I recently discovered that until the early 1900s it was considered the height of bad manners for gentlemen to take off their hats indoors. As a mark of great favour, the hostess might ask those sitting closest to her to remove their hats, in which case they had to be stowed neatly under their chairs.
Fifty years later, Vidal Sassoon single-handedly revolutionised English heads by suggesting that men wash their hair rather more than once a year. Since then, hats have been downgraded to a faintly affected accessory rather than a daily necessity, and consigned, if not quite to the dustbin, at least to the back of the wardrobe, mouldering among the mothballs along with spats, plus fours and Inverness capes.
A few seasons ago one would probably have included white tie and tails in that list of discarded garments. Unless you are currently on the state banquet rota or a frequent guest at the grandest of European embassies, this tenu de soirée — which until 1939 was nigh-on obligatory in certain circles almost every night, and ideally needed a valet and a couple of footmen to help one struggle into its delicious constrictions — has become a dim memory, nostalgically recalled from Fred Astaire movies, Lord Snowdon’s iconic photograph of Marlene Dietrich en travestie, or by those Peter Arno cartoons that decorate Harry’s Bar.
Now, due one can safely assume to Elton and David’s unabashed passion for extravagant evening wear (incidentally, in spite of those unavoidably lurid daylight photographs of their parties, white tie really does look best after sundown), the ‘full ensemble’ has come out of the closet faster than you can say footballers or their wives. Suddenly it’s the dernier cri of dress codes on an invitation. It goes without saying that the true glamour of wearing full white-tie regalia is enhanced by following to the letter the exacting dicta established for over a century.
For openers, this depends on the wearer having the most willowy of figures. That starched pique shirt-front has to be deadpan flat, otherwise off you foxtrot to a corsetière, as indeed many a pre-war gent did, for a little tight-lacing. To lengthen the line of the leg, and achieve that subtle ratio of chiaroscuro, the edge of the waistcoat must barely show below the points of the cutaway coat; with more than just the merest flash of white, you’ll look like Mr Punch. And far better not to clutter up that snowy waistcoat and stiff shirt-front with showy jewelled studs and cufflinks; mother-of-pearl ‘buttons’ with gold ‘thread’ were for aeons the archetypically subtle link.
If you feel there’s something naff about hiring your glad rags, clermontdirect.com will deck you out in the whole caboodle for an astonishingly reasonable £330. And anyone who wants to achieve the look at its most contemporary, and is prepared to part with £2,000, should investigate the ravishingly chic and streamlined Gucci version (33 Old Bond Street, London W1. Tel: 020 7629 2716).
Either of these approaches could be the road taken by the fashionable crop of quintessential white-tie devotees — Matthew Mellon, Nick Rhodes, Tom Hollander and Orlando Bloom are all bang on the money. It’s been heartening at recent parties, such as that given at Althorp one breathlessly perfect June night, to note with what alacrity the very young have taken up this form of evening wear. I’d have thought most of them would never have even have heard of such old-fangled kit, but there they were, dressed to the nines. Of course, almost to a man — Salman Rushdie’s boy and Charles Spencer to mention but two — they had the whippet leanness needed for a classic turnout. Others put together — as only the English can — the most marvellously stylish mélange, pairing tails with low-slung jeans, substituting their wild Pop waistcoats for white pique, and ditching patent-leather pumps for Converse All Stars.
It was music to my eyes. Many memories ago I was asked to an evening that required the archaic gear. At Hackett, then a tiny second-hand shop in the New King’s Road, I found a tails suit that fitted like a glove. Rigby and Peller strapped in my stomach, and New and Lingwood discovered a stiff wing collar and boiled-front shirt on their top shelf. In an agony of perfection, I awkwardly danced the night away. Now, having seen the young break all the white-tie rules, it’s the jeans and Converse route for me. And my paunch? I’ll just let it all hang out.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 8, 2006