How to buy a tuxedo: the definitive guide
At some point in a man’s life, he is going to be faced with a unique shopping task: find a tuxedo. Maybe that’s the place you’re at right now. Or maybe you see it on the horizon, a couple years out. It might be your wedding! Or a fancy black tie affair put on by your office. Regardless of when the time comes, I believe that it’s important to know how to buy a tuxedo.
After all, just like a suit, a tuxedo should be considered investment clothing. And to get the most bang for your buck, there are some things you should know. So, I wrote this guide for you. It contains everything I think you need to know to build an awesome tuxedo. Your “James Bond” tuxedo.
At a glance, here’s how to buy a tuxedo:
- Decide how formal you want your tuxedo to be
- Select a lapel
- Will you wear a waist covering like a cummerbund?
- Select a dress shirt style
- Match your bow tie to the satin texture
There’s some history included and some explanation on each of the items that goes into a tuxedo. Feel free to scan quickly and find what you’re looking for. Otherwise, pour yourself a drink and get ready to learn about the “daddy of them all,” that nostalgic piece of attire that looked as good on your grandfather as it will on you: the tuxedo.
Here’s the bottom line if you don’t want to read the full guide: Make sure that you find either a peaked or shawl lapel jacket, a white dress shirt, black bow tie, and black oxford dress shoes.
First, a little history
For context, I grew up watching James Bond films and ever since Dr. No, I’ve always been fascinated by the tuxedo. For a time, I admit that I was somewhat intimidated by it. Mostly, because I just didn’t understand the parts that comprised it.
But here’s what I’ve learned: the key difference between a suit and a tuxedo is the presence of satin. It should always be on the jacket lapel, but you might also find it on the pant leg, buttons, and sometimes on the pockets.
For many years I was under the impression that a dinner jacket was some special type of tuxedo that you wore to a fancy dinner party. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I finally learned the truth, that a dinner jacket is the same thing as a tuxedo.
When we call a tuxedo a dinner jacket it’s really just using the British nomenclature. The two are one in the same. However, countries like France and Italy have been known to reference the dinner jacket as a smoking jacket.
Regardless, just think tuxedo when you hear dinner jacket.
But how did all of this tuxedo business begin?
According to rather second hand sources, the tuxedo first made a splash back in 1886. A gentleman by the name of Griswold Lorillard, who was the son of one of the Tuxedo Park founders (Tuxedo Park was more or less an early suburb in New York) wore a jacket to a fancy party that we would recognize today as a tuxedo. With every other guy wearing more formal attire, Griswold made an impression. Connecting the dots, local papers coined his jacket the tuxedo.
I love this story because it really was just one person who changed history!
What are the pieces of a tuxedo?
At first blush, a tuxedo might look a bit complicated.
I used to look at the flamboyant pleated dress shirt and the cummerbund and couldn’t imagine how one got into it. And then I remembered that James Bond rarely wore a pleated dress shirt and sometimes no cummerbund, so what the hell was going on?!
The truth is, a tuxedo is composed of a handful of specific items. Some are obvious, while others can be a little subtle and optional.
These are the items that are mandatory for a tuxedo:
- Jacket, with satin facings
- White dress shirt
- Bow tie (sometimes, a necktie)
And the following can be optional, depending on the occasion and your personal style:
- Vest or cummerbund
- Pocket square
In terms of construction, a tuxedo jacket is the same as any suit. Yes, it has satin on it, but otherwise, it’s no different from a typical suit. And sizing and fit considerations remains the same.
Regarding the lapel, it’s tempting to assume that a tuxedo can only have a shawl lapel (i.e. the kind with no visible notch or cut), because that’s what we most often see in popular culture. But so long as there is satin involved, you can really choose from any of the three common lapel styles for a men’s suit: notched, peaked, or shawl.
Opting for a notched lapel would be unwise as this look is usually just too casual for a tuxedo. But you can’t go wrong with a shawl lapel. It’s classic and works well for any occasion. Just slightly less dressy than the shawl is the peaked lapel, but both lapels will make for an awesome tuxedo.
Regarding the closure, a tuxedo will always have one button when single-breasted and usually two buttons when double-breasted.
And on the sleeves, no fewer than 3 buttons, if you ask me. Two buttons will start to make the jacket look a little too sporty. Also, I should note that more often than not, buttons are covered in satin for a really dark look. This is what you want for an elegant evening look.
You have a couple of options on the choice of vent for the jacket. The most traditional route is to have no vent at all. This helps to create a nice and clean silhouette. Alternatively, double vents are common. But a single vent is usually too “sport coat looking” and can create a bit of an overly casual look.
Finally, pockets should be jetted (besom style) for a smooth look. Flap pockets just aren’t appropriate for modern day black tie attire.
