Few occasions in a man's life are so full of questions as his wedding day. "What do I wear?" is high on the list. While other questions may have multiple answers, protocol plays the major role on this day. The bridegroom's attire is quite specifically prescribed.
The type of clothes he will wear is determined by the formality of the wedding and the time of day. Traditionally, weddings are either daytime formal, evening formal, daytime informal or evening informal.
For a daytime formal wedding, the bridegroom wears a cutaway coat of dark, oxford gray wool (sometimes referred to as a morning coat). It is accompanied by an ascot or a black and gray striped four-in-hand tie. For an evening formal wedding (7:30 p.m.), he wears a black tail coat, white waistcoat (vest), white wing-collar formal shirt and white cotton pique bow tie. (This combination is commonly known as white tie and tails.) Most men have so few occasions in their lives to wear either of these two outfits that it's wise to rent them from the most conservative rental agency in town -- one that does not go in for innovative or "creative" pretensions.
At informal weddings (daytime or early evening), the bridegroom wears a beautiful, well-cut dark suit, most often navy blue, a fine white broadcloth cotton shirt and silvery-toned heavy woven necktie, tied in the standard four-in-hand or half-Windsor knot.
In recent years, another category of wedding has become accepted and widely popular -- the black-tie wedding. In most large metropolitan areas and in elite social circles if a wedding is called for 7:30 p.m. or later (and it is not designated "white tie"), it is understood that it will be black tie -- for the bridegroom and the male guests, as well.
Even today, the wedding is designed more by the bride than the groom. Although you may not want to see each other before the ceremony on the day of the wedding, the bridegroom should definitely OK what he's planning to wear with his fiancee. This is neither the time nor the place for surprises.
The most important rule for black-tie dressing is that all the details should correspond. During the years that I have been answering men's dressing concerns in my column "Dress for Excellence," these have been a few of the most frequently asked questions on black-tie dressing:
Q: Since it is tuxedo time, maybe you could do an article about same. Lapel type, pants type (tapered or straight), etc. I hope this might be of interest to you as it is to a lot of us.
A: The most important point about black-tie dressing is that it makes a man look wonderful. If he has even one occasion every year or two to wear it, he should strongly consider owning his own.
A black-tie outfit need not be expensive. It need only be classically cut, tailored to fit well and ideally made of 100 percent lightweight wool. Stay with the basics in the suit; leave the whimsy for the accessories.
Basic suits are fashioned in three collar and lapel styles:
*Shawl (traditional curve cut, used only on formal wear),
L *Peaked (most dashing, usually found on double-breasteds) or
*Notched (least formal, a daytime-business-suit cut).
Lapel fabrics are either:
*Satin, a silklike, smooth, glossy fabric, or
*Grosgrain (pronounced grow-grain), a ribbed twill-type fabric, also known as faille (pronounced file).
fTC Closings are single- and double-breasted. Probably a double-breasted should not be your first and only evening suit, because it will come and go in style (though it is dashing and currently very much "in"). As to the back of the jacket, a single vent is the most classic.
Trousers have a ribbon that matches the lapel material -- satin or faille -- running down the outside of the leg. Pants are cut straight, not tapered; worn with braces, not a belt; and should be a shade longer than other pants, with a good full break, and perhaps a slight pleat.
Incidentally, this is the one time when cuffs are never worn.
Q: When a man is wearing a wing-tip collar, does the bow tie go over or under the tips?
A: With a wing-collar shirt, the bow tie correctly goes under the tips of the shirt. Nevertheless, don't be too surprised if you see men, even some who are well-dressed, wearing it the other way.
In the strictest traditional circles, a wing collar is correctly reserved for "white tie and tails," and is not appropriate for black-tie dressing. The only totally correct shirt for black tie is one with a standard type of straight-point collar. But the wing collar is such a flattering style that it is currently extremely popular for black-tie dress; it may in actuality be seen more often than the standard white point-collar dress shirt. Handsome though the look is, you should consider carefully whether to wear a wing collar. At a diplomatic function at the White House it may not be quite right. For a friend's house party it could be just perfect.
And, as a point of information, these shirts are known as wing-collar shirts, not wing-tip.
Q: I enjoy dressing in black tie on occasion, but I hate cummerbunds. Is there some way to be properly dressed and avoid wearing one? Is a belt acceptable? What about suspenders?
It is understandable that you might hate wearing a cummerbund. Many men find them too constricting. There are ways to forgo wearing one, but I'm afraid a belt is just not the answer. Evening trousers should be worn with braces (suspenders), never a belt.
Even though the cummerbund covers the waist, most trousers are made with a silk waistband that matches the lapel of the dinner jacket (satin or grosgrain). It's not quite as traditional, but this waistband can be left uncovered.
One small problem: Stud sets come with either three or four studs. Without a cummerbund (and particularly with a bit of a pot belly) this could expose the shirt button below the studs and above the waist.
A double-breasted dinner jacket is an answer. It is kept buttoned at all times, so the waist area is not exposed.
Yet another solution is to buy an evening suit with its own waistcoat (vest). Obviously, this covers the waistband effectively and is a smart look some men prefer.
Incidentally, for the majority of men who do wear them, cummerbunds are traditionally worn with the pleats facing up.
Q: Recently I heard someone talking about formal clothes. He referred to black tie and tails. What is that?
A: There isn't any such animal!
The two types of formal dress appropriate for after dark or 6 p.m. (whichever comes first) are white tie and black tie.
White tie and tails dressing (or full-dress) is reserved for the most formal occasions. It is strictly -- almost ritualistically -- prescribed by explicit "rules" which call for: a fine, black wool tail coat trimmed in satin (the jacket has long "tails" in back, it is short in front and cut so that it does not button), matching trousers, a white waistcoat (a vest which buttons), a white wing-collar shirt and a white cotton pique bow tie. In its most complete form, a black top hat may be added.
On those rare occasions when you are required to wear a full-dress suit, you'd do well to rent one from the best rental agency in town. Rental emporiums respect excellence and non-deviation from the rules when it comes to white tie. They do not seem to stint on quality of fabric and workmanship or stray from the standards here -- as some of them do with less formal, black-tie wear.
On the other hand, black-tie dressing is becoming so popular that many a man is buying his own.
Less rigid than white-tie dress, nonetheless, black tie has its own rules: a fine, black wool suit (the shape is the same as a business suit) with satin or faille trim, matching trousers, white pleated-front shirt (always with French cuffs, cuff links and studs), cummerbund and black silk bow tie.
For years of wear and self-assurance, choose a lightweight all-wool fabric (or, if you insist, one with a small percentage of polyester). Good fit is critical.
Ms. Fenton, the author of the book "Dress for Excellence," conducts wardrobe seminars for Fortune 500 companies around the country. Her advice column, "Dress for Excellence," runs in Today in Style in The Sun.