The ultimate guide to men's formalwear

Words by Alex Rayner, Steve Beale and Keven Amfo

19 June 2020

A stiffly addressed to sir arrives… but it bears the dreaded words ‘dress code’. What exactly does black tie, white tie, morning dress, lounge suit — let alone ‘cocktail wear’ — mean? It’s one of the high life’s ironies that the occasions where one has to look one’s best are the most fraught with protocol. The world’s finest lifestyle concierge service is at hand to help you chaps navigate the choppy waters of dress codes and the etiquette of luxury formal dressing by providing you with a formal attire guide for men.

Those Dress Codes In Full

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Dress codes in full illustration


Black Tie




Creative Black Tie


How to Tie a Bow Tie


White Tie


Accessories for Formal wear


Morning Dress


Advanced Class


'Cocktail' or Lounge suit


Formal wear Mistakes to Avoid


Dress Shirts

Black Tie

Black tie

Black tie illustration

The look ...

The classic black dinner jacket and bow tie. Lapels and other details on the jacket are usually satin, while trousers should include a similar satin stripe. Shoes ideally will be patent, and/or in sleeker styles (like an ‘oxford’) rather than brogues or chunkier footwear.

Back story ...

A quintessential component to any men's occasion wear guide, the dinner jacket began life as an alternative to long-tailed morning coats. Able to be worn for outdoor or sporting activity, alongside the popular smoking jacket, it was a smart and sexy item that could be worn comfortably during an evening meal.

The first recorded example was created in 1865 by Henry Poole and Co tailors for Queen Victoria’s son Albert (later Edward VII), an unlikely scion of formal wear. When his friend James Brown Potter visited England from America, he was invited to dinner at Sandringham estate. Taking a fancy to the new style, Edward VII suggested he visit Henry Poole for one of his own. Upon his return to the states, he wore the jacket to the famous Tuxedo Park Country Club in Orange County. Promptly after, the style was given its Americanisation and dubbed the ’Tuxedo.’

When to wear black tie ...

Middle of the road formal evening occasions, such as charity bashes, the CEO’s retirement dinner, and award ceremonies in sectors like engineering and finance.

Timothy Everest London Rolls Royce 05

Timothy Everest and Tom Harrow for Rolls Royce

What are the potential black tie pitfalls? ...

The key to black tie is sticking to the basics. "The point of black tie is that it is uniform and there's no deviation from the code," says Timothy Everest, MBE. "Buy a proper bow tie, and if it doesn't look perfect, that's fine — that's where you're expressing a bit of difference. The pocket square should be neat, but you can experiment a tiny bit with how much you show. Get a new haircut and a cummerbund."

Quintessentially does not countenance clip-on bow ties, although we are prepared to accept that emergencies do occur. See our bow tie guide below and remember — if it looks a bit rubbish tied up, it'll still look five-star when it's louche-ly undone — 'James Bond doing the walk of shame' style.

Black tie tip ...

Real black tie is blue. The first dinner jackets came in midnight blue and gradually shifted to ‘true’ black as the decades passed. “Under dark indoor light and crucially on camera, black looks a little murky,” says expert tailor Everest. “Very dark blue has again become the popular option for dinner as it looks more ‘jet’ black and glossier.”

White Tie

White tie

White tie illustration

The look ...

Expectedly, white accents define this style: white bow tie, upturned wingtip collar, white waistcoat, and if you really want to go for it - white gloves. The jacket has long tails, like a morning suit.

Back story ...

White tie formal attire was de rigueur in Victorian times after its popularisation by society figure Beau Brummel and his ‘dandy’ movement which, contrary to belief, eschewed the flouncy fashions of their time for the sharp, minimalist, military-inspired look we still have today.

White tie nowadays is rife with etiquette and reserved for especially formal occasions - the rule of thumb being anywhere aristocracy or royalty might be present.

When to wear white tie ...

Q members might find themselves attending white tie events that include the Nobel Prize dinner in Stockholm or the Vienna Opera Ball. Also, traditionally-minded British universities Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and St Andrews throw white tie balls. Famously expensive British public school Harrow’s head boy gets to wear white tie, but he would, wouldn’t he?

Fred Astaire Credit Getty

American Entertainer, Fred Astaire in White tie

What are the potential white tie pitfalls ...

