" The Suit : A Machiavellian Approach to Men's
in the Modern World
follows is (more or less) the text of a speech delivered at
a convention of wedding
planners. I was asked to discuss "What the well dressed
groom is wearing." Well, not exactly. The invitation was
actually not specific at all. So I figured a polite harangue
might be most useful. If any of you find this post
"Tutee-esque," and thus derivative, I would take that as the
highest form of praise.
I appreciate the invitation to speak to you today. It’s an
honor for me personally, and very gratifying to know that
people “in the business” are interested in the opinions of a
mere hobbyist like me.
It’s also gratifying to know that some attention is being
paid to the poor grooms of the world. We guys are often, if
not afterthoughts, at least relatively neglected in these
affairs. Yet we’re half of the show, so to speak. Or,
realistically, maybe a third. And we ought to look our best.
Most men don’t like to think about clothes, if they can
avoid it. But occasionally they find themselves controlled
by events. An impending
wedding would be one such event.
Now, men want to look their best for their
don’t want to let down their brides. They are dimly aware
that there are traditions that somehow govern these things,
and they feel a vague desire to follow those traditions. But
they are not sure what the traditions are, or where to turn
to find out. So they either leave it to their brides to tell
them what to wear, or they turn to you.
The way I see it, I’m here to serve two purposes. First, to
be a wet blanket. I’m going to tell you all the traditional
“rules” of wedding
attire. I’m not going to hide my affection for those rules.
I will do my best not to let my disdain for deviations show
too much. In what follows, I will be perhaps annoyingly
dogmatic and proscriptive. My purpose is only to state for
the record what the traditions are. Yes, I would be pleased
as punch if everyone followed them. I think it would make
the world a more elegant place. But you—and your
clients—have to decide for yourselves. I hope only to give a
firm foundation to those who want to follow the rules. And,
by the way, in your minds you should attach the following
preface to everything you hear me say: “According to
tradition, this is how it is supposed to be done.” I’m not
going to repeat that over and over because it would become
tiresome for all of us. But it applies to everything I will
My second purpose, I hope, will be to point the way toward
elegant alternatives for those who can’t or won’t go whole
hog, and also to “update” the classic look a bit, because in
some respects even I agree not every element plays well in
this day and age.
So: “Gallia Est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres”
A little classical literature there to get the blood
flowing. Now, just as Gaul is divided into three parts, so
wedding attire is
divided into three parts: formal, semi-formal, and informal.
But before we can even get to that, we must consider the
most fundamental distinction of all: day versus night. What
time is the wedding?
If it is before the sun goes down or six o’clock (whichever
comes first), then it is in the daytime. After, and it is at
night. This is important because clothing appropriate for
daytime weddings differs dramatically from clothing
appropriate in the evenings.
This distinction goes back to pre-industrial age. Before
there were cars, there were horses, and horses smell.
Gentlemen were expected not bring that smell into the house
and especially the dining room. Thus was born the concept of
“dressing for dinner,” and hence evening clothes.
Here I have to be firmly proscriptive. Tuxedos (how I hate
the dismal term!) are simply not appropriate for a daytime
wedding. They are
evening clothes. I know, I know. Everybody does it. Who
cares any more? Right? Well, I concede that grooms can wear
them if they want to. The fashion police won’t come to haul
anyone away. But your clients will not look as elegant as
they would were they to uphold tradition.
Once you know what time the
wedding is, the next step is to decide its level
There are three:
1. Formal is “full dress”, all the stops, the full rig,
2. Semi-formal is what most of us today consider “formal”;
3. Informal is pretty much anything else.
Formal and semi-formal each have their own sets of rules
based on time of day. Informal is mostly the same all day
Most weddings are in the daytime, so it makes sense to start
here. Plus, it’s chronological.
The traditional garb for the groom and the
wedding part and
even the guests is the morning coat. This is the granddaddy
of all male wedding
attire. This is the one in all the movies, from
Swing Time to
Father of the Bride
(Spencer Tracy, not Steve Martin) to
Arthur and beyond.
