The Men Who Wore Black Tie Best
Messrs John Lennon and Mick Jagger at the Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles, 1974. Photograph by Mr Ron Galella/Getty Images
This festive season, take inspiration from these style icons.
To paraphrase Mr David Bowie – who knew a thing or two about dressing the part himself – there’s a lot of white noise around black tie. Every season sees a rush to “reinvent the rules” of evening wear when, in fact, the basic building blocks of formal attire – dinner suit, white shirt, bow tie, polished black shoes – have remained the gold standard ever since there’ve been dinners (or parties) to dress for. Of course, you can tweak the formula – jacquard rather than barathea, grosgrain rather than satin, horseshoe waistcoats and braces rather than cummerbunds, double-breasted rather than single, pumps rather than patents or even no tie at all (though, as demonstrated above, it helps to have Sir Mick Jagger’s swagger in the latter instance). But it’s probably easier to spell out the definite no-nos: vents in the jacket; turn-ups on the trousers; ruffles on the shirts; “Hollywood black tie” (the black suit-black tie neither-fish-nor-fowl option prevalent on red carpets) and pre-tied, or, Lord preserve us, “novelty” bow ties. As party season approaches, we’ve compiled our own selection of black-tie heroes. If you want to take the luxe approach when it comes to the tux, these are the men to emulate.
MR JACK NICHOLSON
Mr Jack Nicholson, London, 1978. Photograph by Evening News/REX Shutterstock
“The camera photographs what’s there,” Mr Jack Nicholson once said, and what was there through his years of imperial Hollywood pomp was… well, just the flat-out biggest roue in town. Consider the evidence: the quizzically-arched, “Heeerrre’s Johnny!” eyebrows, perfectly framed by aviators; the sworn-to-fun-loyal-to-none verve of his demeanour; and, not incidentally, the diverting decadence of his black-tie ensemble, from the extravagant peaked grosgrain lapels of the jacket to the louche droop of what we’re sure Mr Nicholson referred to, with lip-smacking relish, as his “dickie boooow”. With the likes of Tom Ford giving rakish black tie a modern spin, it might be time to unleash your own inner libertine, keeping the Mr Nicholson credo – “more good times!” – very much in mind.
Get the look
MR JEAN COCTEAU
Jean Cocteau, c1950s. Photograph by Mr Luc Fournol/Photo12
If Mr Jean Cocteau was a polymath – and, as a filmmaker, poet, novelist, playwright, artist, designer, and actor, he certainly racked up his fair share of -maths – his major talent was surely as a dandy and an aesthete. He pioneered the sweater-under-sharp-tailoring look, and was an alchemist of creatively clashing pattern and texture (though some combinations – matador cape and leather trousers, say – remain an acquired, avant-garde taste). As evidenced here, Mr Cocteau also received the requisite bouquets for his take on black tie, opting for elder-statesman elegance with a double-breasted tuxedo and a slim “diamond” bow. It’s classic, but it’s far from elementary; as Mr Cocteau once put it: “Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.”
Get the look
MR SIDNEY POITIER
Mr Sidney Poitier and Ms Abbey Lincoln in For Love Of Ivy, 1968. Photograph by Photofest
This shot is taken from Mr Sidney Poitier’s 1968 movie For Love Of Ivy; we’re not sure if that’s referencing his regard for the Ivy League look, but in the majority of his high-watermark 1960s roles, from In The Heat Of The Night’s Virgil Tibbs to Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love, he favoured a clean, sharp-suited preppy style that only enhanced his charisma, and his black-tie look was similarly on-point; if your dress shirt is this spruce, with its flawless bib-front and urbane studs, and your tie is this exquisitely proportioned, you can get away with the at-all-other-times cardinal sin of removing your dinner jacket. Mr Poitier’s costar, Ms Abbey Lincoln, is suitably dazzled.
Get the look
MR TERENCE STAMP
Mr Terence Stamp at the Spectator party, The Lyceum, London, 1983. Photograph by Mr Richard Young
Of course, “black tie” is never as restrictive as it sounds – tuxedos can come in anything from rich midnight blues to pink velvets to floral jacquards (see the current Gucci collection for a rainforest-inspired take on the latter). Another alternative option is the white dinner jacket, and an exemplary illustration is provided by Mr Terence Stamp, at a Spectator party back in the 1980s. The clotted-cream shade, low-buttoning DB cut, and raffish shawl collar lend him a jazz age brio, while the pale shades are counterweighted – perhaps almost literally so – by the heft of the crushed-velvet bow tie. "A really well-cut suit… is the measure of a man, isn’t it?” Mr Stamp once opined; this one’s off any quantifiable gauge that we know of.
Get the look
MR PETER O’TOOLE
Mr Peter O’Toole and Ms Audrey Hepburn in How To Steal A Million, 1966. Photograph by mptvimages.com
“I will not be a common man,” Mr Peter O’Toole wrote in a boyhood journal, “I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.” Mr O’Toole didn’t so much stir them as hammer away at them with a pile-driver, thanks to his legendary capacity for hell-raising (“I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica”), and his epicurean proclivities (“My idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another”). When it came to eveningwear, however, he kept things effortlessly classic, as this shot from the 1966 movie How To Steal A Million proves; but then, nothing but self-tied, dress-shirted, custom-fitted elan will do when your co-stars are Ms Audrey Hepburn and a convertible Jaguar E-Type.
Get the look
MR PAUL NEWMAN
Mr Paul Newman, Venice 1963. Photograph by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images
At a Venice Film Festival party in 1963, Mr Paul Newman is the living embodiment of Sir Hardy Amies’ famous dictum: “A man should look as if he’s bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them.” Yes, he looks immaculate in his streamlined, sleek, single-breasted tux with scooped waistcoat (while shooting just the right amount of cuff to reveal a debonair link), but he leavens the formality with his proto-hipster beard, his swagger-bracelet, and his hands-on approach to cocktail deportment; he could be removing some excess pith from his fruit punch or retrieving a wayward mini-sausage from his mojito. As the entirely apposite title of one of Mr Newman’s less celebrated movies had it: What A Way To Go!?