The issue with white tie is that it's slightly uncomfortable and 'starchy.' Former chancellor of the exchequer and now London Evening Standard editor George Osbourne famously boycotted it. The other problem with white tie is that it's only for 'white tie' events. Since it's rather splendid and terribly flattering, you may wish to rock it for a regular black tie bash - however, you risk looking like a bit of a try hard and clueless arriviste who isn't invited to actual white tie dos.

White tie tip ...

“The crucial thing to get right with white tie is that the bottom of your waistcoat must match your coat,” says tailor Everest. “The bottom of the waistcoat should cover your shirt and slope downwards in tandem with the jacket – take a look at photos of Fred Astaire, who always looked immaculate wearing white tie."

Creative Black Tie

Creative Black tie

Creative black tie illustration

The look ...

This is a new dress code for funkier formal attire occasions. It usually boils down to a jacket in a colour other than black or a different fabric such as velvet.

Back story ...

In formal outfit terms, the style is very recent. It has been exemplified by Hollywood star Jeff Goldblum, who's worn many colours on the red carpet throughout his career. The daring but less sartorially confident might find it easier to take inspiration from Eddy Redmayne in his pale blue tux.

Jeff Goldbum Creit Michael Swartz

Jeff Goldblum in creative black tie

When to wear creative black tie ...

Formal occasions for the creative industries, such as Hollywood award ceremonies, exclusive fashion events, and high-end cocktail parties. If the invitation says ‘black tie’ you are usually free to wear contemporary black tie, but go by the overall tone of the event.

Movies oscars eddie redmayne

Eddie Redmayne in a blue tuxedo accepting his Oscar in 2015

What are the potential creative black tie pitfalls ...

Don’t take it too far if the occasion errs toward the conservative. While this type of dressing allows for flexibility, keep in mind your contemporaries and the overall premise of the event.

Creative black tie tip ...

Ironically, contemporary black tie often turns to historic formal outfits for inspiration: for example, the velvet 'Albert slippers' one finds at either the most traditional, or most fashion-forward, outlets. While colour is certainly a signifier, remember that there are other creative avenues to explore: "We made a Victorian style black frock coat for David Beckham to wear at formal occasions, and it looked fantastic,” says Everest, “it was arguably way off the dress code, but was still very smart and still in keeping.”

Morning Dress

Morning dress

Morning dress illustration

The look ...

Traditional formal attire featuring a one-button suit jacket with long ‘tails’ at the rear. A black jacket and matching or contrasting waistcoat, often double-breasted, is paired with roomy grey, striped or chequered trousers held up by braces. The look is typically worn with a top hat, and completists can add doeskin gloves and spats. British society style bible Debrett’s insists that morning dress is for the daylight hours, and in the evening dress codes morph to black (or white) or tie.

Back story ...

The morning coat originated with the cutaway jacket worn for riding and quickly became the preferred substitute for a frock coat during the Edwardian era. First styled with step collars, it was eventually formalised with pointed lapels.

When to wear morning dress ...

Morning Dress is a society staple and often seen at traditional weddings or the racecourse; it’s obligatory for the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and the Queens's Stand at Epsom on Derby Day, plus some church services at St Paul’s and St Giles’, at Harrow on Sundays, and at Eton whenever you damn well want.

Morning dress the rake prince charles 1200x800

Prince Charles in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot Racecourse

Morning dress for weddings ...

Strictly speaking, you should only roll up to a wedding in morning dress if the groom will be as well. It’s rare in the USA, where black tie is usually worn at weddings and heritage is less relevant. The all-grey look is considered more relaxed and modern and generally optioned for the races while a black coat and striped trousers are preferred for weddings.

What are the potential morning dress pitfalls ...

While it’s undoubtedly lots of fun, morning dress has seeped into bourgeois affectation and therefore should only be executed in full (exercise extreme caution around cheap rental versions, gentlemen). Winston Churchill was notorious for wearing a black bow tie with morning dress — but this does not mean you can as well.

Morning dress tip ...

“Try to avoid a straight-bottomed waistcoat that peeks out from beneath a buttoned-up jacket,” says Everest. “Get a waistcoat that matches or compliments the furl of your jacket lapels for a really sophisticated and elegant look.” He also advises you to wear a woven silk tie with your morning dress rather than a cravat.

‘Cocktail’ or Lounge Suit

Lounge Suit

'Cocktail' or Lounge suit illustration

The look ...

This is the official name for the style of suit most popularised today, but if you see it in a dress code context, it usually means a suit for social occasions rather than business.

Back story ...

