How to decode the dress code

How to choose a suit

Investing in your first high quality suit and finding the right cut for your particular body shape.

When does an occasion call for Bond-esque tuxedo or a smart jacket and jeans? Here's our guide to the intricacies of formal attire, from a day at the races to a black-tie dinner.

Incorrectly interpreting the dress code or arriving under-dressed is the biggest style mistake men make, says Philip Boon, a Melbourne stylist.

"Everyone knows that when people are comfortable, they look good, and men often take this as an invitation to dress down. But don't be afraid to dress up, you might be surprised at how much you enjoy it," he adds.

This means that, yes, you're definitely going to have to wear a suit, but not all suits are created equal.

Accessorising your suit

How best to match shoes, belts, ties and pocket kerchiefs to suit your suit.

What to look for in a suit: For many men, knowing which suit to invest in (and let's face it, it can be a large investment) is tricky.

The most versatile option is a navy blue or black two-button, single-breasted suit in a fabric that matches the wearer's climate and lifestyle, says Theo Poulakis, co-founder of men's luxury department store Harrolds. However, what's more important than the style is the fit and quality, he believes.

Poulakis recommends investing in a suit that's fully canvassed. This means that sheets of canvas have been sewn into the lining, rather than glued. This gives the suit structure while allowing the fabric to drape freely over the body. Fully canvassed suits will keep their shape for decades, if treated properly.

This may sound expensive, but Poulakis points out that you can purchase a fully canvassed made-to-measure suit for under $2,000. He adds that many men pay a lot more for a fused suit off the rack if they don't know what they're looking or where to look. "It's not about the price, it's about knowing what quality you're getting for that price."

If canvassed doesn't cut your budget, thankfully the more recent trend towards slimmer suits means that a $300 suit from a high-street store can still look sharp, says Westfield stylist and fashion writer, Donny Galella - although it may not last you as long. Regardless of the price, he insists that everyone should have their suits tailored to fit better, and avoid boxy, old-fashioned cuts.

There are millions of options when it comes to suits, but as long as you find a classic cut and have it tailored, you will feel and look great and get more bang for your aesthetic buck, says Galella.

Once you have a suit, how do you know when to wear it? Although, these days, pretty much anything goes, there are still traditions surrounding formal occasions, and adhering to these shows a level of respect.

The first clue is obviously the dress code. "If there's not dress code on an invitation, don't be afraid to call your host and ask," says Galella.

Cocktail: While there are no strict rules, 'cocktail' generally means a tie and jacket, says Poulakis. "Then you can go as far as you want - black or grey trousers with a velvet jacket or a suit."

'Cocktail' is similar to a 'lounge suit' dress code – lounge suit being the name for your standard work suit – and if you've got a well-fitted classic suit, the rest is pretty easy. You can keep things simple or spice things up by mixing your pants with a textured or bright sports coat. From there you can add extras to dress things up (or down)  - think tiepin, bow tie, a pair of brass cuff links or a silk, patterned pocket square.

As far as footwear goes, a pair of simple, polished black lace-up shoes is fine, but really, as long as your shoes are well-maintained, elegant and you can pull them off with confidence, anything goes.

Black tie: In an ideal world, every man's wardrobe would have a sharply cut, classic tuxedo in midnight blue or black. But in reality, there aren't many occasions any more to wear a tux and most men don't need to own one (unless you're attending regular balls or red-carpet events, in which case, you are undoubtedly all over it).

The traditional black tie tux has satin lapels and a satin stripe down the side of each pant leg. The jacket must be worn buttoned up, and is of a slightly lighter material than lounge suits, says Poulakis. Traditionally they have a single button, but double-button and even double-breasted versions are increasingly popular.

The pants sit higher than regular suit pants, and a cummerbund or waistcoat is worn to hide the waistband, says Poulakis. The classic look involves a shirt  with a pleated front, button studs and a wing collar. A black bow tie, white pocket square and pair of black patent shoes complete the look.

These days, you can get away with many variations on this theme, unless you're going to a seriously traditional event. In place of a tuxedo, your slim-fitting dark blue or black suit can be worn buttoned up with a bow tie and white pocket square, says Poulakis. In fact, if an event says 'black tie optional', this is what many men may choose to wear.