This gentleman is wearing a morning coat:
Strictly speaking, this garment not merely
It’s formal day wear, worn for any ceremonial occasion in
daylight hours that requires full dress. If your groom
stands a decent chance of being invited to a garden party at
Buckingham Palace, or a diplomatic reception at the Japanese
Diet, one of these will come in handy. But in this country,
in this day and age, it’s only worn for weddings, and even
for these less and less. The Europeans still stick to it, by
and large. In England, especially, this coat is still
relatively popular. Even
wedding guests wear them—remember
Four Weddings and a Funeral?—and
it’s not uncommon for non-aristocrats to own their own.
You can see that the morning coat—also called the
“cutaway”—is long. In back, its tails should end right at
the break of the knee. In front it should button at the
waist. Traditionally, it actually had no button per se, but
two buttonholes joined by something like a cufflink. Tailors
called this a "link front."
As to configuration: the most traditional version has peaked
lapels and only one front button. Back in the day, you would
see other configurations:
I wouldn’t exactly call them incorrect, but I would steer
you to one-button peak, as it is the most formal and
classic. And in any case, you won’t be able to find anything
else unless you go to a bespoke tailor. Not that finding a
morning coat off the rack is exactly easy these days.
Color: (this is important!): It can only be black or gray.
And if gray, either oxford gray, or else a mid-gray which I
will get to in a moment. Oxford gray is a very dark gray
that looks almost black. You might say, “So why not just
make it black? What’s the difference?” Well, maybe not much.
But the gray version has a bit more interest and takes the
light better, which is why I prefer it every time.
The trousers are a special kind of stripe that Savile Row
tailors call “cashmere stripes” even though they have always
been wool and never cashmere. Go figure. I wish I had a good
pic; sorry. But I do have swatch book which you can come up
and see later. It’s a fancy, black, gray and silver
multistripe. Ever hear the derisive term “striped pants”
used to refer to officious, overly formal types, like
diplomats? This is where it comes from.
Alternatives include a dark ground chalk stripe or a fancy
Always stay in the gray-silver-black family, however.
Now, there is an alternative. The mid grey coat I mentioned
takes matching trousers. This “morning suit” was once
considered too informal for anything but the racetrack.
You can just make out a chap in an all gray morning suit to
the right of the woman in the blue dress.
But even wearing such a get up to Ascot carries, or carried,
risks. The duke of Windsor, when prince of Wales, tried it
once only to find the entire royal party in black because in
mourning over some member of the Royal Family whom the
prince could scarcely remember. His father was most
displeased. The prince was warned not to come back unless in
black. His poor tailor had to pull an all-nighter to make
him a black coat.
In more recent years, this outfit has come to be seen as
acceptable for a summer
The trousers don’t take cuffs. Cuffs are, in fact, never
suppose to be seen on formal wear. Lest you think I am
making this up or making too much of it, the whole plot of
the movie Swing Time
hinges on just this point. Not one but two weddings are
called off because the grooms insist on cuffs on their
Your groom will also need a vest. It can be single or double
breasted, but double looks much better. The color should be
light: either dove gray or off white or (perhaps best of
all) “buff”, a sort of creamy yellow. The traditional
material was linen, but wool boxcloth will do, and might be
better for winter. One caveat: if he goes with the morning
suit, the vest should match (same cloth) the coat and
Shirts are a fraught question. The traditional shirt was a
wing collar formal shirt, worn with an ascot. Not a Thurston
Howell ascot, but a formal ascot like this:
Here’s a picture of the overall look:
Now, if the bride is really into Jane Austen, this will go
down very well, as it reminds a certain category of women of
Mr. Darcy, whom they admire very much. Don’t ask me how I
know this; I just know.
For all practical purposes today, the wing collar shirt and
ascot tie are dead. Perhaps deservedly so: the rental shops
have done this look so badly over the years, with tiny wing
collars and cheap looking ties, that the whole look has come
to be sadly reminiscent of the 1970s robin’s egg blue tux
with ruffled shirt.