’Suit’ comes from the French word ‘suite’ meaning a matching ensemble. Suits were designed initially for Victorians to wear countryside and at sporting events as alternatives to frock coats and morning dress. In Japan, a lounge suit is known as a ‘Savile Row’ after the London Street where many top tailors are based.

When to wear lounge suits ...

Cocktail parties, upscale gallery openings, theatre, opera — and generally, when ‘making an effort.’

Tom Ford BFA

Tom Ford

What are the potential lounge suit pitfalls ...

In Michel Houellebecq’s art world satire The Map and the Territory, a Michelin executive spends hours deciding what he will wear to a gallery opening his firm are sponsoring. He eventually plumps for his work suit without the tie. This cautionary tale is a reminder that while it’s sometimes rewarding to look like the only guy in the room with a real job, it’s not always ideal. If possible, avoid wearing conspicuous executive garb such as double-breasted pinstripe tailoring during evening social events.

Tuxedo lapel details ...

Peaked lapels are the most formal choice of lapel for men's occasion wear. Shawl lapels, which were developed initially for English smoking jackets, and notch lapels, which are more commonly seen on lounge suits and business suits. The safest choice is a notched lapel, though you can also try a shawl lapel.

Lounge suit tip ...

Here in the 21st century, lounge suits for evening wear fall in and out of favour with the fashion police. If you desire a regularly updated, trendy look, collecting them can be an expensive hobby — however, many designers such as Tom Ford and Thom Browne have created some marvellous ‘suits for parties’ that satisfy most tastes. (Tom Ford, by the way, gets his own formal wear made by Anderson & Sheppard of Old Burlington Street, London.) The fit is crucial, so go bespoke, or at least semi-bespoke, where an experienced tailor will adapt the suit to your shape.

Dress Shirts

Shirts 3

Dress shirts illustration

Dress shirt details ...

Shirt fronts come with either a stiff, piqué (dimpled, golf-ball-like texture) front or a pleated front. The piqué shirt front tends to be worn with a waistcoat, while the pleated shirt is more often worn with a cummerbund.

Dress collar details ...

Traditionally shirt collars were attached to tunic-style shirt with two studs. These remain popular, though you can opt for a shirt with an attached collar without losing face. Winged or wing-tip collars are more common than white-collar, while a normal, turndown collar can be worn with black tie.

Shirt Studs ...

As opposed to buttons? These dress-shirt fastenings are used in place of buttons, and were first introduced to overcome the difficulties in buttoning a stiff-fronted shirt. They tend to screw into place.

BUYER'S GUIDE: Studs come in a variety of colours, though it’s wise to simply go with black ones. Moodboards are ‘scrap books’ of photos to sum up the vibe you’re creating, and can be useful for guests, stylists, designers -- as well as your own train of thought. “Do take time to reference what you’d like to wear,” says Everest.

"One of the most common requests we get from wedding guests is advice on dress code,” says Jessica Seal of Quintessentially Events, “We’ve started to create mood boards recently. For example, one client wanted to go for creative black tie, so we drew up an A5-sized collection of looks, another wanted ‘San-Tropez chic’, and again it was something we could communicate quite easily visually.”



Dress shoes illustration

Shoes for black tie ...

Oxfords, patents, and Albert slippers. Mostly, you cannot go wrong with the Oxford style but black tie strictly speaking infers patent dress shoes (usually in the Oxford style still) or, for the adventurous, velvet ‘Albert slippers’ (named after guess who). Christian Louboutin makes Albert slippers and Oxfords with his signature bold scarlet sole.

Albert Slipper Louboutin

Christian Louboutin Albert Slipper

Shoes for creative black tie ...

Albert slippers, patents — Albert slippers are ideal here, especially if paired with a velvet tuxedo ‘smoking’ jacket (Victorians believed the velvet would absorb the smell of cigars). This dress code encourages experimentation but the stylist's rule of thumb is to only wear one 'statement' - that is. eye-catching - item within each look. “Albert slippers and an on-trend cropped trouser (one that shows ‘ankle cleavage’) can look really good with no socks at all in the summer,” says Everest.

Shoes for white tie ...

Patents and dress pumps — this is the time to bust out the opera pumps. Many luxury lifestyle labels make men’s opera pumps that look deceptively like women’s shoes, and are only for the right occasion (E.g., the Chinese State Opera Christmas Party), or ‘the right man’ shall we say — or as required for white tie. Designers like Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, and Christian Louboutin stand ready to complete your outfit.

Opera Pumps

Opera pumps

Shoes for morning dress ...

