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Goodbye, black tie

The traditional tuxedo has given way to a 'more interpretive' dress code. Call it formal a la carte.

December 09, 2007|Adam Tschorn | Times Staff Writer

Steve JOBS' head sprouts awkwardly from a Nehru collar. Robin Williams zigzags about in a bright fuchsia tux shirt and a Southern colonel tie no wider than a stick of gum. Thomas Haden Church seems possessed by his monstrously untethered collar points, which threaten to put out an eye. Do not adjust your set. What sounds like an acid-dosed prom night is actually the state of men's formal-wear in 21st century Los Angeles.

Black tie is dead, and the tuxedo's 121-year monopoly over men's formalwear has ended. Born in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., in 1886, it was known alternately as "the penguin suit" or "formal attire." No one knows exactly what killed the tux, but Southern California's social climate certainly hastened its demise.

For more than a century, "black tie" referred to a specific outfit, with little room for deviation. The key components included a fingertip-length jacket with grosgrain- or satin-faced lapels, black trousers with a side stripe that matched the lapels, a cummerbund, a black bow tie, black socks and black patent-leather shoes. Although it was originally considered semiformal attire (compared with the more formal white tie and tails), it eventually became entrenched as the de facto ensemble for formal social occasions.

Today, if you show up dressed like that at a black-tie event in Los Angeles -- if you can find one, even during the holiday party season -- you are likely to be mistaken for the event staff, and your $1,500-a-plate table mates are likely to be wearing such outfits as $500 denim and an Ed Hardy T-shirt, or a pinstripe Armani business suit, with few wearing black and even fewer wearing ties of any sort. This a la carte approach reflects L.A.'s individualistic approach to style: George Clooney pairing denim with a tux jacket at the Academy Awards would come off creepy and weird, but when westerns author Larry McMurtry wore a faded pair of jeans and cowboy boots to last year's Oscars, it seemed somehow appropriate. (And it's why there will be at least one guy at every gala dressed like he's been panning for gold in the Los Angeles River.)

As the highest profile of L.A.'s black-tie affairs, the Academy Awards have often served as the canary in the coal mine for men's style. Three years ago the bow tie was put on the endangered species list when several men (Ian McKellen, Bill Murray and Tim Robbins among them) showed up sporting the longer four-in-hand tie. This year, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs kicked the cravat to the curb altogether, wearing a black, peak-lapel jacket over a white, banded, Nehru-collar shirt. At the city's second-biggest black-tie bash, the annual Emmy Awards, Thomas Haden Church took to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in a John Varvatos evening suit, pleated gray-and-white tuxedo shirt and collar points flapping about like rodeo horses.

"Men express their individuality by pairing a black velvet dinner jacket with dark jeans, or they will select a dark suit in shiny, technical fabric worn with a tone-on-tone shirt and tie combination," said Giorgio Armani, who's been dressing Hollywood for the red carpet since the '80s. "Nonetheless, a classic made-to-measure tuxedo will always be the gold standard."

Now, the epidemic of individualism is spreading beyond L.A. A mid-November black-tie gala for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City included former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters sans tie, and rocker Tom Petty in a jeans-and-brown-fedora ensemble that seemed straight out of Woodstock.

It's exactly the kind of behavior we expect from these men, said Rose Cameron, the in-house "man expert" at Leo Burnett Worldwide and author of a 2005 global study on men's behavior for the ad agency. "Each of those men is known as a maverick," she said. "They've all earned the right to say 'I'm a nonconformist. I'm not going to wear a necktie.' It's almost beholden upon them that they do that."

Patty Fox, who has served as fashion coordinator for the Academy Awards since 1991 (and written two books on Oscar fashion), charitably calls it a "noticeable departure from the traditional look" for men. "It's a matter of risk quotient," she said. "How much risk do you want to take moving away from tradition? The film community likes to move far away -- and the music community even further than that. It's very easy for these guys to throw on a tuxedo. What's not easy to do is show a personal style while wearing the 'penguin suit.' "

Frank Sinatra managed to do it his way at the 1954 awards in a sharkskin tux, and Mel Gibson stood out at the 1996 Oscars with a waistcoat made in his family tartan. Designer Tom Ford, who famously seems incapable of keeping his own shirt buttoned past the breast bone, is surprisingly bullish on black tie and says setting yourself apart is as easy as always keeping your jacket buttoned and making sure you feel at ease.

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