Monkey suit, a manly, slangy reference to black tie, is definitely a misnomer. Put any man in a monkey suit and he suddenly stands taller, sounds more intelligent and exudes handsome homo sapien charm and wit.
Black-tie dressing does all that, which is why the traditional basic black dinner jacket, white shirt and black tie combination has gone virtually unchanged in this century. Once men got on to a good thing they were not about to tamper with it. Why, in some Baltimore families, Papa's tux is passed on to junior, and with judicious use of mothballs, pressing and alterations, goes the social rounds with yet another generation. And a shiny patina or a discreet tobacco burn never hurt any young man's social ambitions as long as his shirt and manners were immaculate.
But there's change in the social air: Invitations calling for "creative black tie" are raising eyebrows and fashion-consciousness on the gala circuit. This holiday party season, a Frosty the Snowman tie will not be sufficient to establish a man as an original dresser. The right look needs more thought.
The creative dressers among us just shrug -- they've been
bending the rules to suit their own style all along. The rest of the male population will just have to catch up.
Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, Maryland's former film commissioner and now full-time artist, fills his tux fronts with an easy T-shirt from his collection when he steps out, which rounds out to about a dozen times a year.
"The T-shirt becomes the focus of attention," he says. "I look for a T-shirt with a statement, whether it's political, artistic or just plain funny."
He loves to tux, inasmuch as he doesn't own a suit.
"I didn't have enough money to shift fashion gears on a black-tie outfit. With a T-shirt, no one looked at my tux. Having 15 or 20 T-shirts for formal wear is a lot more flexible and fun than wearing a $100 shirt and expensive accessories."
He tries to theme the T-shirt to the event, and sometimes it's a challenge.
"For my one-man show two years ago I designed a T-shirt to go with one of my paintings. Everybody wanted the T-shirt but not the painting," he remembers.
"Among the dozens of T-shirts I own, the predominant colors are black or white because they blend in with the black-tie theme," he says. It's his own twist on tradition.
Restaurateur Greg Mason believes in going with the flow of the evening and changing personality along with his half-dozen tuxedos.
"I look for the feeling of the event, the space, my mood and who I'm going with," he says. He sets himself no limits and would be pressed to draw the line on the outrageous. "I don't know what I would consider outrageous -- designer ribbons in my hair? But I have a wide range of accessories, most of them good-luck stuff, rings, belts, pendants. I'll change things on the chains I wear depending on the moon's alignment."
Planning and plodding are not his thing.
"I'll wear pins -- things people have made for me or I'll make my own stuff. I'm not craftsy at all, but I can manage to create an interesting something if I'm in the mood."
At other times he may just pair a nice bowling shirt with a dark jacket. The man has style to spare.
Painter Tom Everhart, who draws inspiration from the world of the Peanuts cartoon kids, takes his fashion cues from grandfatherly styles. "I wear vintage tuxedos from the '40s and also shop for antique studs and ties," he says. He's a tie believer and counts between 300 and 400 bow ties in his collection.
Attorney Barry Wasserman likes to dress in black tie with color. He admits to owning more than one and less than 10 evening suits. But his shirts separate him from the penguin pack.
"I have my shirts custom-done in Mexico. They're hand-painted and may be trimmed with stones, embroidery or leather," he says. His business dealings in the Southwest have given him a taste for the Western idea of formality, which skips the jacket altogether in favor of an original shirt, interesting cowboy boots and a vest.
Looking onstage and creative is as easy as hitting the right key for Nathan Carter, chairman of the fine arts department and director of choral activities at Morgan State University. He says he varies his formal looks to keep his choir from being bored, not that it has ever happened, according to people who know Mr. Carter's sartorial style.
"I may have about 20 variations on formal wear -- short mess jackets, tails, frock coats, vests," he says, adding that he thinks nothing of mixing elements to strike the right creative note. He will add a pin or a pendant as the mood moves him. He has an eclectic collection of accessories that he has picked up all over the world during his travels with Morgan's choir. Turtlenecks or collarless shirts are his favorites. He has been wearing them for years, although fashion experts are just now rediscovering them. Some men just have the knack.
