

 

   In the West, evening dress is still associated with formal events (which is why most upper middle class men own a dinner jacket, at least in the big cities) so you will see lots of bowties at say, The Golden Globes or the Oscars. But of late, many fashionable men are moving further and further away from the traditional idea of the dinner suit.

 

   The one element that seems set to vanish is the bowtie. To dress formally, you must be able to tie your own bow. I can’t do it (each time I have had to wear the damn thing, I beg someone else to tie it for me) and nor, I suspect, can most of today’s men. We fall back on ready-made bowties which are fastened at the back and seem slightly cheap and tacky.

 

   So more and more men are taking black tie literally. If you have been watching the Oscars you will know that increasingly, stars tend to wear their dinner suits with normal (i.e.: long) black ties. There was a time when this looked daring but it is now quickly becoming the norm.

 

   The next element to go, I suspect, will be the white shirt. Already, anyone who wears a ruffled white shirt or one with an apron and pleats risks looking like a croupier. Most men just wear normal white shirts. But, at the last Golden Globes, over half the men wore dark shirts (to show solidarity with women for the Time’s Up and Me Too campaigns) and nobody thought this was at all odd. I am betting that over the next few years, shirts in solid colours (gray, midnight blue etc.) will gradually replace the classic white shirt.

 

   The dinner jacket will, I think, probably stay but I doubt if people will want to wear trousers with stripes running down the leg.

 

   But while these changes strike me as being irreversible and inevitable, there will be one man who will still wear the classic dinner jacket: James Bond.

 

   Almost all the great characters of popular fiction have at least one signature item of clothing: Superman, Batman and the rest have their costumes. Tarzan has his loincloth. Sherlock Holmes has a deerstalker hat (in the movies; not in Conan Doyle’s novels). The Lone Ranger has his mask. And so on.

 

   For Bond, the dinner jacket is the signature garment. Right from the Sean Connery days, the image of Bond has always been one of a man in a dinner suit holding a gun. Think of James Bond without the dinner jacket and suddenly, he looks like everyone else.

 

   It can’t be a co-incidence that when the producers wanted to introduce Daniel Craig as Bond in Casino Royale, they built a scene around a dinner jacket given to him by Vesper Lynd, his love interest. The scene included a little speech about the importance of dinner jackets. The jacket, made by Brioni, fit Bond perfectly and Vesper explained that she got the right fit simply by sizing Bond up. (Yeah. Sure.)

 

   In every Bond film, there is at least one scene where the secret agent wears a dinner suit and if they can work it into the script, there is usually some kind of action sequence where Bond prances around in a dinner jacket to indicate that not only is he an old school sophisticate but he is also a man of action.

 

   I don’t think that will ever change. Take Daniel Craig’s Bond out of his dinner suits and you are left with just another muscular Jason Bourne-type hero.

 

   So James Bond will stick to his dinner jacket. But should you invest in one? Well, I have a dinner suit but I end up wearing it roughly once a year so I am not sure that the investment has been worth it. Frankly, if I had spent that kind of money on getting a good bandhgalla tailored, I may have got more bang for my buck.

 

   So here’s my view. Leave the bowties and dinner jackets to James Bond and to the catering staff. We are Indians. We look good in bandhgallas. And that is all the formal wear you and I are ever likely to need.
 

 

Posted On: 04 Feb 2018 12:56 PM
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