If you’re going to do it, there’s no substitute for doing it
right, and that means a proper formal shirt with a
detachable wing collar, with substantial wings. That means,
alas, getting the shirt custom made by the handful of
companies left in the world that know how to do this; or
else getting one from the few remaining firms that can do it
ready to wear, and most of these are in London.
practical. The good news is that there is an alternative. A turn down
collar shirt—that is, a shirt that looks much like a business shirt—is
perfectly acceptable and elegant alternative, with a pretty good pedigree.
The bad news is that to truly do this right, the shirt
should also have a detachable stiff collar. A soft attached
collar just does not have the same “presence” and seems
overwhelmed by the majesty of the coat. Yet for those who
simply find it insane to go to such lengths in this day and
age, an attached collar shirt will do—so long as the collar
is white. The body of the shirt can be white, or else very
pale blue or yellow, or (this is quite elegant) a white
ground with pale blue stripes. Nothing too loud or fancy.
French cuffs only, either white or self (the same cloth as
the body of the shirt; this is preferable, I think).
With the turndown collar, the four-in-hand tie is worn.
Nothing fancy, this is the same shape worn by businessmen
everyday, just like the one I am wearing now.
(By the way,
as an aside, I note that while it used to be considered
“correct” to wear a four-in-hand with a wing collar and
morning wear, I recommend against it. You will end up
looking like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich, and
we all know how that turned out.)
The English have a whole category of ties that they call
These are woven silk in gray, black and silver, usually in
one of three patterns—houndstooth, shepherd’s check (what I
am wearing now) or glen plaid.
These are very much recommended. Also fine are so-called
Macclesfield ties: ties woven in very tight, neat little
patterns. Again, silver, black and grey are most
But as we have seen so far, one sees other things. But keep
it festive—no black—and serious: no cartoony prints. I would
avoid red as well.
Tradition has it that the groom gives ties to the
The famed Naples tie company Marinella recommends giving a
tie to every male guest. But then they would, wouldn’t they?
Still, giving ties to the
wedding party is a good tradition that has at
least one solid advantage: you have vastly increased the
odds that your best man and ushers will show up wearing an
appropriate tie. I recommend not giving them all identical
ties but appropriate wedding
ties that are each a little different.
I suppose this is good a place as any to make a point that
needs to be made. There is no need for the groom, his best
man, and his ushers to match in every respect from neck to
toe. In fact, it looks silly. Take a look at pictures from
very elegant weddings in prior years, and you see that in
fact the wedding
party does not match.
Among its other problems, all-matching
just scream “rented clothes!” Certainly if the dress code is
morning coat, then everyone in the party should wear a
morning coat. But shirt, tie, vest, etc., can and should all
be a little different. After all, we men are not robots.
Shoes. The truly correct footwear with a morning coat is a
pair highly polished dress balmoral boots (in black, of
Better still if they have canvas, linen, or felt tops that
Those actually belong to a friend of mine.
Now, before you think me crazy (if you haven’t come to that
conclusion already), let me just put in a word for the bal
boot. It is actually a useful piece of footwear: nice and
warm in winter, protects the ankles from mud, rain, snow and
slush, yet when your trouser leg is down you can’t tell it
from a business shoe. In other words, it has applications
that take its usefulness past the
For those interested, I recommend the “Shannon” model from
Edward Green. Tell them I sent you; I get cumulative
discounts for referrals.
Okay, returning to earth, a plain black dress shoe is fine,
1. It is not a blucher; that is, it does not look like
But instead like this:
2. it is either completely plain like the shoe shown
above, or has broguing—those decorative holes—only on the
Personally, I prefer these, called “punch caps” in the
trade, for morning wear, and for business generally. If your
groom doesn’t have a pair, tell him to get one, as it is
about the most useful shoe he can own.