Bernard Toll, spokesman for the Lord West formal-wear line and chairman emeritus of the Black Tie Bureau, a group of formal-wear experts, says "creative" dressing can be a dangerous thing in the hands of an amateur.
"A creative black-tie night is wonderful for women," says Mr. Toll. "However, most men have enough problems getting dressed. And now we're asking them to be creative?"
From his base in Manhattan he has seen the wilder interpretations of black tie.
"There has always been the theatrical audience who will throw all caution to the winds and come out in everything from black tights to bare chests under a dinner jacket," says Mr. Toll.
He admits it takes a certain flair to make a statement in black tie.
"Attitudes may be more relaxed, but getting a creative look across doesn't come easily. It has to be studied and very deliberate, requiring lots of time to come up with that something unique."
He promotes the basic look with added attractions.
"Going out should be fun and not a chore. That's why men will continue to pull out their trusty tux. The interest will be in the newer fanciful vests, fancy shirts or unusual studs. That's enough creativity for the average man."
But for every hundred men who will do their best with shirt and studs, there are the few who push the limits, says Harvey Hyatt, owner of Hyatt & Co.
To those customers, he recommends the kickier forms of formal. He suggests a hooded swagger coat by V2 Versace to toss over the shoulders for the grand entrance. Or a hand-painted vest by Baltimore designer Wenda Royster. Or a shawl-collared brocade vest. He even predicts the return of the ruffled shirt.
Could bell-bottom pink tuxes be far behind?
Stanley Hiken, whose company has been selling and renting tuxedos to generations of Baltimoreans, says he has seen it all -- a denim tux that never took off, Bermuda shorts tuxedos, and some pretty lurid colors.
Manufacturers are beginning to introduce color again, he says.
"We're putting pastel versions in the window and we can only hope nobody asks for them."
The strongest contender to put punch into a black-tie outfit is the vest, says Eddie Steinberg, owner of J. S. Edwards men's store.
"People who want to party hard into the wee hours of the morning can take off a jacket and still look terrific in the vest. A tie and cummerbund look tired without a jacket," says Mr. Steinberg.
Times do change. Once upon a time a gentleman would die before he took off a formal jacket. The only exception was when fighting a duel at sunrise.
Stanley Tucker, vice president and fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, welcomes and encourages the iconoclasts.
"Of course the easiest way to individualize black-tie is with an unusual tie and cummerbund," says Mr. Tucker, "but that's also pretty safe."
The newer way to go, he says, is with a band-collar or mandarin shirt, which fills in a shawl-collared dinner jacket very handsomely.
The accessories make the difference. Mr. Tucker is all for turning out in cowboy boots and brooches and bolos. He'll even give a nod to the jeans and dinner jacket combination that seems to be the Hollywood way of formal.
"A black crepe shirt or black merino wool sweater would look terrific under a tux. So would cashmere, but you'd die from the heat," Mr. Tucker says.
He says creativity can't be bought in a packaged look.
"You have to do it all yourself; come up with your own surprises," he says. "For example, designer Geoffrey Beene has the most creative approach. He wears a black sweater instead of a jacket and it works."
Richard Williams, menswear spokesman at Bloomingdale's in White Flint mall, says all-black evening looks define the hip and hip-at-heart. That could mean wearing a collarless black silk shirt with a dinner jacket, or turning out in total black leather.
"But the fella who really wants to step out a bit more, but isn't ready for black leather, has options, too," he says. At the &L; high-end and couture price points, especially, there are velvet jeans, vests and coats of dandified cut. The less adventurous could consider a flowing, fringed opera scarf in white or cream silk.
Mr. Williams suggests that the most confident and fashion-forward men will allow their cuffs to hang free and unfastened in a devil-may-care manner. That's a look to test the mettle of any would-be dandy, especially after 20 other guys offer to help him find his cufflinks.