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The Met Ball: In a Tizzy About Tails

As if Monday's gala weren’t stressful enough, the dress code has added even more angst for the male contingent: “white tie and decorations.”

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Men'sWeek issue 05/01/2014

Could Anna Wintour be dreaming of a “Downton Abbey” moment?

The artistic director of Condé Nast and editor in chief of Vogue sent a shiver down the spines of every male celebrity, fashion designer and just plain hangers-on when she declared the dress code for the Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday night would be “white tie and decorations.” Usually it’s only the female contingent that have to angst over their wardrobe choice for the evening. The men just had to make sure their tuxedo didn’t have any spots on it from the last evening of revelry.

Not this year.

Ateliers are busy whipping up white-tie ensembles for celebrity clients and the male designers themselves. Lanvin, for one, is said to be making the suit for 6-foot, 11-inch New York Knick Amar’e Stoudemire, while Ralph Lauren is doing the same for Hamish Bowles and André Leon Talley. While budget isn’t usually a concern at an event where a single ticket goes for $25,000, the “white tie” rule is only adding to the cost of the event for fashion houses, since a bespoke suit for a man can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 or more — not to mention the dresses the houses are creating for their female celebrity clientele.

And while this is the fashion world and attendees no doubt will take many liberties — as seen in the sketches WWD commissioned of some who are likely to attend — for those looking for tips, here is one firm rule: There is no wiggle room when it comes to white tie.

“There is no leeway,” said G. Bruce Boyer, a men’s fashion authority and coauthor of “Gary Cooper: Enduring Style.” “If you say full evening dress, there isn’t any interpretation. Men do it without thinking. That’s why it was thought to be a great decision. Your wardrobe was all taken care of — you follow the rules and that’s it. There’s no fooling around.”

To do it properly, the rules are rigid — just ask Emily Post: a black tailcoat, matching trousers with a single stripe of satin or braid in the U.S.; two stripes in Europe or the U.K.; a white piqué wing-collared shirt with stiff front; a white vest; white-colored (e.g., mother-of-pearl) studs and cuff links; a white bow tie; white or gray gloves; black patent shoes, and black dress socks. A top hat is optional.

Blacktieguide.com says of white tie: “When executed sloppily, it is no more than a magician’s costume. When carried out skillfully, its adroit balance of militaristic authority and refined elegance elevates the most ordinary of men to royals and Rockefellers.”

That’s why traditionalists think “modernizing” white tie is the equivalent to the Queen turning up in ripped jeans.

“You don’t modernize it. You wear it as is,” insisted John Hitchcock, a 52-year veteran of venerable Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard, who is the firm’s managing director and head cutter.

That means a white waistcoat made of marcella — or piqué — cotton and a double-breasted tailcoat with peak lapels covered in silk grosgrain. Trousers have two rows of braid running down the side of the leg, as opposed to one row, as in a tuxedo.

But as stuffy as white tie might seem to some, the style is seeing a resurgence for one main reason: “Downton Abbey.” It seems many men, especially in the U.S., aim to be the Earl of Grantham or Matthew Crawley — or at least dress like the lords of their manor.

“‘Downton Abbey’ has helped us a lot in the U.S. It’s been so popular there, and I think men watched it and thought: ‘I’ll have one for myself,’” said Hitchcock.

He said his clients on both sides of the Atlantic tend not to ask for changes to the traditional white tie. “We make a lot of white tie for our customers in the U.S. I’m making one right now for a very modern man in America. He told me to make it exactly the same as it was in the 1930s.”

That’s the point of white tie: It’s timeless. So the mere thought of what some of the men will turn up in on Monday night has a few men’s wear experts harrumphing into their port.

“There’s no such thing as white tie and decorations,” bristled Tom Mastronardi, chief marketing officer of Paul Stuart. “The whole notion of white tie and tails is that there’s no embellishment. It’s the most formal that a man can get. It’s elegant and simple and it shouldn’t be played with.”

“I’m staying unusually classic,” said Hamish Bowles, the international editor at large for Vogue magazine. “White tie is white tie. This is an unusual sartorial injunction. Ralph Lauren made me the most wildly flattering thing. It’s not often that I get invited to a ball in Vienna, so I’m delighted to have an excuse to wear it. But I have no legitimate medals of decoration so there’s room for whimsy.”

Bowles said he expects the attendees to stretch the rules a bit when picking out their wardrobes. “It’s a fashion creative crowd and I imagine people will be initiating their own idiocentric twists. I think there will be subtle tweaks as part of the ‘decorations.’ But a roomful of men in classic white tie would be spectacular.”

