The trend in men’s style over the last few hundred years has been towards less and less complexity, but every once in a while, one still gets an invitation that says, “black tie.” There’s a tendency to think of the black tie dress code as something rigidly fixed, but despite that, there’s still room for sometimes very varying ideas on what, exactly, is or is not okay for a gent to don at a black tie event – and one of the subjects we’ve seen HODINKEE readers wax right wrathful over, is whether or not you should or should not wear a watch. Let’s get into this delightfully contentious subject and see whether or not, whether pro or stridently con, you’re on the right side of history and custom.
As with anything where people take pleasure in articulating rules and scolding malefactors – English grammar, for instance, or spelling – there are two ways to look at the question of wearing a watch with a tux. You can talk about what people should do, or you can look at what people are actually doing. (This is prescriptive vs. descriptive; copy editors tend to be prescriptive; anthropologists, descriptive.) The prescriptivists’s take on this issue brooks no nuance, exceptions, or dispute: you don’t wear a watch with a tux, period. The reason for this is usually given as either, It Isn’t Done (which those of you who’ve studied logic will immediately recognize as the error of Argument From Authority), or, somewhat less dogmatically, and slightly more plausibly, that in wearing a watch you are showing disrespect for your host by implying that you are worried about such a thing as the time, when you are meant to be wholeheartedly immersed in whatever festivity got you in a tux in the first place. Finally, a small but vocal minority will say that it just doesn’t look right. A good place to start is to look at the tux in particular, and men’s formal dress in general.
Above, we see a couple of gents – the illustration is from 1898 – in dinner jackets, or what, thanks to their association with the Tuxedo Park residences of rich Manhattanites in Upstate New York, came to be called tuxedos in the United States. Now, the dinner jacket actually came into being, as far as anyone can tell, in the 1860s, when the Prince of Wales (later, King Edward VII) had a tail-less jacket made for him by Savile Row tailors Henry Poole & Co., who still boast of their creation of the very first dinner jacket on their website. The jacket was made as a less formal alternative to a tailcoat for wearing to dinner in the country. A point worth noting, therefore, is that the dinner jacket is actually not formal wear per se, but rather, semi-formal. In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, men’s dress was divided into day wear and evening wear; men’s formal day wear was a morning coat or frock coat, and formal evening wear was a tail coat with white tie. White tie is the most formal possible dress code for men even today. A tail-less dinner jacket was and is semi-formal, and when you see what court dress looked like for Edward VII, it’s easier to understand why he might have wanted something a little less fussy in which to take his turtle soup, claret, and Roast Beef Of Olde England.
The substitution of the dinner jacket for a tailcoat and white tie was, of course, deplored by traditionalists and prescriptivists, even in the late 19th century. In 1897, an English men’s etiquette manual, entitled simply, Manners For Men, opined:
“The dinner jacket has very largely superseded the dress-coat for home wear and at dinners in houses where one is a familiar guest. It is occasionally seen at the play, too, but it would be incorrect to wear it when accompanying ladies. Etiquette is not now nearly so strict as it used to be in the matter of evening dress in the stalls, private boxes, and dress circle of the theatres. I think this is rather to be deplored but the wave of democracy that has poured over society of late has left its impress in this as in other matters.” (One feels that the writer, like so many observers of style and rules of social conduct, is secretly pleased to have something to deplore.)
The above illustration, from Vanity Fair, shows what’s always seemed to me the point of white tie: it creates an idealized male silhouette, with a narrow waist, elongated legs, a broadened shoulder (thanks to the peaked lapels) and a prominent chest. White tie’s not easy to pull off, even if you know what it is, and most men – at least in the U.S. – probably aren’t even aware it exists. Anna Wintour famously set the dress code for the Met Costume Institute Ball at full on formal in 2014 – which means white tie for gents and floor-length gowns for ladies – and it seems to have thrown a lot of the guests. Afterwards she told the Daily Mail that she had had no idea “how much panic” it would create, and opined that only Benedict Cumberbatch got it right.
