You’ve invested in a dinner jacket (aka tuxedo), but somehow that sharp, striking reflection in the mirror remains elusive. Being a dandy is in the detail, and whilst there are numerous accessories available for black tie these days, the genuine vintage article can be procured for a modest sum, if you know what to look for.
Traditionally, shirts were collarless. A separate, highly starched collar would have been attached with collar studs at the centre back and front of the collar band. The front stud goes through both sides of both the shirt and the collar (4 layers in all) to keep it neatly together. These collars come in a variety of shapes with their own names, so learn which suits your face, although wing is the convention for black or white tie. The collar MUST be the same size as the collar band.
A dress shirt (to be worn with a dinner jacket or tuxedo) should have a dicky, which is a highly starched or decorated false shirt front. As you only see the collar, dicky and cuffs beneath the jacket, it is important that these areas are crisp, and by crisp I mean starched to kingdom come. We’re all familiar with the 1970s ruffle shirts and the ’80s novelty versions, but the purpose is the same- to fill the chest area attractively.
Inexpensive dress shirts can often be picked up as they appear to be missing buttons. In fact, dress (or shirt) studs are worn to close them, with a single stud going through each side to hold the shirt closed. These range from virtually disposable and made of plastic (yuck) to those made of precious metals inlaid with garnets or diamonds.
To neaten the waist area, a waistcoat or cummerbund is worn. A cummerbund should be pleated so it sits neatly in the curve of your waist, and made of the same fabric as the lapels of your dinner jacket- probably silk satin or grosgrain. It clips shut at the back, well out of view.
For a period look, I prefer waistcoat fronts to a full waistcoat. These were popular in the first half of the twentieth century, and consist of two fronts which meet behind the neck in a kind of halter neck, with two ties at the waist meeting at the centre back with a clasp. They should cover the waistband of your trousers. If you have a fuller chest, they also give a neater line. The fabric is usually cotton piqué or grosgrain silk. Often they have buttonholes and there isn’t a button in sight. This is because they should be worn with decorative waistcoat buttons which attach with a clip, so they can be removed for washing.
The bow tie should be either black or white, depending on the dress code. If white, I like a cotton piqué one that sits well alongside the waistcoat of the same. Apart from anything else, they are hand washable. Otherwise, the bowtie should be the same weave as the jacket lapels, and ideally the cummerbund (in lieu of a waistcoat). You should tie it yourself, the ready made variety are not for those over 16. If you find it tricky, take some simple internet instructions, create a mirror image of said instructions by flipping them in Photoshop or similar, print, pin to your shirt and read in the mirror as you tie the bow tie. Reading directly whilst glancing up at the mirror will never work.
Cufflinks are plentiful in antique sales, thrift stores and on eBay. If you’re in London go to Covent Garden on a Monday morning and peruse the jewellery stalls in the antiques market. You’ll find all sorts of well worn treasures going for a song. They should complement rather than clash with any dress studs and waistcoat buttons worn. If you’re going for classic, mother of pearl throughout would be safe, but the experimentation is where the fun is!
Pocket squares (handkerchiefs) should be pressed white silk. Cotton may be acceptable if it is of a sufficiently high quality and matches the shirt.
Button braces should be white so they are barely seen against your shirt. Hopefully, your trousers will have special buttons with rounded backs in the right places, giving maximum security. If you must wear a belt, then skip the braces. Again, I’d go for eBay as these items are often barely worn before being passed on. Everything about braces is worth a read.
Socks should be black, finely knitted (ideally in silk), and pulled taught over the calf. Sock suspenders can be worn if yours will not stay put. On the right is a guide to appropriate footwear, which should be in either patent or highly polished black leather. The Art of Manliness has more on the subject.
Hats are at your discretion, but NOT to be worn indoors. A black moleskin topper is ideal, the sheen of the skin setting off the lapels and stripe down your trouser leg.
In the mean time, I’d trundle over to eBay, and start typing in keywords, as all these items were commonplace in the years up to the war, and are currently being released from attics and dressing rooms one stud at a time!