Socks: for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, don’t wear plain
black socks. So, so boring. Take a little time and fine
something in black and white or silver with a little
Accessories. I’m not going to go into all the arcane rules
about canes, gloves and such. I just want to make a few
quick points. If you have a pair of vintage spats, this
would be the day to wear them. There should be a
handkerchief in the breast pocket of the coat. I recommend
white linen, folded to show a straight edge, sticking out
just a hair, maybe 1/4”.
Flowers. We all know there will be—and must be—flowers. I’m
going to make myself very unpopular with the florists here
when I say: skip the pre-made boutor at least carry, a
top hat with morning dress. In fact, you cannot get into the
Royal Enclosure at Ascot without one. A problem that has
bedeviled us all at one time or another, I am sure. Here I
am going to make a concession to both modernity and reality
and offer a dispensation: if you go to the trouble of
wearing full morning rig to your
wedding, you will
have done your part on behalf of taste and style, and can be
forgiven for forgoing the topper.
Before moving onto semi-formal day wear, I want to present a
little evidence that this CAN be done in the modern age, and
that it still looks great.
This young chap is a rare breed. That is a vintage morning
coat that he took to a local tailor to have altered. Compare
to this rental:
No comparison, eh?
The vest is spectacular.
And he even wore a detachable collar. I would fault him only
on the tie, and only a little. I like the woven texture, I
wish the color palatte were a little brighter. All in all,
supremely well done, and for a surprisingly low cost. But of
course it took a lot of time and effort to put that
Now, on to semi-formal day wear. I’m going to spend a lot
less time on this, because it largely, if undeservedly,
defunct, and also because it differs very little from formal
The key difference is the coat. Instead of a morning coat
with long tails, semi-formal day wear calls for the
stroller. Here is Ronald Reagan at his first inauguration,
wearing what may have been the stroller’s last public
appearance in this country:
In 1985, he wore a business suit.
In any case, the stroller is cut just like a suit jacket. It
can be single or double breasted, but should have peaked
lapels in either case. Like the morning coat, it can be
black or dark gray. Unlike the morning coat, there is no
such think as a “stroller suit.” The stroller always takes
striped or checked trousers.
Here are some strollers:
Forget the wing collar altogether, and wear a turndown
collar. Otherwise, the same rules as to shirts, ties, shoes,
and accessories apply, except one: if you really want to
wear a hat, don’t let it be a topper. Instead, a black
homburg or bowler is correct.
It is a strange fact that the stroller is now much less
popular than the morning coat, considering that usually in
these matters, it is the more formal and more old-fashioned
garment that dies first. Just look at evening formal wear.
Tails—analogous to the morning coat—are all but dead,
whereas the dinner jacket—the nighttime equivalent of the
stroller—is still relatively healthy.
I can only guess as to why this should be. There was time
when, in major cities like London and New York, the lounge
suit—what we today simply call a suit—was not considered
formal enough for the office. A lot of office workers wore
strollers and striped pants. This never happened with
respect to the dinner jacket. Perhaps the stroller came to
be seen as a “clerk’s get-up,” more reminiscent of Captain
than a head of state.
It’s a nice garment, but hardly practical, in that you won’t
ever have an occasion to wear it again. In the days of yore,
you could haul it out for Easter services, baptisms, things
like that, but no more. I figure, if a man wants to dress up
in something thoroughly impractical for his
wedding, he may
as well go with the morning coat.
Finally, we come to what most everyone thinks of as formal
wear: the dinner jacket or “tuxedo” and the tailcoat.
I must repeat, these are ONLY appropriate at night. I know
that people rent tuxes for daytime weddings all the time. I
am well aware that nothing I say will change that. But, I am
here speaking to a collection of distinguished
professionals. You above all need to know the truth.
Lately, as well, I have noticed a new trend: stage the
wedding in the
late afternoon, so that the reception can be dinner and a
party with no set end time. People don’t like to get drunk
in the middle of the day. I understand and condone that
sentiment. Actually, it may be surprising to learn that we
were not the first to have this thought. It’s actually
covered in old etiquette books. And the rule was, if the
place in the day, the man wears a morning coat. And if the
reception goes into the evening, he still wears a morning
coat. The rule that forbids morning coats in the evening was
thus bent for the sake of practicality. And so could it be
However, there are sound reasons why one would prefer
evening wear for one’s
wedding. It is more common, people understand it,
it doesn’t look so anachronistic, men in the
wedding party may
actually own the stuff already, making rentals unnecessary.
