A Musician’s Guide to Black Tie

RIP OP (died 23rd Dec 2007): great musician, great guy and great dresser.

RIP OP (died 23rd Dec 2007): great musician, great guy and great dresser.

Jazz musicians usually chafe against the whole idea of dress code, but for some gigs dem’s de rules, pal.

Since many musicians don’t really dress, they just add glue to their bathwater and run through a pile of laundry, I thought it might be worth a rundown on how to get black tie right.

This is mainly aimed at the blokes, but there are also some guidelines for the girls further down. And none of what follows counts for anything if it’s not all clean and ironed…


First of all – don’t fret that you’ll look like a waiter or a penguin. You won’t, but only if you do it properly. Black tie is a convention and it’s largely about attention to detail – get it right and you’ll look a million. Believe me, people really do notice the details, even if just subconsciously. It’s rather like music: play a simple G with understanding and conviction and that G will sing.

This isn’t just silly snobbery. Black tie is a design classic consciously put together to enhance elegance, athleticism and height. And in this day and age, it isn’t expensive. In fact (as we shall see), it’s often more expensive to get it wrong than right.

Thankfully, the vulgar yuppie days of “aren’t I such a wag” gaudy bowtie and cummerbund sets are behind us. A splash of extravagance is okay if it’s a band uniform or if you’re doing a Xmas or NYE gig, but otherwise the classic look is best. Of course, if you really want to assault people’s retinas by looking like an extra from a high-school romcom, you’re welcome to do it socially, but don’t expect a bandleader to appreciate your sartorial flair…

The classic look is black and white, or midnight blue and white (the latter has the advantage of looking more black than black under unsympathetic lighting). As a rule, the more you go out of your way to pick something “different”, the more it’ll look like a cheap rental. Again as with music, don’t try too hard, just get it right.

Believe it or not, black tie is not historically supposed to be super dressy. It’s actually a dressed down adaptation of the far more formal white tie, which is virtually extinct these days unless you’re playing a high-pomp classical gig or meeting royalty. And in common with white tie, black tie is supposed to be worn only in the evening.


(If we’re being strict here, it’s correctly referred to as a coat, but to avoid confusion I’ll stick with jacket.)

You have a choice regarding the shape of the lapels:

  • Peak lapel – the most formal and timeless, you’ll never go wrong;
  • Shawl collar – a more casual variation, due to its derivation from the smoking jacket, often suits older men better;
  • Notch lapel – a more modern variation, and more casual still, a detail taken from the lounge suit, might suit a younger man better. Some sneer at notch lapels, but they’re acceptable these days for all but the most traditional occasions.

In all cases, the standard rig is single-breasted with one button, which should only be unfastened when seated. Nowadays a lot of jackets have two buttons, but they are cut such that only the top one should be fastened. If you fancy double-breasted, that’s fine but it can look a bit precocious on a younger man.

Classic black tie jackets don’t have vents, but they can be practical for musicians. In all cases, if the pockets have flaps tuck them in. And don’t load your pockets with stuff so that they bulge and ruin the line.

Speaking of bulging, the jacket should fit you properly. Despite the recent trend (007, I’m looking at you), there is nothing elegant about a gym or pie body stuffed into a fabric sausage with the sleeves, chest and button screaming for mercy and the bum poking out under a jacket that’s too short.


Should fit well with a gentle break and no turnups (US translation: cuffs). Socks should be dark – leave your lucky Scooby Doo ones at home – and long enough that you don’t display a hairy flash of ankle when seated. Gaudy socks are infra dig anyway, but doubly so when you’re on an elevated stage.

Don’t wear a belt. If your trousers are prone to a bit of wandering, use braces (suspenders to our US cousins). Since the jacket is always worn, and buttoned when standing, the braces should never actually be seen.


Fold-down collar is the standard (it’s never wrong and some people feel that the wing collar properly belongs to the more formal white-tie dress). If you do want to wear a wing collar, three things to bear in mind:

  • Bowtie, never ordinary (four-in-hand) one. Otherwise, you’ll look like a servant from Downton Abbey;
  • Get a bowtie of the correct size (nothing looks cheaper than an adjustment clip visible at the back);
  • Points tucked behind the tie.
Everything right. Now do you really think this guy looks like a waiter?

Everything right. Now do you really think this guy looks like a waiter?

Plain, pleated or marcella fronts are the norm – no ruffles please. If you want to dress up like 1970s Doctor Who or Austin Powers, do it in the privacy of your own bedroom. Yeah baby.

Other details are up to you, but you’ll never go wrong with a fly front (where a flap conceals the buttons) and French (double) cuffs. If you want to go for visible studs/buttons they should go with the cufflinks. Mother of pearl is a very classy traditional option (also, you’ll be surprised to hear, quite cheap).


Black, and matched to the lapel fabric. Proper bowtie, please. There is a naff modern trend of wearing an ordinary tie (four-in-hand) with black tie. Leave that to actors and pop stars, who think they’re being edgy – when in fact they just look like dorks. (But they’re rich and famous enough that nobody ever tells them that.)

And for the love of Sinatra, please learn to tie one. It looks so much better than a ready-made and it’s really no more difficult than tying shoelaces. In fact, it’s the same knot. The trick is to tie it well, but not quite perfectly.

Again, people can tell. And expect some sniggering behind your back if you pop to the toilet then reappear with a spare casually hanging round your neck…


Cummerbund or waistcoat (vest, if you prefer). Up to you, but black (or at least predominantly dark) please. The point of a “waist covering” is cunningly hidden in the name. The idea is not to show off your wacky personality, it’s worn to prevent the occasional flash of white shirt below the fastened button. Which looks untidy and ruins the careful illusion of lengthening the leg line and thus flattering your height.

The upper section of waistcoats can “peek” a bit from behind the jacket.

If you’re going to go double-breasted, no waist-covering – it’s pointless, since the jacket will always cover that white-flash weak spot.

Where to begin? He's wearing a cow, shawl collar with a printed black peak design (?), the jacket doesn't fit and buttons two... Yet notice how even these crimes against taste are softened if you just put your finger over that scruffy white belly flash.

Where to begin? Some poor cow died for this, shawl collar with a printed black peak design (?), the jacket doesn’t fit and buttons two… I could go on. Yet notice how even these crimes against taste are softened if you just put your finger over that scruffy white belly flash.

No suit is ever truly complete without a breast-pocket handkerchief.

This is the only point where flair is appreciated in the classic look. You’ll never go wrong with white linen folded square, but you can do puff or points if you want. Use a coloured one if you wish, in which case it can look best puffed, rather than folded. Dark red is a classic choice.

Some traditionalists don’t like a coloured handkerchief – but it’s really just suggesting a boutonniere (posh French word for a flower in the lapel). This is why puff can look good – but I mean a bit of flair here, don’t try to mimic some Lady Gaga creation. (Couple of rashers of bacon in your top pocket?)


Nobody wears opera pumps anymore, and patent leather is increasingly rarely worn. Well-shined Oxfords will do you fine, but never brogues. Far too casual – brogues, even black ones, are country shoes.


Social black tie events allow the ladies to shine. It’s a different matter if you’re in the band.

Basically, just follow the colour code and keep the flesh exposure tasteful. Black stockings or tights are usually a good idea. You don’t have to look like an Edwardian governess, a bit of feminine appeal is great, just don’t turn up looking like a stripper in search of the cake.

Of course, if you are the soloist, feel free to dress up like a cake.

Sometimes classical performances can be fun to observe in this respect, with soloist and conductor (of both genders) ruthlessly (yet politely) trying to out-cake each other…

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

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