Oxfords, monkstraps, dress boots, or spats. The ubiquitous oxfords are your first point of reference. Monkstrap shoes are also in fashion and are most acceptable for daytime (and cocktails). Certainly, avoid hard-wearing or business styles such as brogues. The smartest Chelsea boots are the only alternative option with an ankle, and even then are not for amateurs. Likewise with loafers, which need to be ‘luxury’ and suit your personal style – if you’re not sure what your own style is, ‘do not even go there’ as we say in fashion. Stay away from anything contemporary like those unforgivable square-toed slip-ons. Spats are only for when the groom is heavily into classic cars.

Shoes for lounge suits ...

This is the opportunity to wear your loafers and Chelsea boots. Brogues can work with the right suit (checked, woollen, and tweed, for example) but mostly avoid day time and ‘outdoor’ styles (unless at a shooting party, for example).

How to Tie a Bow Tie

How to tie a bowtie

Formalwear 090

Accessories for Formal Wear


What is it? ... Sort-of a belt intended to cover up the little flash of white shirt that pokes between the top of your trousers and your waistcoat. Unlike the bow tie itself, they can be an opportunity to incorporate some colour into men's formalwear style – regimental versions in particular (we especially admire the Fleet Air Arm cummerbund).

Fleet Air Arm Cummerbund

Fleet Air Arm cummerbund

Go with grosgrain ...

"We make black ones in grosgrain, a textured fabric that provides a slight point of difference – we'll match the bow tie to it also," says Everest.

Buyer’s guide ...

If you haven't been looked after by a decent tailor, always include a cummerbund. If you neglect to take one away from your tailor, Mr Porter stocks Tom Ford and Lanvin versions, and you can even nip into Marks & Spencer to grab one in an emergency.


Style status ... “Very much back in fashion,” says Everest, "they look great with the 'peaky blinders' look that features roomier jackets and trousers, the latter often with pleats.

61 O Rs Dtt ICL UL1200

Trouser braces

Time and place ...

Braces go under a waistcoat and look fabulous during the wedding dance, adding a hint of smartness to your outfit even when you’ve removed the jacket and other layers.


Style status ...

Like other jewellery for men, these have fallen out of favour in modern times. But white tie and morning dress, in particular, will often demand a full-fashioned shirt with ‘French cuffs’ (the ones that fold over), and these will need cufflinks as they don’t have any buttons.

Buyer’s guide ...

Cufflinks in 2019 tend to fall into either the ‘high luxury’ or ‘zany’ categories. Lanvin make some fabulous examples of the former in gold and precious materials, including traditional Mother of Pearl and sexy obsidian. Paul Smith is the designer to turn to for kooky childhood-influenced pieces baring rockets, racing cars and the like, while Prada offers more leftfield alternatives of nostalgic favourites.

Cufflinks are an example of an accessory ‘so out it’s in’ and progressive labels including Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela are beginning to produce cufflinks in their house styles. Antique cufflinks, or heirlooms complete with an intriguing after-dinner back story, are also ideal companions to any formal outfit for men.

Mc Queen Cufflinks

Alexander McQueen cufflinks

Time and place ...

As with all formal wear, never let your nervousness or excitement take over your wardrobe edit. Very formal occasions require understated, traditional or at the very least expensive cufflinks; do not wear the soccer balls at the Noble Prize dinner, even if your darling princess chose them herself for your birthday.


Essential intel ...

Historically, gentlemen wore hats to keep free of the weather when travelling in carriages or open-topped cars. Ergo, gentleman's formalwear looks do not generally incorporate hats.

Top hats… grey or black? ...

Morning dress, though, includes a top hat. The rule of thumb is black for weddings and grey — considered more informal — for the races. Grey top hats come in felt and black in silk; Prince Philip, though, often sports a silk grey number.

Expert tip ...

Top marks to the chap who gets hold of an opera hat – the collapsible ones – and spends all day ‘entertaining’ the ladies with it.

Opera Hat

Opera hats


Expert tip ...

Fragrance is an excellent way to add a personal touch to whatever you’re wearing. An ephemeral signature, regularly wear the same scent to leave a lasting remembrance on those around you.

For evening ...

Everest recommends Santa Maria Novella’s Zagora and Le Labo’s Vetiver 46. For daytime ... Tom Ford’s Patchouli.


Dress to impress ...

’Dress watches’ are timepieces for formal wear. Taken alone, they tend to look old fashioned in this era of technical watches marketed around activity (flying planes, captaining submarines), but they look fantastic with the right outfit. Dress watches have a straightforward face without chronographs and a black leather strap.