If all else fails and you have to rent a tuxedo, make sure you pick it up a few days in advance, advises Bernhard Roetzel in his book Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion, so a tailor can make any emergency, reversible adjustments. Otherwise rent a tux a size too small. "If the fly zips only half way, it's a clincher you own it," writes Roetzel.

White tie: White tie is the highest dress code for men, and it's very rare to attend an event where you'll need to strictly adhere to it. If the occasion does arise, start from the ground up. A pair of fine leather black opera pumps with black silk bows (seriously) are the tradition, followed by a pair of high-waisted suit pants with two satin braids on the outside seams. A white, stiff-fronted cotton piqué shirt with cufflinks, button studs and a wing collar should be worn under a white waistcoat that covers the top of your pant waist.

Tails should always be worn along with a white cotton piqué bow tie and a white pocket square or buttonhole flower. A black top hat completes the look and a white silk scarf should be worn with your overcoat on the way into and out of an event, but never on its own over your tails.

While following a dress code is quite simple, many formal events don't come with a strict guide. Here are some tips for events that may not be so clear-cut.

Summer wedding: Weddings are all about classic class. If you're the groom you want to wear an outfit that you won't be ashamed of in 20 years. If you're a guest, you want to look sharp but not outshine the happy couple.

A beautiful pale grey or tan suit with a pocket square and a thin tie is timeless, says fashion stylist Philip Boon. If it's a daytime, outdoor wedding, you could ditch the tie to keep the look relaxed. Poulakis believes the most classic look for a groom, in summer, is white linen, but he advises against sitting before you've taken your vows.

As for footwear, look light with tan lace-ups instead of dark ones, or even a beautiful pair of leather loafers, says Paul Waddy, designer of shoe label Antoine+Stanley.

Accessorise with cufflinks or a ring, suggests Galella. There's a current trend towards nostalgia in men's dressing, and adding a unique piece such as a vintage pocket watch can look classic. But don't overdo it, you still want to look modern.

Winter Wedding: Winter weddings tend to be a slightly more formal affair. If you're the groom, a charcoal suit with a white shirt and dark tie is classic, while male guests have more sartorial choice.

For a more stately ceremony, Boon recommends a double-breasted, slim-fitting suit in dark blue or grey for groom or guest, with a white shirt and black tie or bow tie.
If the celebration is more cocktail casual, a velvet smoking jacket with black pants can work well.

If in doubt, channel James Bond, says Waddy. "Wear a black tux or suit with a skinny tie and black patent lace-ups – you can't really go wrong," he adds.

Funeral: Unsurprisingly, a black or dark charcoal suit here is a must. Boon suggests adding a crisp white shirt and dark silver tie.

Don't forget a dark or white linen pocket square, which can be used to dab your eyes (or lent to anyone who may need it). However, may we remind you not to use it to blow your nose.

The races: It's easy to look like a winner at the races. Poulakis says the races are a time to have a bit of fun with your fashion and give you the chance to inject some serious style in to the way you dress. He suggests a three-piece suit with a strong check fabric, a bold tie, hat and a cigar (for the purposes of appearances only of course).

Boon suggests a more modern approach, "I think a slim cut suit of any colour, with a colourful pocket square and tie and tan shoes."

The number one thing to avoid at the races are cheap, ill-fitting suits (there are already plenty of those trackside), white shoes and shirt collars that pop out from under your jacket collar, advises Waddy.

Networking drinks: When you're hobnobbing outside office hours, you want to look polished and professional, but confident and relaxed. If you're in a more conservative field, Poulakis suggests a suit in navy with the last sleeve button on each arm undone (a mark of a quality suit is buttons that work), a black tie, a white shirt, leather loafers or lace-ups and a beautiful watch. Avoid anything too glitzy.

If you're in the creative world, you could go for a slimmer fitting suit, in navy, grey or black. If you're feeling brave, you might adopt a Steve Jobs apparel air with a turtleneck underneath or a shirt and a knitted tie, suggests Poulakis. A more casual approach is a classic white cotton t-shirt under your suit with leather loafers and no socks.

If you're going straight from work, keep a fresh shirt or t-shirt in the office to change into instead of going all the way home. You can also take off or swap your tie for a less corporate look. The main thing is to feel comfortable and not look like you're trying to too hard to impress. As Cary Grant's father once told him, "Let them see you and not the suit. That should be secondary."


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