Men in Black


April 9, 2004


Spring is here and a young man's thoughts turn to formal clothes. Or at least they will for the thousands of young men who, making their first stab at looking grown-up, will soon attempt some version of a tuxedo at the senior prom. The question facing these would-be sophisticates is, What version? And it is this very question that suggests the advice they are getting is bunk.


No small number of men will look to the Oscars -- the most conspicuous formal event of the year -- for guidance in dressing up. But this year Hollywood made a point of dressing down. Four-in-hand ties appeared at the throats of a majority of actors, who collectively tossed aside the traditional elegance of the bow tie.


So striking was the display at the Academy Awards that it led some to declare the tuxedo dead. But the eulogies were premature. Tuxedo innovations come along as often as Madonna reinvents herself, and they are soon abandoned. Just a few years ago men were parading at the Oscars in Edwardian frock coats. Alan Flusser, author of the definitive "Dressing the Man," notes that at some point the long-tie tux trend "is going to look passe. And then it will die as fast as the leisure suit."


Well, that's a relief. The strange thing is, we live in a time when men will go to extraordinary lengths to improve their appearance. Botox. Liposuction. Caps. Steroids. Exfoliants. Plugs. Yet, it seems, the rigors of the tuxedo are of an altogether more daunting magnitude. According to the New York Times, behind the long-tie trend may be the simple fact that most young actors have never learned to tie a bow. Would it be impolite to note that the knot flummoxing them is the same one used to tie one's shoelaces, a skill most six-year-olds can master?


The Hollywood male hasn't always been that clueless -- or so eager to abandon his role setting high style for middle America. Once upon a time, leading men knew clothes.


Take Cary Grant. Engaged to star in the Cole Porter biopic "Night and Day," the actor soon realized the script was a stinker. And so he focused his attention on what really mattered, nearly driving the director to quit with punctilious costume demands. At one point Grant brought production to a halt, standing on his God-given right to expose exactly one-eighth of an inch of shirt cuff beyond his tuxedo sleeve, not the sloppy quarter-inch the bumpkins over in wardrobe had given him. The movie may have been a disaster, but Cary Grant looked good.


Formal clothes even became a frequent plot device. Fred Astaire misses his wedding in "Swing Time," lost in an argument with his tailor over whether his formal trousers need cuffs. (They don't.) Then there's the 1942 film "Tales of Manhattan." The story revolves around a second-hand tailcoat that, one way or another, transforms every man who puts it on. And William Holden seals his gigolo doom in "Sunset Boulevard" when he lets Norma Desmond take him shopping for both "tuxedo and tails": The leering salesman persuades Holden to add a pricey vicuna topcoat "as long as the lady is paying for it."


Now that Hollywood has abdicated, where is the American male to look for style cues? There are always the fashionistas -- but the results can be dire. Flip through men's style magazines and you'll find an ad for the formal ensemble currently on offer from Yves-Saint-Laurent Rive Gauche. There is designer Tom Ford's model wearing a white sportcoat (what else can you call something with notch lapels and flap pockets?), a big, floppy, crushed-velvet bow tie and a chocolate satin shirt. All together now: Ugh.


One problem with such fashion-forward get-ups is that they are guaranteed to be cringe-making for years to come. The big events in life that call for formal dress are the very sort that call for pictures. Before donning any outfit for a big occasion, imagine seeing a photo of yourself 10 or 20 years hence. Will you feel ridiculous? Will you cringe the way you cringe now when you see a picture from the 1970s, that most embarrassing decade for men's clothes?


Nowhere was the collective lack of disco-era judgment more acute than in what passed, in those years, for formal dress. The powder-blue tux with ruffled shirt -- don't forget the pastel piping on the ruffles! -- remains a powerful icon of a world gone mad. And yet here we are in the neo- 1970s, when once again designers strive to make every man look like a porn star.


But if neither the fashionistas nor Hollywood can be trusted, then who? Not the "formal wear" rental industry, which has an invidious interest in encouraging endless variations on the tuxedo theme. If fashions in dinner clothes remain the same, one just might be tempted to buy one's own tuxedo. Those in the business of renting would rather you weren't tempted. Thus the Web site of the "After Hours" rental chain invites the young men preparing for prom season to indulge in some ersatz creativity with the help of its online "Create-a-Tux" feature.


Alan Flusser doesn't have any problem with men trying to improve on traditional formal clothes. He just says that, "if you're going to change or bend the rules, you should know what the rules are in the first place." Picasso, after all, did know how to draw.


One could say that the rules of fashion are not unlike Aristotelian ethics: The good dresser is one who dresses the way a good dresser does. Ralph Lauren can get away with wearing white-tie-and-tails with jeans and cowboy boots. By contrast, it is telling that among the movie crowd wearing the four-in-hand tie this year was the bedraggled "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson -- not exactly an avatar of sartorial splendor.


Improving on the basics isn't easy, which is why the basics haven't changed for so long. The trend toward black evening dress got its start in the early 1800s with British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton's dandy hero Pelham. He looked best in black, and "people must be very distinguished in appearance in order to do so." Soon all of London was trying to prove that they were distinguished enough to wear black. But of course the truth of the matter is exactly the opposite: Even the very undistinguished look better when cloaked and framed in formal black. That rule applies as much to the fresh-faced 18-year-old trying to impress his date as to the paunchy middle-manager attending a charity ball on behalf of his firm. Nature created men unequally; tuxedos were invented to even the score.


This is the power of the traditional costume -- it is at the same time aristocratic and democratic. The very uniformity of the tuxedo makes it socially leveling. And whereas most instruments of democratic equality tend to lower all boats, the tuxedo levels up. Would-be improvements invariably throw the aristocratic- democratic balance out of whack. Without the aristocratic touch of the bow-tie, without the fancy shirt studs, without the pleated shirt, all you've got left is a pedestrian black suit, if that.


What a shame. Because come prom night, or just a night on the town, there is no sadder sight than a man not at all dressed up, with somewhere to go.