Deep dive ...

Your £10K diver’s watch might make the right statement paired with shorts and a T-shirt. But worn with a tuxedo, you do not look like Bond having just peeled his wetsuit off and sauntered into the casino. You look like you only own one watch.

Buyer’s guide ...

IWC’s Portofino is an excellent option for those of us who don’t often wear dress watches and need to buy one for an occasion. It’s elegant, smart, masculine and leaves plenty of budget for the ‘boy’s toy’ watch styles we all tend to favour.

IWC Portofino Automatic IW356501 141951 2 190730 160719 latest

IWC Portofino watch


Time and place ...

Waistcoats are worn with morning dress outfits, but the lurid colour prints favoured by 1990s rugby teams have been banished alongside Homer Simpson socks and other evidence of ‘personality.’

Waistcoat style guide ...

“People try too hard. They’ll hire morning dress, wear a funky waistcoat and look ridiculous,” says Everest, “I recommend a silver-grey waistcoat with a jacquard weave pattern, or a mohair waistcoat in kingfisher blue, which looks lovely against black or grey. Keep it sophisticated with absolutely no ‘your aunt’s curtains’ style fabrics.”

A note on bibs ...

Bibs and backless waistcoats look smart but are only really for white tie, and our Essex friends have appropriated grey versions for wearing at weddings. As ever do not panic, and err on the side of caution – choose a full-backed waistcoat that matches your jacket. White tie waistcoats are white, and as per white tie, in general, there is no room to experiment.

Advanced Class

Only if you think you’ve mastered the basics, you can begin to experiment with more expressive styles…

Accessories 4

Advanced class dress code illustration

Kilts and other Skirt-Type Things ...

“Only really for if you have a Scottish or punk rock heritage,” laughs Everest, “and definitely only for weddings.” Etiquette demands you wear your own family tartan, or Black Watch is the fall back if you’re required to wear a kilt but don’t have the genes for your own pattern. A great look for beach weddings and other sunny destinations is a sarong, says Everest, “but probably for after the ceremony.”

Canes, Cloaks and Statement Accessories ...

“We dressed Jay Z and Damon Dash around the time they were becoming businessmen as much as musicians,” says Everest, “we took them down to Lock & Co Hatters to make sure they had the finest Trilby hats.” Essentially, be very careful with anything that “can look like you’re wearing a costume” as Everest puts it. Stick if you can to the finest examples or heritage (vintage and heirloom) pieces. Ideally such statements should be based on practicalities – a cane if you have a recent ankle injury perhaps – or an expression of your personality and interests (like a ceremonial sword from your navy days). Everest recommends ‘slow burn’ statement accessories “that have character but are subtle, and other guests only notice after a while. My own cufflinks are art deco antiques from Burlington Arcade.”

Boots ...

Over the ankle boots are usually a little too chunky for gentleman's formalwear, but a sleeker styles can work with morning dress especially. “There are some wonderful boots out there with contrasting coloured leather around the ankle that only shows when you’re sitting down,” says Everest, “and this can be the secret with expressions… keeping them so they can only be seen during intimate exchanges.” He recommends Joseph Cheaney designs with ankle elastic in contrasting colours.

Joseph Cheney Boots 1

Joseph Cheaney & Sons black leather Chelsea Boots

Formal Wear Mistakes to Avoid

Brown shoes ...

Or any inappropriate footwear. Brown shoes were considered only for the countryside until very recently. While chocolate (dark brown) lace-ups can look good with charcoal (dark grey) woollen suits, do not mix tan shoes (casual) with light grey silk mix (business) suits under any circumstances. And only wear evening shoes for black tie, white tie, or cocktail dress codes.

Sporty Coats and Sunglasses ...

For outerwear, opera coats, woollen overcoats or mackintoshes only – certainly not puffy jackets or sailing-style anoraks, which are never a component of men's occasion wear. At a wedding try and leave the sunglasses off entirely, and certainly do not bust out your Ian Botham-branded Oakley shades for the ‘groom’s party’ photo.

Bottom Button Done Up ...

Good old Prince Albert was so fat he couldn’t manage to fasten his bottom button up. With customary sycophancy, court followed suit and to this very day gentlemen do not do-up the bottom button on their suit or waistcoat.

If you found this article helpful and would like to learn more about our expert styling services, please contact one of our Luxury Lifestyle experts.

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