The Dress Shirt
The dress shirt is an important part of wearing a tuxedo. Most often, you’ll see a standard “turn-down” collar (the kind you’re most familiar with). In my opinion, a winged collar is a little out of style these days, although it is considered the most traditional option.
Then you have your choice of three different shirt styles: pleated, marcella, or textured. The pleated shirt has the bib of pleats that you’ve probably seen in photos. And the marcella shirt is a dressier alternative that’s a bit stiff. Today, most of us are wearing the more comfortable textured dress shirt.
Furthermore, you’ll either want to wear studs down the front of your shirt (not buttons) or have a fly front on your shirt to hide the buttons. It’s not that buttons are bad, but for formal attire, they tend to be replaced with slick looking studs. Speaking of buttons, or the lack thereof, I’d recommend French cuffs. If you’re going to dress up, you may as well dress to the nines!
Wear a black bow tie and aim to match the tie’s texture to that of the satin on your tuxedo. If the occasion is a little more creative and open-minded, you might be OK wearing a colorful bow tie, but black is the traditional pick.
[What about a neck tie? The Old Guard may frown, but it’s 2021, and I think that if the neck tie is black and elegant, and you can pull it off, then go for it. But a bow tie is the most traditional expression of wearing a dinner jacket.]
Sometimes a tuxedo pant will have a silk stripe down the side and sometimes not. Regardless, no belt should be worn, so wear suspenders if you need/want them or find pants with side-adjusters.
Regarding the style, it’s up to you. Pleats or flat front, wear whatever you feel good in.
When wearing a tuxedo, always wear black shoes in a plain toe style. This means no wingtips or brogue shoes. Patent leather shoes should be your go-to (these are the really glossy shoes you’ve probably seen before), but any well polished black dress shoe will suffice for all but the most elegant of occasions.
Personally, I think that a pocket square should always be worn with a jacket, albeit a suit or a tuxedo. For the latter, a crisp white pocket square will look great. Here’s how you iron it to perfection:
The Waist Covering
An important part of knowing how to buy a tuxedo has to do with the waist covering.
Traditionally, either a waistcoat (i.e. a vest) or a cummerbund (i.e. a silk sash at the waist) are required when wearing a tuxedo. But today, we rarely see either and I think that it has become relatively acceptable black tie attire to not wear either one.
The whole idea behind a vest or a cummerbund is to cover up the little bit of white dress shirt that may show below the jacket button. If your jacket and pants fit well enough, then I think you’re OK.
When choosing your fabric
You’ll definitely want a high quality woolen cloth.
Stick with something relatively basic like a beautiful navy or a midnight blue. While plaids can sure be fun, it would be a bit of a niche jacket, so you might not be able to wear it to many events after the intended one. But if you want something besides a true solid, there are some fabrics out there that have a nice textural look to them.
And here’s a question: can a tuxedo be made in white or ivory? It sure can. And it can be a great look. Just about every James Bond, including the present actor, has worn a white dinner jacket. However, this look should be reserved for use in warm locales or during summer events only.
And always pick a fun lining.
[By the way, you don’t want to dry clean your tuxedo too much, airing it out is often times all you need to do.]
A little about etiquette
Now that you have a good handle on how to buy a tuxedo, there are some things you should know regarding etiquette.
Save your tuxedo for evening events: anything after 5:00 pm. And because you’re wearing a dark fabric, you’re going to look great at night. Midnight blue even has a tendency to look darker than black under artificial lights.
A notable exception is a wedding ceremony, of course. Your ceremony might be at 3:00 pm or 4:00 pm, but your reception will typically begin after 5:00 pm, so you’re all good!
Wrap up: How to buy a tuxedo
Did this help to answer your questions? Hopefully, the dinner jacket doesn’t seem so foreign anymore and that you have a much better handle on how to buy a tuxedo. It’s not so complicated after all, is it?
What I enjoy most about the tuxedo is the history behind it. That the quiet sophistication behind the garment is what has kept it relevant all these years. A tuxedo truly is, always in style.
[One thing that I do want to add is that in parts of the Eastern World, the Nehru suit is considered the gold standard in formal attire. I mentioned my interest in James Bond films at the beginning of this article and true Dr. No fans will be quick to point out that both Dr. No and James Bond were wearing Nehru suits during their dinner together.]
Would you like to learn about some of our finest tuxedo offerings at Bespoke Edge? Read up on our Signature Line suiting and tuxedos here and all about our “scrap try-on” fitting (i.e. basted fitting) here, one of the best ways to achieve an incredible fit.
If you’d like to watch our video content on how to buy a tuxedo, here’s a case study video detailing one of our finest tuxedos that we’ve made:
Furthermore, if you want to learn more about how to shop for a tuxedo dress shirt, watch this video: