Nicholas Antongiavanni Author of “The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style”
Available at Amazon.com
Wedding Attire in the Modern World
What follows is (more or less) the text of a speech delivered at a convention of wedding planners. I was asked to discuss “What the well dressed groom is wearing.”
Well, not exactly. The invitation was actually not specific at all. So I figured a polite harangue might be most useful. If any of you find this post “Tutee-esque,” and thus derivative, I would take that as the highest form of praise.
I appreciate the invitation to speak to you today. It’s an honor for me personally, and very gratifying to know that people “in the business” are interested in the opinions of a mere hobbyist like me.
It’s also gratifying to know that some attention is being paid to the poor grooms of the world. We guys are often, if not afterthoughts, at least relatively neglected in these affairs. Yet we’re half of the show, so to speak. Or, realistically, maybe a third. And we ought to look our best.
Most men don’t like to think about clothes, if they can avoid it. But occasionally they find themselves controlled by events. An impending wedding would be one such event.
Now, men want to look their best for their wedding. They don’t want to let down their brides. They are dimly aware that there are traditions that somehow govern these things, and they feel a vague desire to follow those traditions.
But they are not sure what the traditions are, or where to turn to find out. So they either leave it to their brides to tell them what to wear, or they turn to you.
The way I see it, I’m here to serve two purposes.
First, to be a wet blanket. I’m going to tell you all the traditional “rules” of wedding attire. I’m not going to hide my affection for those rules. I will do my best not to let my disdain for deviations show too much. In what follows, I will be perhaps annoyingly dogmatic and proscriptive.
My purpose is only to state for the record what the traditions are. Yes, I would be pleased as punch if everyone followed them. I think it would make the world a more elegant place. But you—and your clients—have to decide for yourselves.
I hope only to give a firm foundation to those who want to follow the rules. And, by the way, in your minds you should attach the following preface to everything you hear me say: “According to tradition, this is how it is supposed to be done.” I’m not going to repeat that over and over because it would become tiresome for all of us. But it applies to everything I will say.
My second purpose, I hope, will be to point the way toward elegant alternatives for those who can’t or won’t go whole hog, and also to “update” the classic look a bit, because in some respects even I agree not every element plays well in this day and age.
So: “Gallia Est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres”
A little classical literature there to get the blood flowing. Now, just as Gaul is divided into three parts, so wedding attire is divided into three parts: formal, semi-formal, and informal.
But before we can even get to that, we must consider the most fundamental distinction of all: day versus night. What time is the wedding?
If it is before the sun goes down or six o’clock (whichever comes first), then it is in the daytime. After, and it is at night. This is important because clothing appropriate for daytime weddings differs dramatically from clothing appropriate in the evenings.
This distinction goes back to pre-industrial age. Before there were cars, there were horses, and horses smell. Gentlemen were expected not bring that smell into the house and especially the dining room. Thus was born the concept of “dressing for dinner,” and hence evening clothes.
Here I have to be firmly proscriptive. Tuxedos (how I hate the dismal term!) are simply not appropriate for a daytime wedding. They are evening clothes. I know, I know. Everybody does it. Who cares any more? Right?
Well, I concede that grooms can wear them if they want to. The fashion police won’t come to haul anyone away. But your clients will not look as elegant as they would were they to uphold tradition.
Wedding: Level of Attire Formality
Once you know what time the wedding is, the next step is to decide its level of formality.
There are three:
- Formal is “full dress”, all the stops, the full rig, etc.
- Semi-formal is what most of us today consider “formal”; and
- Informal is pretty much anything else.
Formal and semi-formal each have their own sets of rules based on time of day. Informal is mostly the same all day and night.
Most weddings are in the daytime, so it makes sense to start here. Plus, it’s chronological.
The traditional garb for the groom and the wedding part and even the guests is the morning coat. This is the granddaddy of all male wedding attire. This is the one in all the movies, from Swing Time to Father of the Bride (Spencer Tracy, not Steve Martin) to Arthur and beyond.
This gentleman is wearing a morning coat:
Strictly speaking, this garment not merely wedding wear. It’s formal day wear, worn for any ceremonial occasion in daylight hours that requires full dress.
If your groom stands a decent chance of being invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, or a diplomatic reception at the Japanese Diet, one of these will come in handy. But in this country, in this day and age, it’s only worn for weddings, and even for these less and less.
The Europeans still stick to it, by and large. In England, especially, this coat is still relatively popular. Even wedding guests wear them—remember Four Weddings and a Funeral?—and it’s not uncommon for non-aristocrats to own their own.
You can see that the morning coat—also called the “cutaway”—is long. In back, its tails should end right at the break of the knee. In front it should button at the waist. Traditionally, it actually had no button per se, but two buttonholes joined by something like a cufflink. Tailors called this a “link front.”
As to configuration: the most traditional version has peaked lapels and only one front button. Back in the day, you would see other configurations:
I wouldn’t exactly call them incorrect, but I would steer you to one-button peak, as it is the most formal and classic. And in any case, you won’t be able to find anything else unless you go to a bespoke tailor. Not that finding a morning coat off the rack is exactly easy these days.
Morning Coat Color: This is important!
It can only be black or gray. And if gray, either oxford gray, or else a mid-gray which I will get to in a moment. Oxford gray is a very dark gray that looks almost black.
You might say, “So why not just make it black? What’s the difference?” Well, maybe not much. But the gray version has a bit more interest and takes the light better, which is why I prefer it every time.
The trousers are a special kind of stripe that Savile Row tailors call “cashmere stripes” even though they have always been wool and never cashmere. Go figure.
I wish I had a good pic; sorry. But I do have swatch book which you can come up and see later. It’s a fancy, black, gray and silver multistripe. Ever hear the derisive term “striped pants” used to refer to officious, overly formal types, like diplomats? This is where it comes from.
Alternatives include a dark ground chalk stripe or a fancy check:
Always stay in the gray-silver-black family, however.
Now, there is an alternative. The mid grey coat I mentioned takes matching trousers. This “morning suit” was once considered too informal for anything but the racetrack.
You can just make out a chap in an all gray morning suit to the right of the woman in the blue dress.
But even wearing such a get up to Ascot carries, or carried, risks. The duke of Windsor, when prince of Wales, tried it once only to find the entire royal party in black because in mourning over some member of the Royal Family whom the prince could scarcely remember. His father was most displeased. The prince was warned not to come back unless in black. His poor tailor had to pull an all-nighter to make him a black coat.
In more recent years, this outfit has come to be seen as acceptable for a summer wedding:
The trousers don’t take cuffs. Cuffs are, in fact, never suppose to be seen on formal wear. Lest you think I am making this up or making too much of it, the whole plot of the movie Swing Time hinges on just this point. Not one but two weddings are called off because the grooms insist on cuffs on their formal trousers.
Your groom will also need a vest.
It can be single or double breasted, but double looks much better.
The color should be light: either dove gray or off white or (perhaps best of all) “buff”, a sort of creamy yellow.
The traditional material was linen, but wool boxcloth will do, and might be better for winter. One caveat: if he goes with the morning suit, the vest should match (same cloth) the coat and trousers.
Shirts are a fraught question. The traditional shirt was a wing collar formal shirt, worn with an ascot. Not a Thurston Howell ascot, but a formal ascot like this:
Here’s a picture of the overall look:
Now, if the bride is really into Jane Austen, this will go down very well, as it reminds a certain category of women of Mr. Darcy, whom they admire very much. Don’t ask me how I know this; I just know.
For all practical purposes today, the wing collar shirt and ascot tie are dead. Perhaps deservedly so: the rental shops have done this look so badly over the years, with tiny wing collars and cheap looking ties, that the whole look has come to be sadly reminiscent of the 1970s robin’s egg blue tux with ruffled shirt.
If you’re going to do it, there’s no substitute for doing it right, and that means a proper formal shirt with a detachable wing collar, with substantial wings.
