First sported by British royalty in the mid-nineteenth century and brought into the public eye a few decades later by the well-heeled residents of Tuxedo Park, New York, the tuxedo has had a long and rich past—and an exciting present. Formal black-tie dressing flourished at weddings this year, and recent red-carpet events have been filled with stylish variations on this enduring classic. This look has a reputation for being tricky to pull off, but if you’re wondering how to wear a tuxedo without looking like a rejected extra from a Bond film, relax. A review of the essential components of a tuxedo, along with some key considerations as to etiquette and fit, should reassure you as to how effortless mastering this sophisticated style can be.
The Difference Between a Tuxedo and a Suit
A tuxedo is one of those fashion items that many people could pick out of a photo, yet might struggle to describe if asked. A classic tuxedo is differentiated from a suit in these following areas:
The tuxedo jacket
Unlike most suit jackets, in which the lapels are made from the same fabric as the rest of the garment, a tuxedo jacket will have lapels made from a different and distinct fabric—satin is traditional, but you may also see lapels made of silk, velvet, or some other luxurious material. Suit jackets most often have notched lapels, which are not customarily found on a tuxedo; a tuxedo jacket will have either shawl lapels, which are smooth lapels with a rounded edge and no notch, or peaked lapels, in which the edge points upward toward the shoulders in a sharp peak. Wide lapels on a tuxedo jacket are a classic look, while skinny lapels are considered more contemporary.
A tailcoat, in which the back of the jacket extends down into a long tail, is not part of a classic tuxedo. Traditionally, a tailcoat is worn only during occasions that specifically call for white-tie dressing. If you’re dining with royalty, wear a tailcoat; for most formal occasions short of that, a tuxedo jacket will look more appropriate.
The tuxedo pants
Designed to coordinate with the jacket, tuxedo pants often have a slim stripe of fabric, known as a braid, running along the outer seams. Tuxedo pants will not have belt loops; if you’re concerned about your pants staying in place without a belt, wear suspenders instead.
The tuxedo shirt
A fancier and more formal version of a dress shirt, a tuxedo shirt may have a rectangular bib in front, which often features narrow vertical front pleats or, less frequently, ruffles. Expect your tuxedo shirt to have French cuffs, which will require cufflinks to fasten; you may also choose to fasten your shirt in front with small decorative studs instead of buttons. The collar style varies, but wing-tip collars, which form small winglike points, are a popular option due to how well they complement bow ties.
The vest or cummerbund
A cummerbund is a wide pleated sash worn around the waist in place of a belt. Wear it with the pleats facing up; historically, men in tuxedos used to stash their theater tickets inside the pleats. You may wear a cummerbund, a vest (known throughout the UK as a waistcoat—vest comes from weskit, the archaic English pronunciation of waistcoat), or neither, but please, not both at once.
The bow tie
The precursor to the bow tie is the cravat, named for the seventeenth-century Croatian soldiers who’d knot scarves around their necks to keep their collars together—and to protect their throats from swords and knives. While dressed in a tuxedo, protect your neck and give your ensemble a crowning touch with a bow tie. Leave the clip-on or pre-tied versions at home; learning how to properly tie a bow tie may not come easily to everyone, but it is an important rite of passage into maturity.
When to Wear a Tuxedo
Oscar Wilde once said, “You can never be overdressed or undereducated.” While we’re hesitant to correct the iconic Mr. Wilde on issues of style, we must lodge a small protest: Where the tuxedo is concerned, it is very much possible to be overdressed. There are a select handful of occasions at which it’s appropriate to wear a tuxedo—weddings, formal dinners, award ceremonies, a night at the opera, senior prom—and many more occasions at which a tuxedo would look wildly out of place. Keep in mind that a tuxedo is supposed to represent the epitome of formal wear and should be reserved only for special events.
Traditional etiquette dictates that tuxedos be worn only at night, though this rule may be stretched for daytime weddings. If you’re concerned whether wearing a tuxedo would be appropriate, check your invitation for one of these phrases: “Black Tie” or “Black Tie Optional.” “Black Tie” means you’re expected to show up in a tuxedo; “Black Tie Optional” means you’ve been given carte blanche to wear one, though you could opt to wear a formal suit instead.
Your Tuxedo Color Palette
Black is the most classic tuxedo color, but if you feel like broadening your horizons, a wide array of options are open to you. At the 2018 Oscars, Jordan Peele, Daniel Kaluuya, and Armie Hammer wore eye-catching statement tuxedos in, respectively, white, gold and maroon; more than a year after the 2017 Emmys, we’re still thinking about Donald Glover’s tuxedo in aubergine velvet. Patterns, too, are a viable option, as David Oyelowo demonstrated at the 2016 Golden Globes with his purple check tuxedo. If you want to take a style cue from any of the aforementioned gentlemen by choosing to wear an attention-grabbing statement tux, it’s hard to go astray with the elegance of cream or a rich, universally-flattering shade like midnight blue. Tuxedos in pastel shades and bright colors like royal blue or cherry red risk looking juvenile or gimmicky, but if an unconventional color looks good on you, and if your tuxedo is beautifully cut and fits you flawlessly, be bold and seize the day.
Your Tuxedo Options
You may wonder if you can substitute a necktie—or perhaps an ascot or a bolo tie—for the traditional bow tie. The simple answer: You can, technically, but you probably shouldn’t, at least not without a good reason. The bow tie is an integral component of the tuxedo; if you swap it for a regular long necktie, it will remove some of the formality and make your tuxedo look more like an everyday suit. The bow tie is designed to accentuate the other parts of the ensemble, such as the wingtips on the collar, the ruffles on the bib, the studs on the shirt, and the cut of the lapels.
However, it may be argued that hard-and-fast fashion rules are meant to be broken, and certainly some men have looked stylish and polished in a tuxedo paired with a long tie. If you’re set on this course, we won’t try to stop you—we’ll just urge you to make sure your necktie is refined enough to live up to the example set by the rest of your outfit. Black satin or silk would be a smart choice.
Tuxedo bow ties are traditionally black, though they also come in a variety of colors; white, navy, and silver are popular choices. Avoid wild or whimsical prints or patterns, which will bring the level of formality down several notches. You could also choose to add a pop of color to your ensemble with your vest or cummerbund; if you take this path, resist the urge to match the colors of your bow tie and your cummerbund. To keep your look sophisticated, a colorful cummerbund pairs best with a standard black bow tie. You may also choose to accessorize your jacket with a pocket square or a boutonnière.
As for tuxedo-appropriate footwear, wear formal black loafers or lace-up dress shoes in polished leather or suede, paired with thin black socks. Some men find the insouciance of pairing sneakers with a tuxedo irresistible; if this describes you, make sure they’re the best sneakers you own.
How Should a Tuxedo Fit?
In a word: well. Fit is particularly important for a tuxedo, which will most likely be worn on some of the most important days of your life; don’t diminish the effect by showing up in a too-tight or too-baggy off-the-rack number. A custom-made tuxedo from Knot Standard, crafted by experienced professionals to your precise measurements and specifications, will help you look and feel sophisticated and confident.
If a formal event looms in your future, make an appointment to meet with a stylist at a Knot Standard showroom near you. You and your stylist will work together to come up with the perfect tuxedo, whether classic or contemporary, to help you mark the most significant events in your life with style and sophistication.