You may have bought or rented your first tuxedo in the '70s. It was pale blue with black piping, sort of a formal polyester leisure suit. You wore a double-ruffled blue shirt and a pre-tied bow tie so large that you seemed to be competing with Bozo the clown for a neckwear award. Your hair was wider than your shoulders. You looked like Gene Autry on acid.
Or, more recently, you turned up at your senior prom in a $19.95 well-worn cutaway from a used-clothing emporium on Melrose. You wore a T-shirt with a bow tie and tuxedo vest silk-screened on it. You bought a new pair of patent leather Doc Martens (with the sequins). Your date wore a brassiere, a girdle and a garter belt. And your date was a guy.
Since 1949, Carroll & Co. of Beverly Hills has eschewed these trends and fads in formal wear. Ruffled shirts at Carroll? Never! Such Hollywood immortals as Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck and the king of American elegance, Fred Astaire, wore traditional evening clothes from Carroll. And for the most part, little has changed since Astaire was partially costumed by Carroll & Co. for the 1957 film "Funny Face."
In fact, though satin-faced collars may have been a little wider one year, the shoulders a touch broader (Gable liked a little padding), the American evening ensemble is basically the same today as it was when it was introduced by tobacco tycoon Griswold Lorillard in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., in 1886. According to fashion historian C. Bruce Boyer, women fainted on seeing Lorillard's shortened version of the traditional tail coat.
Today, it's the fashion writers who faint when hordes of male stars show up at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes or the Emmys wearing an unflattering hodgepodge of formal wear, mixing casual wear with tuxedos, white tie with black tie, T-shirts with tails, and the ubiquitous formal "Godfather" look--all black tux, shirt, tie, hair color and sunglasses.
Few stars understand the rules of the tux game. What convinced them that a $10 T-shirt looks great underneath $2,000 Armani and Versace tuxedos? Blame it on Tinseltown angst and the bow tie. The terminally hip stars don't seem to be able to tie a bow tie. So they go with the T-shirt.
Some actors wear pre-tied bow ties if they bother at all. If you absolutely can't wrap your fingers around a hand-tied bow tie, wear a pre-tied bow tie. But don't wear a wing collar with it: The metal clip will show, and your friends will shriek that you look just like Clint Eastwood at this year's Oscars with the clip of the pre-tied bow tie sticking upside his wing collar. It was unforgiven by the fashion press.
Try to stay away from T-shirts and collarless shirts at formal occasions. "A white T-shirt under a tuxedo jacket is an insult," says John Carroll. "The person wearing it is saying, 'I'm normally a real casual guy.' It's unnecessarily rebellious."
He insists that if you want to break a rule, break it with style and grace. Example: Hugh Grant and friends in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" wore traditional morning wear (tails worn during the day, usually at weddings), but they chose outrageously patterned and colored vests, ties and pocket squares to break the too-traditional look.
The traditional American tuxedo ensemble is fairly easy to put together. White tie or full dress tails--is not. Tails, says fashion maven Charles Hix in "Dressing Right" (St. Martin's Press, 1978), are reserved for very special occasions, such as a debutante dance, a diplomatic ball or a Mardi Gras ball. The next time you're off to a diplomatic ball and need visual assistance, check out Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film "Morocco." The lady knows how to wear tails.
A classic American formal look is a single- or double-breasted tuxedo jacket and pants in a tropical worsted. The jacket should have a peaked satin or grosgrain lapel (matching the stripe on the pants leg). The white shirt should be a simple pleated one with French cuffs. Studs are not mandatory but can add a little flair. A cummerbund or vest (low cut, not a full English waistcoat) should match the bow tie. If you want to cut loose a little, don't wear a black cummerbund and tie--try a little color and some pattern. If your pants fit well, don't worry about suspenders (which should be black or white).
Americans generally wear patent-leather slip-ons or Oxfords, although the French custom of fabric slippers has finally crept into the formula. If you have to wear a tuxedo for work, as does Bernard Erpicum, owner of the trendy Hollywood restaurant Eclipse, the soft European slipper is a godsend. "They're like velvet sneakers," he says. "I can run around all night in them."
It's fairly simple to wear formal gear properly; it's not much more work than a suit and tie. And, as Erpicum suggests, "hassle the tailor, and get a little more room in the pants. A tuxedo can be as comfortable as a bathrobe."
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How to Knot Up
Starting with one end about 1 1/2 inches longer than the other, cross the long end over the short end and pull it through the center.
Form a single loop with the short end, centering it where the knot will be, and bring the long end over it.
Form a loop with the long end and push it through the knot behind the first loop. Adjust the ends carefully.
Excerpted from Esquire magazine
The Good, the Bad and the Really Ugly
Steven Spielberg receives the Best Dressed Funeral Director Award at this year's Oscars. The shirt, the tie, the vest are all out of place with a tuxedo jacket worn in the evening. Where's the coffin?
Busy, busy Clint Eastwood forgot to take the paper clip off his pre-tied bow tie. Attached to the clip was a memo that said: "Clint, never, never wear a white pique bow tie and vest with a tuxedo jacket! They're worn only with tails."
Here's dark Christian Slater fresh from an audition for "Godfather IV." He'll also be dyeing his hair black for the part.
Although handsome, Denzel Washington lost the Best Dressed Funeral Director Award this year to Spielberg, but he'll be a shoo-in next year if he sticks with this look.
Tom Cruise, also slated to appear in "Godfather IV," is said to be vying for the role of the party-hopping Vatican emissary. He's dressing the part here.
Darn those Brits! They always get it right. At the Golden Globe Awards, Anthony Hopkins, with Emma Thompson, showed us how to do it. The loosely constructed bow tie is a clue that it was hand-tied.
If this whole tuxedo game leaves you in a muddle, blow it off and wear a dark Blues Brothers suit and tie like Quentin Tarantino did at this year's Oscars. You may look out of place, but you'll be very, very cool.