That means, alas, getting the shirt custom made by the handful of companies left in the world that know how to do this; or else getting one from the few remaining firms that can do it ready to wear, and most of these are in London.
Not so practical.
The good news is that there is an alternative. A turn down collar shirt—that is, a shirt that looks much like a business shirt—is perfectly acceptable and elegant alternative, with a pretty good pedigree:
The bad news is that to truly do this right, the shirt should also have a detachable stiff collar. A soft attached collar just does not have the same “presence” and seems overwhelmed by the majesty of the coat.
Yet for those who simply find it insane to go to such lengths in this day and age, an attached collar shirt will do—so long as the collar is white. The body of the shirt can be white, or else very pale blue or yellow, or (this is quite elegant) a white ground with pale blue stripes.
Nothing too loud or fancy. French cuffs only, either white or self (the same cloth as the body of the shirt; this is preferable, I think).
With the turndown collar, the four-in-hand tie is worn. Nothing fancy, this is the same shape worn by businessmen everyday, just like the one I am wearing now.
(By the way, as an aside, I note that while it used to be considered “correct” to wear a four-in-hand with a wing collar and morning wear, I recommend against it. You will end up looking like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich, and we all know how that turned out.)
The English have a whole category of ties that they call wedding ties. These are woven silk in gray, black and silver, usually in one of three patterns—houndstooth, shepherd’s check (what I am wearing now) or glen plaid.
These are very much recommended. Also fine are so-called Macclesfield ties: ties woven in very tight, neat little patterns. Again, silver, black and grey are most appropriate:
But as we have seen so far, one sees other things. But keep it festive—no black—and serious: no cartoony prints. I would avoid red as well.
Tradition has it that the groom gives ties to the wedding party. The famed Naples tie company Marinella recommends giving a tie to every male guest. But then they would, wouldn’t they?
Still, giving ties to the wedding party is a good tradition that has at least one solid advantage: you have vastly increased the odds that your best man and ushers will show up wearing an appropriate tie. I recommend not giving them all identical ties but appropriate wedding or wedding-esque ties that are each a little different.
I suppose this is good a place as any to make a point that needs to be made. There is no need for the groom, his best man, and his ushers to match in every respect from neck to toe. In fact, it looks silly. Take a look at pictures from very elegant weddings in prior years, and you see that in fact the wedding party does not match.
Matching Wedding Parties
Among its other problems, all-matching wedding parties just scream “rented clothes!”
Certainly if the dress code is morning coat, then everyone in the party should wear a morning coat. But shirt, tie, vest, etc., can and should all be a little different. After all, we men are not robots.
Shoes. The truly correct footwear with a morning coat is a pair highly polished dress balmoral boots (in black, of course):
Better still if they have canvas, linen, or felt tops that button.
Those actually belong to a friend of mine.
Now, before you think me crazy (if you haven’t come to that conclusion already), let me just put in a word for the bal boot. It is actually a useful piece of footwear: nice and warm in winter, protects the ankles from mud, rain, snow and slush, yet when your trouser leg is down you can’t tell it from a business shoe. In other words, it has applications that take its usefulness past the wedding day.
For those interested, I recommend the “Shannon” model from Edward Green. Tell them I sent you; I get cumulative discounts for referrals.
Okay, returning to earth, a plain black dress shoe is fine, provided:
It is not a blucher; that is, it does not look like this:
But instead like this:
it is either completely plain like the shoe shown above, or has broguing—those decorative holes—only on the toe seam:
Personally, I prefer these, called “punch caps” in the trade, for morning wear, and for business generally. If your groom doesn’t have a pair, tell him to get one, as it is about the most useful shoe he can own.
Socks: for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, don’t wear plain black socks.
So, so boring. Take a little time and fine something in black and white or silver with a little interest:
Accessories. I’m not going to go into all the arcane rules about canes, gloves and such. I just want to make a few quick points. If you have a pair of vintage spats, this would be the day to wear them.
There should be a handkerchief in the breast pocket of the coat. I recommend white linen, folded to show a straight edge, sticking out just a hair, maybe 1/4”.
We all know there will be—and must be—flowers. I’m going to make myself very unpopular with the florists here when I say: skip the pre-made boutor at least carry, a top hat with morning dress.
In fact, you cannot get into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot without one. A problem that has bedeviled us all at one time or another, I am sure.
Here I am going to make a concession to both modernity and reality and offer a dispensation: if you go to the trouble of wearing full morning rig to your wedding, you will have done your part on behalf of taste and style, and can be forgiven for forgoing the topper.
Morning Coat Conclusion
Before moving onto semi-formal day wear, I want to present a little evidence that this CAN be done in the modern age, and that it still looks great.
This young chap is a rare breed. That is a vintage morning coat that he took to a local tailor to have altered. Compare to this rental:
No comparison, eh?
The vest is spectacular:
And he even wore a detachable collar. I would fault him only on the tie, and only a little. I like the woven texture, I wish the color palatte were a little brighter. All in all, supremely well done, and for a surprisingly low cost. But of course it took a lot of time and effort to put that together.
Semi-Formal Day Wear
Now, on to semi-formal day wear. I’m going to spend a lot less time on this, because it largely, if undeservedly, defunct, and also because it differs very little from formal day wear.
The key difference is the coat. Instead of a morning coat with long tails, semi-formal day wear calls for the stroller.
Here is Ronald Reagan at his first inauguration, wearing what may have been the stroller’s last public appearance in this country:
In 1985, he wore a business suit.
In any case, the stroller is cut just like a suit jacket. It can be single or double breasted, but should have peaked lapels in either case. Like the morning coat, it can be black or dark gray. Unlike the morning coat, there is no such think as a “stroller suit.” The stroller always takes striped or checked trousers.
Here are some strollers:
Forget the wing collar altogether, and wear a turndown collar. Otherwise, the same rules as to shirts, ties, shoes, and accessories apply, except one: if you really want to wear a hat, don’t let it be a topper. Instead, a black homburg or bowler is correct.
It is a strange fact that the stroller is now much less popular than the morning coat, considering that usually in these matters, it is the more formal and more old-fashioned garment that dies first.
Just look at evening formal wear.
Tails—analogous to the morning coat—are all but dead, whereas the dinner jacket—the nighttime equivalent of the stroller—is still relatively healthy.
I can only guess as to why this should be. There was time when, in major cities like London and New York, the lounge suit—what we today simply call a suit—was not considered formal enough for the office. A lot of office workers wore strollers and striped pants. This never happened with respect to the dinner jacket.
Perhaps the stroller came to be seen as a “clerk’s get-up,” more reminiscent of Captain Peacock than a head of state.
It’s a nice garment, but hardly practical, in that you won’t ever have an occasion to wear it again. In the days of yore, you could haul it out for Easter services, baptisms, things like that, but no more. I figure, if a man wants to dress up in something thoroughly impractical for his wedding, he may as well go with the morning coat.
The Dinner Jacket (Tuxedo)
Finally, we come to what most everyone thinks of as formal wear: the dinner jacket or “tuxedo” and the tailcoat.
I must repeat, these are ONLY appropriate at night. We all know that people rent tuxes for daytime weddings all the time. I am also well aware that nothing I say will change that. But, I am here speaking to a collection of distinguished wedding professionals. You above all need to know the truth.
Lately, as well, I have noticed a new trend: stage the wedding in the late afternoon, so that the reception can be dinner and a party with no set end time. People don’t like to get drunk in the middle of the day. I understand and condone that sentiment.
Actually, it may be surprising to learn that we were not the first to have this thought. It’s actually covered in old etiquette books. And the rule was, if the wedding takes place in the day, the man wears a morning coat. And if the reception goes into the evening, he still wears a morning coat.
The rule that forbids morning coats in the evening was thus bent for the sake of practicality. And so could it be today.
Evening Wear For A Wedding
However, there are sound reasons why one would prefer evening wear for one’s wedding. It is more common, people understand it, it doesn’t look so anachronistic, men in the wedding party may actually own the stuff already, making rentals unnecessary.
I’m not saying I condone the practice. If I had my druthers, all black or white tie weddings would begin at night. To all those who just can’t be bothered with morning wear, I suggest other alternatives, which I will get to shortly.
Nonetheless, for the sake of thoroughness, I will briefly describe the basics of black and white tie.
White tie means formal, fully formal, “full dress,” etc. That is, the tailcoat. This is as close to a uniform as a non-uniform gets. You have no options as to the cut of the coat. It must look like this:
It is usually black, thought the sartorially adventurous prefer midnight blue. The canard about midnight blue is that, under artificial light, it looks “blacker than black.” Actually, if you pay attention a bit, you can tell that it’s blue.
Not distractingly so, but still noticeably. The trousers match the coat.
The Finer Details
The shirt must be a white wing collar shirt with a stiff front: no ruffles or pleats. You have a little leeway with the vest. While it must be white cotton pique, and low in front, it can be either single- or double-breasted. Vive la difference!
The tie must be a white pique bow. No exceptions—ever. This is important. One of the ways that the British aristocracy used to remind servants of their place was to force them to dress in formal clothes that were similar, but just different.
This was most often accomplished by making them pair the wrong garments together. For instance, a black tie with a tailcoat. That just screams “waiter!”
Shoes must be patent leather plain oxfords—no decoration of any kind, not even a toe cap—or else opera pumps.
Tailcoat: Arcane Details
There are a lot of other arcane details that I could relate about the tailcoat. In the interest of our time and my wallet, I will refer you to my book, which explains all of them. Or if you want to ask me after I finish, I’ll be happy to answer, if I can.
Far more common is the dinner jacket. Though the options are quite circumscribed when compared to ordinary business clothing, compared to tails they seem almost limitless. I’m not going to discuss them all; only those that really work well for weddings.
For instance, I don’t think a man should get married in velvet or blackwatch smoking jacket, though I would not begrudge his wearing it to the holiday party at his club. It’s also probably not a good idea to opt for off white, unless you are getting married in the summer time or in the tropics.
The jacket can be single or double breasted, with peaked or shawl lapels. Shawl is less formal, and for a wedding, I recommend peak.
The sharpest black tie outfit a man can wear is a single breasted peaked coat, a white vest (identical to the one worn with white tie), wing collar shirt (ditto) and black bow tie.
That’s as close to white tie as you can get without renting tails.
But again we bump into the problem of the impracticality of the wing collar shirt (because, again, the attached collar versions sold in department stores are to be shunned).
So we’re back to the turndown collar shirt, with either a pleated or a pique front—the latter being a bit more elegant.
Shoes: same as white tie. Tie: always black, no matter what. Boutonnière: cant’ go wrong with a red carnation.
Let them wear, or rent, their own. Matching is not desirable.
Let a thousand flowers bloom: SB, DB, peak, shawl, wing collar, turndown collar, pleated front, pique front, etc. Just please, only black ties and no long ties. Just because they wear them to the Oscars doesn’t mean you should. If Tom Cruise jumped off a bridge, would you?
As with white tie, there are other arcane details that could and should be imparted about the proper dinner jacket, but which will be skipped over in the interest of time.
Last topic “informal” weddings. Just to be clear about one thing: by “informal” I emphatically do not mean track suits or open collars or any such thing. I’m using old-world, 1930s terminology here, when “informal” still meant a suit and a tie.
I’m not going to bother talking about open-necked wedding attire, partly because I believe it shouldn’t exist, and partly because I hope you all are not interested. Occasionally, on some of the clothing-focused web forums where I participate, a guy will come along and post a question about his Caribbean beach wedding.