I’m not saying I condone the practice. If I had my druthers,
all black or white tie weddings would begin at night. To all
those who just can’t be bothered with morning wear, I
suggest other alternatives, which I will get to shortly.
Nonetheless, for the sake of thoroughness, I will briefly
describe the basics of black and white tie.
White tie means formal, fully formal, “full dress,” etc.
That is, the tailcoat. This is as close to a uniform as a non-uniform
gets. You have no options as to the cut of the coat.
It is usually black, thought the sartorially adventurous
prefer midnight blue. The canard about midnight blue is
that, under artificial light, it looks “blacker than black.”
Actually, if you pay attention a bit, you can tell that it’s
Not distractingly so, but still noticeably. The trousers
match the coat.
The shirt must be a white wing collar shirt with a stiff
front: no ruffles or pleats. You have a little leeway with
the vest. While it must be white cotton pique, and low in
front, it can be either single- or double-breasted. Vive la
The tie must be a white pique bow. No exceptions—ever. This
is important. One of the ways that the British aristocracy
used to remind servants of their place was to force them to
dress in formal clothes that were similar, but just
different. This was most often accomplished by making them
pair the wrong garments together. For instance, a black tie
with a tailcoat. That just screams “waiter!”
Shoes must be patent leather plain oxfords—no decoration of
any kind, not even a toe cap—or else opera pumps.
There are a lot of other arcane details that I could relate
about the tailcoat. In the interest of our time and my
wallet, I will refer you to my book, which explains all of
them. Or if you want to ask me after I finish, I’ll be happy
to answer, if I can.
Far more common is the dinner jacket. Though the options are
quite circumscribed when compared to ordinary business
clothing, compared to tails they seem almost limitless. I’m
not going to discuss them all; only those that really work
well for weddings. For instance, I don’t think a man should
get married in velvet or blackwatch smoking jacket, though I
would not begrudge his wearing it to the holiday party at
his club. It’s also probably not a good idea to opt for off
white, unless you are getting married in the summer time or
in the tropics.
The jacket can be single or double breasted, with peaked or
shawl lapels. Shawl is less formal, and for a
The sharpest black tie outfit a man can wear is a single
breasted peaked coat, a white vest (identical to the one
worn with white tie), wing collar shirt (ditto) and black
That’s as close to white tie as you can get without renting
But again we bump into the problem of the impracticality of
the wing collar shirt (because, again, the attached collar
versions sold in department stores are to be shunned).
So we’re back to the turndown collar shirt, with either a
pleated or a pique front—the latter being a bit more
elegant. Shoes: same as white tie. Tie: always black, no
matter what. Boutonnière: cant’ go wrong with a red
carnation. Groomsmen: let them wear, or rent, their own.
Matching is not desirable. Let a thousand flowers bloom: SB,
DB, peak, shawl, wing collar, turndown collar, pleated
front, pique front, etc. Just please, only black ties and no
long ties. Just because they wear them to the Oscars doesn’t
mean you should. If Tom Cruise jumped off a bridge, would
As with white tie, there are other arcane details that could
and should be imparted about the proper dinner jacket, but
which will be skipped over in the interest of time.
Last topic: “informal” weddings. Just to be clear about one
thing: by “informal” I emphatically do not mean track suits
or open collars or any such thing. I’m using old-world,
1930s terminology here, when “informal” still meant a suit
and a tie. I’m not going to bother talking about open-necked
partly because I believe it shouldn’t exist, and partly
because I hope you all are not interested. Occasionally, on
some of the clothing-focused web forums where I participate,
a guy will come along and post a question about his
Caribbean beach wedding.
What brand of sandal best allows the surf to lap through his
toes? What color of cane cutter shirt better shows off the
gold chain twinkling in his chest hairs? I wish such people
well, and hope their marriages last for decades. But I
really have nothing to say about the clothes.