Nick Foulkes, the London-based journalist and author, also is cautious about the Met’s dress code this year.

“White tie and decorations is the grandest form of social dress,” he said. “For me, it’s like wearing a guillotine, or having a knife cutting into your throat. I hate it. If you are wearing decorations — such as the Légion d’honneur — you can end up looking like a very uncomfortable Christmas tree. That said, men do look good in it — as if they’ve walked out of a Thirties musical, with Cab Calloway playing in the background. It’s become a personal trademark of Sir Elton [John]. The question, ‘Are you going to White Tie?’ refers to Elton’s summer [White Tie & Tiara] ball. I can only imagine the atrocious interpretations you’ll see at the Met Ball on Monday.”

John Kent of Savile Row tailor Kent Haste & Lachter said many men struggle with wearing white tie correctly.

“Among some of the funnier things I’ve seen is white tie at a garden party — when dress code calls for a morning suit — white tie worn with a cummerbund, or with the waistcoat showing below the front of the tailcoat. Some people get it all wrong. It’s like wearing a suit with three biro pens and ruler sticking out of the front pocket. The white-tie waistcoat should stop half an inch underneath the front of the tailcoat, and never hang out.

“Sometimes, I even see white tie worn with Gucci loafers. It should be worn with sheer socks and dress pumps — although you can get away with patent leather lace-ups. You have to play by the rules. The tailcoat can be black with a velvet collar, or midnight blue, with a blue-black collar. White tie is not very popular at the moment. We’ve just done one for a customer who belongs to a livery company [an historic trade association based in the City of London], and we do them for dancers and musicians. If there is a medal that needs putting on, we make a silk loop that protects the coat from the pin.”

Clearly getting it right isn’t easy. President Obama was criticized for wearing a white bow tie with his Hart Schaffner Marx black tuxedo to his first inauguration, although he got it right when he wore white tie to the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York during the campaign. Ironically, his more upper-crust rival Mitt Romney made the faux pas of having his waistcoat protrude below the front of his tailcoat. Maybe that’s why he lost the election?

But we are in the 21st century and there are those who think people need to lighten up — within limits.

“We’re like dinosaurs in the men’s industry,” said Joseph Abboud. “It’s a new world today, much more informal, so when it comes to festive dress, it can be fun, but the range is so big, there’s a risk for seeing some god-awful clothes. If the Met says white tie and decorations, that’s going to be good for smart, creative people, but a train wreck for bad people. It’ll be like the formal version of casual Fridays.”

Abboud said “any guy whose first and last names are interchangeable will have tails in his closet,” but the invitation is “going to throw most business guys into a panic — we should start a hot line.”

Abboud, who doesn’t own tails of his own, said all he can think about when he envisions white tie is the dance sequence in “Young Frankenstein” when Mel Brooks and the Monster, played by Peter Boyle, don full formal dress — complete with canes and top hats — to dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” “We have to stop taking ourselves so seriously,” he said.

Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, can’t wait to see how men are going to dress at the gala. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “This is a fun new way to make the event even more glamorous.” Although he doesn’t think “everybody is going to show up dressed like Fred Astaire,” the dress code will “inject the occasion with a whole new sartorial focus and take the spotlight off the women for a change.”

Thom Browne feels the same: “It’s nice that the guys have to put some thought into what they have to wear.”

There is one major problem with it all, though: Finding an off-the-rack version isn’t easy. Paul Stuart sells white bow ties, but no tails. And shoppers will be hard-pressed to pop into their local men’s shop and find an appropriate outfit. But Hickey Freeman proudly proclaims it still makes tails at its Rochester, N.Y., facility, and is stocking up for the event at its New York City store, and Brooks Brothers is also standing at the ready.

“We carry the full look,” said Glen Hoffs, fashion director of Brooks Bros. “And we’re running low on everything at the moment. We have detachable-collar piqué shirts, vests, tails and the proper shoes with the grosgrain bow. We’re ready for those people who want to take the opportunity to be Fred Astaire for the evening.”

Although Hoffs said, “Our friends on the other side of the pond do it best,” he thinks the Americans can pull it off, too. “They understand the rules better and they have more occasions to wear it, but let’s prove that we can do it as well,” he said.

And if Brooks Bros. and Hickey Freeman are sold out, there’s always MW Tux, the tuxedo rental arm of Men’s Wearhouse. The retailer offers full dress tails from Joseph & Feiss, along with the requisite white piqué wing-collar shirt, white bow tie, white and silver studs and cuff links and black round-toe formal shoes for $154.99 for a four-day rental.

Sign up for a loyalty card and that price drops to $124.99.

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