What brand of sandal best allows the surf to lap through his toes? What color of cane cutter shirt better shows off the gold chain twinkling in his chest hairs? I wish such people well, and hope their marriages last for decades. But I really have nothing to say about the clothes.
Suppose our man does not want to bother with morning dress. We can hardly blame him. There is something unsavory about rented clothes, and bespeaking a morning coat to be worn but once and then put away is as profligate as buying a multi-thousand dollar white dress, wearing it once, and then boxing it up and putting it in the attic.
Nor does our man want to wear black tie. He has heard our injunction against the dinner jacket in daytime. It haunts him. His conscience will not let him wear it. What should we tell this man?
Wear A Suit
Simple: wear a suit. But not just any suit. It must be dark, and it must be solid, and it must be wool. Light colors are too informal. Stripes are to be avoided as they are THE archetypal business pattern, and most weddings are not supposed to be business affairs. Checks and plaids are too sporty. And other fabrics are too unserious. Again, if the wedding is in the tropics, fine, wear white linen. But for a metropolitan wedding, stick with the dark suit.
Which dark suit?
The spiffiest suit he could wear would be a single breasted peaked lapel, one-button jacket with a double breasted vest. This works well in either oxford gray or midnight blue. One could go lighter, but the severity of the cut works better with the darkest colors. The problem is that this suit is not so useful in a business context, and we want our man to be able to get some use out of this thing after the wedding day.
Another alternative is pretty much the one I have on. Dark gray, single breasted, with a double breasted vest.
The tie and and shirt depicted above are not recommended; too businessy. But the suit would do nicely. The vest is perhaps not for everyone, though I love it and I think it perfect for weddings. I wear this to the office without hesitation, though I realize why others would not.
The DB vest gives this suit a little of the morning rig’s dash. I would not wear an SB vest to a wedding; it’s too business and bland. For later use, if the DB vest really bothers our guy, he can leave it in the closet or haul it out only for special occasions.
Now, these first two are going to have to be custom made. They just don’t exist on the rack anywhere. Not that this is a bad thing. I am a biog advocate of custom suits.
And if our gals are going to spend several thousand on a dress to be worn once, shouldn’t our men be allowed to buy a fine suit that can be worn again and again? And that will fit better and look better for the wedding pictures than anything he can get off the rack?
The last alternative I’ll discuss is the navy double breasted. And this could be custom made, but it should also be relatively easy to find on the rack. It’s just as versatile as the gray single-breasted—perhaps more so because there is no pesky vest to worry about. It is therefore the most practical alternative.
Here is an illustration from Esquire published during World War II.
The original caption mordantly comments that the father of the bride was saved by the War Production Board. To save cloth, the government had banned the making of morning coats, striped trousers and even vests.
Many—me included—believe that this temporary measure had the unintended effect of driving down the use of these garments even after the restrictions were lifted. Once given an excuse not to have to wear them, men had no wish to welcome them back. So he defaults to the next best thing: his navy suit.
In all instances, accessories should be consistent with formal day wear. I’m not going to push the detachable collar shirt, though if you’ve ever wanted one, this would be the day for it. Otherwise, solid white or else a white collar with a body like those discussed for the morning coat. Same shoes, same hankie, same socks, same boutonnière. Probably skip the hat.
One final comment. Some might raise the following objection. Since the bride’s dress is extremely fancy and formal, wouldn’t a plain suit be too bland? Not formal or dashing enough? Unequal to the occasion?
I don’t think so. First, the configurations I described take the suit out of the ordinary. I would not recommend wearing any ordinary two piece, two button single breasted notched lapel suit. That is indeed too bland for a wedding. Second, the right accessories take this suit and spiff it up even further.
Wedding tie are not businesslike. They are formal. So is that carnation.
Third, the decent thing for the groom to do is to fade into the background. While far from irrelevant, he is also far from the center of attention. Traditional wedding dress imposes upon him a fairly sedate color palate that allows his bride to shine — as she should:
Whatever you do, stick to that ideal. It has served men — and women — well for three quarters of a century.
I’ll end there, and thank you very much.