So what does this all actually tell us? First, rules originating in the Edwardian era may not actually be much of a useful guide. You can’t actually use precedent, beyond a certain point, to make a case for or against wearing a wristwatch with a dinner jacket or with white tie – for one thing, go back far enough and there weren’t any wristwatches (except, of course, for watch bracelets on ladies). For another thing, rules change; nobody nowadays thinks that a dinner jacket should not be worn in the company of a lady, despite what was thought in the late 19th century. A third point is that while there probably is a case to be made for being pretty prescriptivist about white tie, in the case of black tie we’re dealing with a semi-formal, and therefore arguably less rigid code. I’m not sure where the notion that you should never, ever wear a wristwatch with a dinner jacket even got started, because there are innumerable pictures of such stylish gents as Fred Astaire, and others, wearing watches with both dinner jackets and white tie, and looking none the worse for it.
When it comes to wearing a wristwatch with either white tie or black tie, I honestly have to say I struggle to find any real substance in the most often raised objections to the practice. The notion of not giving offense to one’s host by appearing to disdain time is superficially plausible, but factually absurd. These days, the practice of staring at one’s phone has become so ubiquitous, and is so much more genuinely rude, that looking at a wristwatch can’t seem anything more than innocuous, or so it seems to me.
The idea that one should not do it because it is against the rules ignores the fact that the rules have been mutable over time in any event, and that in the case of the dinner jacket, one is dealing with a semi-formal, rather than formal code, which is by definition more elastic. The idea that you shouldn’t do it because it looks bad is disposed of with one glance at Mr. Fred Astaire up above, who is wearing full-on white tie with top hat – and I challenge anyone reading this to look as good without a wristwatch as he does with one on. (The aforementioned Benedict Cumberbatch, by the way, was photographed wearing a pocket watch with white tie at the Met Costume Institute gala, and some people think that isn’t correct – that it’s much more an interruption of the suspension of time you’re meant to be experiencing at the ball to pull out a pocket watch than it is to discreetly check your wristwatch).
The final nail in the coffin for arguments against wearing a wristwatch with a dinner jacket or white tie, as far as I’m concerned, comes from none other than Mr. Alan Flusser, author of what many regard as one of the most important and definitive guides to dressing well: Dressing The Man: Mastering The Art Of Permanent Fashion. Flusser’s whole approach is that dressing can and should be a creative act, and that following rules slavishly is uninteresting. He feels there are common sense guidelines that most of us do well to follow (a patterned jacket over a shirt with the same size pattern is usually a terrible idea, for instance) but that, fundamentally, good taste is a much better guide to style than a set of rules. As you might expect, he’s pretty non-doctrinaire on the subject of watches with tuxes, saying:
“Simplicity should govern the choice of jewelry for formal wear. Studs and matching cufflinks can be made of plain gold, black enamel, or semi-precious stone. Mother-of-pearl, also handsome, is perhaps more appropriate for white tie. Fine sets of studs and matching cufflinks can be found in antique shops that specialize in old jewelry (the most interesting examples are those made between 1890 and 1930). You might also look for a gold pocket watch and chain. If you choose to wear a wristwatch, remember that the thinner the watch, the more tasteful it is. Black bands are recommended.”
This is just applied common sense and good taste. Finally, I’d like to leave you with this picture of a guy in a dinner jacket breaking several rules.
Now that watch is not flat, it’s not on a strap (much less a black one) and it’s definitely being worn with black tie. It’s also being worn at a dinner hosted by A. Lange & Söhne. So no matter where you come down on the question, pro or con, one thing we can probably all agree on is that it’s perfectly okay to wear a watch with black tie, at a black tie watch dinner.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments. I’m hoping especially to hear from prescriptivists because, to paraphrase Ms. Taylor Swift, who is wise beyond her tender years, prescriptivists gonna prescribe, prescribe, prescribe.
Historic images from Wikipedia; Mr. Frank Sinatra found on Vox Sartoria; watches shot by and for HODINKEE.
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