Suppose our man does not want to bother with morning dress.
We can hardly blame him. There is something unsavory about
rented clothes, and bespeaking a morning coat to be worn but
once and then put away is as profligate as buying a
multi-thousand dollar white dress, wearing it once, and then
boxing it up and putting it in the attic.
Nor does our man want to wear black tie. He has heard our
injunction against the dinner jacket in daytime. It haunts
him. His conscience will not let him wear it. What should we
tell this man?
Simple: wear a suit. But not just any suit. It must be dark,
and it must be solid, and it must be wool. Light colors are
too informal. Stripes are to be avoided as they are THE
archetypal business pattern, and most weddings are not
supposed to be business affairs. Checks and plaids are too
sporty. And other fabrics are too unserious. Again, if the
wedding is in the
tropics, fine, wear white linen. But for a metropolitan
with the dark suit.
Which dark suit?
The spiffiest suit he could wear would be a single breasted
peaked lapel, one-button jacket with a double breasted vest.
This works well in either oxford gray or midnight blue. One
could go lighter, but the severity of the cut works better
with the darkest colors. The problem is that this suit is
not so useful in a business context, and we want our man to
be able to get some use out of this thing after the
Another alternative is pretty much the one I have on. Dark
gray, single breasted, with a double breasted vest.
The tie and and shirt depicted above are not recommended;
too businessy. But the suit would do nicely. The vest is
perhaps not for everyone, though I love it and I think it
perfect for weddings. I wear this to the office without
hesitation, though I realize why others would not. The DB
vest gives this suit a little of the morning rig’s dash. I
would not wear an SB vest to a
wedding; it’s too business and bland. For
later use, if the DB vest really bothers our guy, he can
leave it in the closet or haul it out only for special
Now, these first two are going to have to be custom made.
They just don’t exist on the rack anywhere. Not that this is
a bad thing. I am a biog advocate of custom suits. And if
our gals are going to spend several thousand on a dress to
be worn once, shouldn’t our men be allowed to buy a fine
suit that can be worn again and again? And that will fit
better and look better for the
wedding pictures than anything he can get off
The last alternative I’ll discuss is the navy double
breasted. And this could be custom made, but it should also
be relatively easy to find on the rack. It’s just as
versatile as the gray single-breasted—perhaps more so
because there is no pesky vest to worry about. It is
therefore the most practical alternative.
Here is an illustration from Esquire published during World
War II. The original caption mordantly comments that the
father of the bride was saved by the War Production Board.
To save cloth, the government had banned the making of
morning coats, striped trousers and even vests. (Many—me
included—believe that this temporary measure had the
unintended effect of driving down the use of these garments
even after the restrictions were lifted. Once given an
excuse not to have to wear them, men had no wish to welcome
them back.) So he defaults to the next best thing: his navy
In all instances, accessories should be consistent with
formal day wear. I’m not going to push the detachable collar
shirt, though if you’ve ever wanted one, this would be the
day for it. Otherwise, solid white or else a white collar
with a body like those discussed for the morning coat. Same
shoes, same hankie, same socks, same boutonnière. Probably
skip the hat.
One final comment. Some might raise the following objection.
Since the bride’s dress is extremely fancy and formal,
wouldn’t a plain suit be too bland? Not formal or dashing
enough? Unequal to the occasion?
I don’t think so. First, the configurations I described take
the suit out of the ordinary. I would not recommend wearing
any ordinary two piece, two button single breasted notched
lapel suit. That is indeed too bland for a
the right accessories take this suit and spiff it up even
tie are not businesslike. They are formal. So is that
carnation. Third, the decent thing for the groom to do is to
fade into the background. While far from irrelevant, he is
also far from the center of attention. Traditional
imposes upon him a fairly sedate color palate that allows
his bride to shine -- as she should:
Whatever you do, stick to that ideal. It has served men --
and women -- well for three quarters of a century.
I’ll end there, and thank you very much.
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