The dinner jacket or tuxedo has long been one of the most formal get ups available for the gentleman dresser, and it’s typically always worn the same way. Chances are you’ll buy one for a one-off fancy event – a wedding, perhaps, or some boozy industry awards – and it’ll most likely be black, with satin lapels worn with matching trousers, white dress shirt and a bow tie.
There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with this look. James Bond will tell you that. But while it often allows a man to look his best it’s rather lost its licence to thrill. Whisper it, but the dinner jacket is boring. So overdone is the penguin suit look that it’s a small wonder why men keep returning to it. Plus, if you spend decent money on a dinner jacket, why restrict yourself to wearing it just once or twice a year?
Hear us out here. If you buy the right dinner jacket you can wear it for all manner of occasions. It pays to be a little creative of course, but if worn with the correct garments you can be both the best dressed man at your next black tie affair, and the talk of the evening (for all the right reasons) on your next night on the town.
Why The Rules No Longer Apply
You’ll have heard it countless times before: menswear is in the midst of a new, casual direction which has resulted in dress codes breaking down and becoming somewhat irrelevant. Basically, the suit is not what it once was – the right one today can work just as well with trainers and a T-shirt as it can with Oxfords and a necktie. You just have to know what you’re doing is all. This is even true at many Savile Row houses such as Gieves & Hawkes, whose creative director John Harrison likes “to see traditional rules broken, as long as there is a nod to the history of the usage.”
Can the same be said of the dinner jacket and can it really be worn outside of the usual march of the penguins? Traditionalists would tell you otherwise, but yes, it can. The increased formality just means you’ll have to be extra careful with how you style it.
Don’t believe us? Allow Thom Whiddett, co-founder of Mayfair tailor Thom Sweeney to educate: “These days there are varying degrees of formality to events so I think you can adapt accordingly. If it’s a wedding party or a festive celebration there’s huge scope to adapt the [dress] code. I would wear a deep corduroy or velvet [dinner jacket] with a simple merino roll neck and play around with colour.”
Need another reason to mix up the dinner jacket? Comfort. Yes, all the bells and whistles may hark back to the golden age of Hollywood but they can be a literal pain in the neck. Model Richard Biedul agrees: “Whilst I love the tradition and elegance of black tie, there is no denying that at times it is uncomfortable, expensive and totally impractical.”
Menswear has been plagued by rules for decades, and formal clothing has always been under the most scrutiny, but it no longer has to be. Take a leaf out of Biedul’s book: “In the past I’ve been known to wear white trainers with a dinner jacket instead of shoes, roll necks as opposed to dress shirts and even neck scarfs as an alternative to a bow ties. When it comes to the rules of formal attire or dressing in general, I’m a firm believer in the mantra that ‘they are there to be broken’.”
New Ways To Wear A Dinner Jacket
Forget The Bow Tie
This is perhaps the easiest way to freshen up a dinner jacket. Simply wear as you normally would – with black evening trousers, black patent Derbies and a white dress shirt, but forgo a bow tie and instead artfully drape a lightweight silk scarf around your neck.
Not only will this strip some of the stuffiness out of your black tie look, you’ll also be able to play around with colour and pattern in the form of the scarf. Look out for subtle checks – a glen check or Prince of Wales – and go for a textured jacket. A deep velvet will work best.
Go All Black
Fancy channelling your inner Bond villain? You’ll require an all-black look complete with roll neck and fancy velvet slippers (a furry white cat is optional).
The ideal look for posh dinners or your work Christmas party, it’s both comfortable and incredibly easy to wear. There’s no fussing around with shirt studs and you won’t have to spend hours in front of the mirror learning how to tie a bow tie, but you will be just as elegant – especially if you match the velvet of your jacket with your shoes.
Lightweight Knitwear Is Your Friend
You may be starting to notice the versatility of the velvet jacket by now. The difference between this one and the top two though? The lapels – these are notch lapels cut in the same fabric as the jacket, whereas the top two are shawl lapels cut in silk, making them far more formal and as a result more difficult to style.
This ‘bog standard’ version then is perhaps the most versatile. It can easily be dressed up with a shirt and bow tie, or, in this case, worn more casually with a merino knit crew neck, chinos and chukka boots.
Gieves & Hawkes
Want to mix up your black tie look but still hark back to tradition? Keep the old school details but freshen up the dinner jacket itself.
Part of the reason black tie can be so boring is because every man in the room looks the same. It’s the evening equivalent to the sea of blue suits you’ll see outside of every major office block in London or New York. Mix it up. Go bold with a silk jacquard blazer – with a natty paisley or geometric print – which is both a welcome break from the norm and an incredibly stylish conversation starter.
What’s more, this kind of look is slowly increasing in demand, as Harrison notes: “We have moved away from all black to lighter shades, colour and texture. Pastel silks with subtle foliage weaves for example. Customers are opting for more interesting pieces and the move to a more individual garment is ever increasing.”
Don’t Rule Out Trainers
This look won’t be for everyone, but if you want to truly spice up a dinner jacket then look no further. Throw the rule book out the window and you’ll end up with something like this.
The suit itself is fairly traditional – black with satin shawl lapel and mid-rise trousers, albeit cropped short at the ankle. The styling is anything but, yet it can work. The black neckerchief mimics the job of a bow tie, as does the white T-shirt with its collared cousin. They act as visual reminders of what everyone is used to seeing with black tie.
So far, so good. But, to truly subvert the dress code, swap out the (usually) black shoes for a pair of chunky trainers. Who needs rules anyway?
How To Wear A Dinner Jacket In 5 Fresh Looks
The penguin suit has had its day