Published: February 22, 2012THIS Sunday, scores of men — some celebrated actors, others appendages to famous glamour-pusses — will expose themselves to the scrutiny of the world and, more alarmingly, Joan Rivers as they stride the red carpet at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.
Most are likely to be clad in what is surely among the more foolproof dress uniforms ever devised: the tuxedo. Yet few will manage to get it right. Why is that?
“Men take advantage of their advantages in general,” Fran Lebowitz, the humorist and herself a tuxedo wearer, said recently. “But not with this.”
Despite being given what Ms. Lebowitz termed “this perfect thing to wear,” both stars and arm-pieces are certain to commit sartorial blunders at the Academy Awards. They will wear their pants too long and puddled on their shoes, as Brad Pitt did at the recent Screen Actors Guild awards. They will wear businesslike four-in-hand tie knots, as men like Robert De Niro routinely do, and not the requisite bow tie. They will turn up in suits that fit as though borrowed from Dad, or in shirts with wing collars best left to maîtres d’hôtel, or in colors that make them look like Steve Van Zandt.
“That whole black shirt thing is terrible,” said the designer John Varvatos. “When you’re talking about these kinds of awards shows, with the elegance of most of the women, the men should be a counterpoint to that.”
Often enough these men display their “renegade” natures by adding loopy improvisations: sneakers or Samuel L. Jackson frock coats or open-necked shirts.
They will monkey around in some way with monkey-suit perfection — unless, that is, they happen to be George Clooney. Mr. Clooney always looks Rat Pack immaculate.
He has, of course, an obvious advantage.
“George has an easy and understated elegance about him,” said Giorgio Armani, who has dressed the actor for years. “He wears the clothes rather than the clothes wearing him.”
In truth, though, Mr. Clooney’s many advantages tend to be shared by members of his demographic, male movie stars: men who are generally rich and handsome and able, at a snap of their fingers, to command free clothes from the best designers in the world. “For a movie star to look pathetic, it takes a lot,” Ms. Lebowitz said. Perhaps Brad Pitt is not the clotheshorse one might wish, she added. “But anyone can tell him those pants don’t fit.”
Why no one does is one of the enduring problems of black-tie dressing, a dilemma unquestionably rooted in fear. American men, it is generally agreed, are alarmed by clothes and shopping. And no article of clothing spooks guys more than the form of suiting first popularized by Griswold Lorillard and a group of 19th-century swells in the swank upstate New York enclave of Tuxedo Park.
What began as a modernizing alternative to the tailcoats that were the standard evening wear of the time eventually became the default attire at proms, weddings and bar mitzvahs and any other occasion that called for an element of formality.
“Men’s tailoring comes from uniforms,” the designer Tom Ford said last week by telephone from London. “And all uniforms look pretty great.”
As the word itself suggests, the language of uniforms varies little, and that in and of itself should be a boon to the average man.
“It’s so easy and you don’t have to think about it,” Mr. Ford said. “Yet there’s almost this fear.”
“I sound like an old man, but we’ve lost manners,” Mr. Ford said. “I didn’t grow up in wealthy family. We were a middle-class American family. But we knew the rules. We knew that an afternoon wedding was a daytime suit, that black shoes were worn with blue suits and brown shoes with gray.”
A classic tuxedo is simply a suit of black or midnight-blue wool with a lapel of satin or grosgrain, the collar preferably peaked to distinguish it from the notch style favored for business wear.
Typically a tuxedo is worn with trousers banded at the outer seam with a single braid of silk or satin, a black silk bow tie that matches the lapel facing, black dress socks of silk or fine wool and black dress shoes. Vests or else the cummerbund that originated in the military dress uniform of British India (and that is always worn with the pleats facing up) are traditional accessories to formal wear, although these elements have lately fallen out of use.
That’s it. “You can break the rules, of course,” said Mr. Ford, who routinely does in designing suits favored by stars like Colin Firth and, until recently, Brad Pitt, notable for their Gatsby-esque acres of lapel.
And that is fine because, for experts, tuxedo design is a game of themes and variations.
“I’m not sure there are any rules about what you can and cannot wear with tailoring,” said Christopher Bailey, the chief creative officer of Burberry. “But I always feel that suits that give you a silhouette with clean details, defined lines and strict shoulders give more of a sense of confidence without trying too hard.”
While the handsome Burberry Prorsum tuxedos Mr. Bailey designs (shown to crisp James Bond effect in an advertising campaign featuring the British actor Eddie Redmayne) look singularly unfussy, terms like strict shoulders and sharp silhouette are guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of the average consumer.
It doesn’t have to be that way, said Tom Kalenderian, the executive vice president for merchandising at Barneys New York and a men’s wear expert. “It’s still a suit,” he said. “It’s not a coat of armor or a metal garment to take you into battle. It’s not an evening gown.”
For Michael Hainey, the deputy editor of GQ magazine, fit is where most American men go wrong when buying evening clothes or suits for everyday wear.
“There’s something with American men where they think their clothes should fit like an SUV,” he said. “They think, ‘I’m a big guy so I have to have big clothes.’ Close to the body does not mean uncomfortable.” Look at Jackie Gleason or LeBron James, Mr. Hainey suggested, for a quick tutorial on the advantages a snug fit provides even oversize guys.
“Your tailor is your best friend,” he said, and it should probably be remembered that the formal-wear departments of most department stores still employ the services of those undervalued pros.
“What’s weird is that guys spend all this time within the culture of the gym, getting toned, fit bodies, and then they wear suit coats that are two sizes too big,” Mr. Hainey said.
For Mr. Hainey, who wore a Thom Browne tuxedo to his wedding last year, looking great in evening clothes is a matter of getting the basics right — a simple black suit with a grosgrain notch collar, a point collar white shirt, a tie neither too fat nor too thin and a well-buffed pair of black calf shoes — and of never, ever renting.
“That’s the equivalent of wearing a bowling shoe,” he said.