Q Now that it's holiday time, I have two black-tie occasions coming up. A couple of points I'm not sure about: l) Do the pleats on a cummerbund face up or down? 2) Is my formal shirt with straight collar points correct or is the new wing collar the new style? 3) Do the bow tie and pocket square have to match?
A: The pleats on a cummerbund face up. Legend has it that this was to catch crumbs at dinner. A more likely reason was to serve as a small pocket to hold one's opera tickets.
Your formal pleated shirt with a standard turned-down collar is perfectly correct for black tie. In fact, it is more traditionally correct than the wing collar -- rightly reserved for white-tie-and-tails occasions. Wing collar shirts are hugely popular these days because they are --ing, debonair and different. They are also extremely flattering. Though these are all compelling reasons, they do not change matters of etiquette and make them "correct" with a dinner jacket. Use good judgment. If you are going to an elegant event with society's intensely proper blue bloods, wear what is traditional. If you are going to a fun, dress-up holiday party where no one is hung up on the rules of strict propriety, why not wear the handsome wing collar?
But, when it comes to bright colored bow ties and pocket squares, I'm afraid I tend to be on the square side. A fire-engine red bow tie and matching silk pocket handkerchief trigger thoughts of "high school prom" or worse, "Chippendale" dancers. Most matching sets are tacky. A black silk bow tie and white linen breast-pocket handkerchief are so much classier. Or for something only slightly off-beat, how about a black-and-white small polka dot tie?
Color is not out of the question if it is subtle and tasteful. A quiet blue and green paisley bow tie and a solid dark green pocket square would look terrific with a green enamel stud set inherited from Granddad.
Q: The woman I go with likes to buy me ties. But often they are colors and patterns that are not appropriate for work. I don't want to hurt her feelings and not wear them. With Christmas coming, do you have any ideas?
A: Perhaps her choices are closer to today's standards than you think.Women, who would never think of buying a man a suit as a gift, feel on safe ground with a tie. No size worries, and the colors offer more fun in the choosing. But, because they are unaware of the many restrictions men have on their clothing choices-- especially for work -- women occasionally make mistakes. In ties, the line between serious and silly is a fine one, easily overstepped.
It is certainly true that today's range of appropriate ties is far wider than ever before. Still, not every color is a wise choice. Popular business colors have always been reds, blues and yellows. Then tie counters added shades of green, turquoise, pink and purple. Recently bright colors have given way to dark, muted tones. Patterns, too, are changing. Instead of the small squares all going in even rows, now they might be bolder in size and off-centered, turned to the side, or skipping a row. Patterns include large florals, artistically inspired designs, and kaleidoscope effects on dark grounds with bold, highlighted colors in violets, teals, mustards and blues.
Arthur Klaus, vice president of Burma Bibas, a company that manufactures Pierre Cardin and J. G. Hook neckties, says, "Neckwear is very exciting today. Even people who usually dress traditionally, sometimes choose the new contemporary designs. The man who has 10 traditional small 'neats' in his closet has moved to buying the newer ties."
To answer your question of what to do with the ties your lady friend buys you: If they are good looking, but too flamboyant for business, wear them with a blazer. That is likely to be the way you dress when you are out together and she will have the pleasure of seeing you wearing her gift.
Send your questions or comments to Lois Fenton, Today in Style, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Ms. Fenton welcomes questions about men's dress or grooming for use in this column but regrets she cannot answer mail personally.
Ms. Fenton, the author of "Dress for Excellence" (Rawson Associates, $19.95), conducts wardrobe seminars for Fortune 500 companies around the country.