British institutions have kept some of their traditions alive, the most striking to the outsider being the academic dressing codes that feature…gowns.
At the same time, it’s very commonplace attire since thousands of students use gowns daily in Oxford and Cambridge.
‘Formal’ dinners are proudly held in most Oxbridge colleges, sometimes on a daily basis and other times on a weekly basis. These dinners imply wearing a specific academic gown, although what is worn underneath is not subject to any particular requirement, even if there are compulsory rules for certain ceremonies, like graduation, for example. However, social life at Oxford presents another spectrum of special events with specific dress codes.
I was recently invited to attend an alumni dinner in a Cambridge college. The dress code was ‘black tie’ (with academic dress optional). I took this opportunity to try Suitsupply’s dinner suit.
Although occasions for wearing such dress are not frequent for most of us, dinner suits have become more easily available (and affordable) than ever, with the usual differences in quality from one ready-to-wear brand to another (e.g., poor quality and bad taste). Case in point, just the other day in the display window of a suburban shopping centre, I saw a terribly shiny white tux with all its trimmings in black, lacking only a clown nose and a green wig to make the look complete.
I shall not disclose any visuals of that grand gathering as it was a private event. Let’s just say there were tremendous variations in the outfits with some ensembles being brand new and others well-worn, some with self-tied bow ties and others with clip-on bow ties. Some attendees even found a way to wear college colours on their cufflinks or bow-ties, which seemed appropriate in that context. Shawl collars were the popular choice and everybody avoided the more flamboyant and tacky two-tone outfits which have been recently promoted in France.
Buying clothes online can be tricky business, but the people in charge of operations at Suitsupply were extremely keen to satisfy–despite the erratic French delivery man I had to endure.
The first thing I noticed is that sizing doesn’t vary much from one model to another and once you’ve found your size at Suitsupply, you can stick to it, as I’ve done having previously ordered a business suit. As sheer luck would have it, no alterations were needed concerning sleeve length although I had sleeves shortened with a previous suit. Trousers had to be hemmed to length, of course.
The Suitsupply ensemble shows proper respect for the cardinal rules of wearing black tie. Their classic dinner suit features all the mandatory elements: peaked silk lapels, one-button (silk-covered button) jacket, silk-lined jetted pockets, silk stripe trim on outer seam of trousers legs, and buttons for braces. Each sleeve features four working silk-covered buttons.
The shirt was equally up to the classic standards as it featured a marcella bib, double cuffs, French placket and black enamel studs. The bow tie could have been made of a less shiny silk, but perhaps I’m being too picky.
Without being heavy at all, the jacket was well structured with just the right amount of padding to suggest a James Bond type of athletic build, even for those who eschew the habit of working out. This kind of fit gives a powerful impression, enabling one to blend into the formal atmosphere.
The fabric is a nice Super 110s by Vitale Barberis Canonico.
The shoes were surprisingly adequate as Suitsupply is not regarded as a shoemaker: patent leather oxfords in Blake construction, a black sole and grosgrain laces (purists might be surprised that instead of traditional black socks, I fell for Falke black and blue ribbed socks…).
The shoes did not need any break-in and felt especially right for the occasion. Time will tell how the shoes will perform in the long run.
The point of black tie—an attenuated legacy from formal XIXth century white tie—is to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Indeed there’s something strangely soothing in seeing a crowd of men similarly dressed, without anything to distract from the purpose of the evening, as uniformity keeps everyone on equal footing. One nice side effect to uniformity of male dress is that is does let the women’s dresses shine more vividly.
To achieve the effect of shifting the focus away from the men and more towards the woman, the formality of the outfit requires that all details be respected. I think that Suitsupply pulled off, for the price, a great look with a nice balance between formality and refinement.
Cambridge now boasts several bespoke and made-to-measure tailors (Ede and Ravenscroft on King’s Parade, Tailor & Cutter in All Saint’s Passage), as well as historical houses such as Ryder and Amies, whose silk ties have improved over the years in style and quality (i.e., ties are more substantial and not as flimsy as they used to be).
Oxford and Cambridge are the sort of places where one can enjoy the casual look of the locals–often wearing rough cords or shapeless knitwear, college ties and waxed jackets with a sort of British sprezzatura, while still appreciating the sophistication of wearing black tie. This versatility of what-to-wear allows one to enjoy dressing up and dressing down, with several degrees of formality sandwiched in between.
All these observations cause me to realize that Oxford and Cambridge are places that understand the importance of observing tradition, while still having the capacity to appreciate individuality. And that’s a wonderful thing.