A Comprehensive Guide to Formal Wear for Men

Dress codes are pretty easy these days. Depending on where we work, we’re asked to maintain a level of industry-specific professionalism, from a suit and tie at some financial concerns to a clean T-shirt and jeans at West Coast tech start-ups. If you’re skimming The Manual, we’ll also assume that you go that extra mile to meet your own high standards of style. You know how to throw on a suit with aplomb for the new client meeting and how to pair a half-zip with trim-fit khakis to look like a million bucks on casual Friday. 

Every so often, though, the gauntlet gets thrown down and we’re invited to engage in the highest expression of sartorial splendor, observing highly codified rules of decorum: The formal event. This is the moment where we need to show up dressed somewhere between the dressed-to-slay panache of Billy Porter and the ennui of the cater-waiter who is required to wear a black-tie uniform. Here is our guide to the “new rules” of formal wear for men.

But First, Check the Invitation

Whether it’s for a wedding, a fundraising gala, or a fancy dress ball, the dress code should be spelled out clearly in the event invitation. Even with that guidance, it’s always a good idea to confirm with friends and colleagues who have attended similar events to be sure about expectations. Did your buddy go to the bride’s sister’s wedding? Check with him. Did your coworker go to that charity ball last year? What did he wear? Like a good Boy Scout, be prepared. 

White Tie

The rarest — and most formal — dress code, White Tie requires tails, a white vest, and, of course, a bow tie.

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If you’re not the president or you’re not meeting the queen, you probably don’t have to worry about White Tie. Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images

Unless you’re royalty, a diplomat, or run in some seriously high financial circles, it’s not likely you’ll ever need to worry about this practice. If you do, walk into the most expensive store in town and let them take care of everything. These rules haven’t changed much since the late-1700s, so there’s little room for variation or creativity. 

Black Tie 

You’re more likely to be invited to an event that is Black Tie, Creative Black Tie, or Black Tie Optional. These are the spaces where you can begin to show off a little — the time when you might elicit an audible sigh from a spouse or date when you show up dressed head-to-toe like the dashing male lead you are. 

If you think this is a rare occasion, feel free to rent a tux. Save yourself some closet space. There are now many tasteful rental options that far outpace the options that were once available.

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You can’t go wrong with a black tux paired with a white button-down and a black bow tie. This combo is worth the investment. Larry Williams/Getty Images

There is a time in a man’s life, however, when it’s time to buy a tux. You’re invited to several formal weddings. You’re on the board of a local charity or work in an industry where you’re required to go to several fundraising galas a year.  I bought my first tuxedo not long after I graduated from college and wore it for nearly 20 years before it started to look dated. Tux silhouettes don’t change that radically, so, assuming you’re not wearing it more than two or three times a year, it should last quite a while.

If you are going to buy one, put yourself in the hands of a professional. If you have the means, work with a custom clothier to have a tux made to fit your proportions perfectly. Keep it simple! Midnight blue or black are the only truly acceptable hues for a tuxedo unless you are going to own more than one. (Midnight blue was actually the original tuxedo color, used because it looked black and richer in the yellow-cast incandescent lights of the late 1800s.) The lapels should be in black satin or grosgrain fabric in contrast to the matte finish of the rest of the suit. 

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A formal go-to is the French cuff shirt, aka a classic button-down with thicker cuffs perfect for showing off those links. Eli77/Getty Images

You can wear a classic white dress shirt with a tux, preferably with French cuffs, but keep in mind that this is an opportunity to show off a bit. Our preference is the classic pleated-front shirt with French cuffs and a wing collar. We also like a pique fabric “bib” in the front as a substitute for the pleats. Keep cufflinks elegant and simple. Silk knots look dignified, and won’t break the bank if you’re not springing for a full set of diamond cufflinks and studs. 

Of course, this being black tie, a black bow tie is preferred, but, let’s try not to look like we’re on staff at the event. A bow tie is required for that wing collar shirt, but if you prefer, you can wear a regular necktie with a regular dress shirt for a very clean, modern look. Keep it dark in either case. Risk a Black Watch plaid, or a subtle pin-dot pattern. 

Further Reading:

The great thing is that — now that you own a tux — you can create options with variations on the shirt and tie so you don’t feel like you’re wearing the same outfit to every event. This is especially handy if you’ll be seeing the same faces at these soirees. 

Keep accessories simple. For shoes, there is an added level of formality to just about anything in patent leather (OK, maybe not those Doc Martens). Black cap-toe oxfords are great, as are classic Gucci loafers, but leave the Bass Weejuns at home. A Chelsea boot is fine. Brogue oxfords work, only if they are very trim, not chunky. Really want to knock ‘em dead? Go for Belgian slippers. 

Wear a coordinating, simple black dress belt, but if your pants are fitted perfectly, that may not be necessary. Suspenders are also acceptable, but only black or white. Keep socks simple and wear at least to the knee to prevent unsightly bagging up at the ankle. Finally, finish off the look with a minimalistic silk pocket square in black or white silk (just not something that from a matched set that comes with a tie).

Black Tie Optional or Creative Black Tie

Now that you’ve mastered the basics, creative black tie or black tie optional are easy. This is where you get to play. Want to try that retro ruffled tux shirt? Do it. Skip the tie for the night? Sure. Wear those piano key suspenders? Don’t you dare. 

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Get creative with your accessories by wearing a non-traditional shirt underneath your tux or suit separates. Zahir Namane

The lines also begin to blur here for semi-formal. Often the after-work fundraiser or “relaxed black tie” wedding means that you don’t necessarily have to break out your tuxedo, but should still maintain a level of formality. Wear your best black suit or the deepest, darkest blue or gray. A vest is a plus, as is that classic French cuff dress shirt. Again, keep neckwear simple, but feel free to experiment with subtle stripes, medallions, or dots. A silk knit tie (not cotton or wool) in a darker hue is also a nice touch here. Shoes? See above. This is not the moment to rock those new trainers. 

Note that,  especially in spring and summer, you might be able to skip the tie completely or substitute a lightweight version, like a minimal cotton Liberty of London print, for instance. Swap out a linen pocket square — again, in the simplest of patterns — for a warm-weather statement that maintains formality. 

Our Final Formal Tips

  1. Don’t wait until the day of the event to try on all the elements. Try everything on in front of a full-length mirror a week or two beforehand to make sure everything is in great shape. 
  2. Make sure your tuxedo or suit fits well. If you’ve had it for a while, it may be time to head to the tailor to make sure that the fit is optimal — and that your getup is perfectly clean. 
  3. Polish those shoes.
  4. Consider a boutonniere, or at least a fabric flower to tuck into your lapel. 

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