As with style, good manners are in the details: knowing which face to do when Dog People talk fondly about dogs; the ability to pretend you understand – hell, enjoy! – polite conversations about traffic, and – if I may speak from personal experience – exactly how to hold the bottle of warm urine one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has just given you, while you continue to interview him on television.
This week – with wedding season in full swing – I'm tackling the sartorial equivalent of these etiquette conundrums: the black-tie invitation. They may not come around very often, but when they do they can be a challenge. The rules for men can seem too many and too strict, while there's an unhelpful dearth of them for women – frustrating on both counts.
Black tie began as dining attire for Victorian aristos. It has been the default formal setting for everyone from Noël Coward and Frank Sinatra to James Bond. So, while it possesses a remarkable lineage, it also lays down an intimidatingly elegant gauntlet to the average gentleman (not literally. Please don't wear gauntlets). How to wear anything quite so well as Daniel Craig? Cut and attention to detail are key. If you want unassuming ease, go for something slim, with flat-front trousers. It's worth noting that you're not supposed to take your jacket off until the host or MC specifically announces that you may, so opt for fabrics that won't boil you in summer (and/or a neat side-vent). If you're adventurous, midnight blue is a striking alternative to black. Your bow tie should be self-tie and an interesting texture rather than colour. This will take the look from magic to magician. Optional extras (cummerbund, waistcoat and braces) are a matter of taste, but footwear is non-negotiable. If you're going to do this look, commit from head to toe. An evening shoe is essential.
For ladies, a black-tie invitation can be frustratingly vague. Generally it's safest (but not essential) to go long. If you're in two minds about how up to dress, take a look at the amount of palaver the event involves. Just drinks? Or drinks, dinner and dancing with live music and fireworks? The more faff there is, the more formal the attire. If you decide to go short, don't go too short – just above the knee is enough. If you can't bear skirts of any kind, a dressy evening suit can be stunning and is on trend for autumn/winter. Remember, black tie doesn't mean you have to wear black, although a simple dress makes the best canvas for statement jewellery. Speaking of which, feel free to put on the glitz, but leave the gloves at the opera and the tiaras to the prom queens.
Finally, the most important thing to remember is to forget what you're wearing and have fun. The whole point of this look is to put the work in beforehand, as a thank you to your host. On the day itself, your only job is to make their party sparkle.
Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenLaverne
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