Black tie is bound by rules and traditions,” says Robert Whittaker, shirtmaker at Savile Row tailors Dege & Skinner. “It’s hard to change much without undermining the formality of what you’re wearing.” But, he adds, “there is a big range of possibilities with the shirt, whether it’s the immediate choice between pleats and marcella or the style of collar.” When it comes to black tie, the difference is in the dress shirt details.
Traditional dress shirts presumed that a man would never remove his jacket during the evening. The front, therefore, was shaped to fit the gap left by his waistcoat or open jacket. A starched oval section would be cut to the curved opening of the waistcoat, later replaced by waffle-like marcella. When men in tropical climes began wearing a cummerbund instead of a waistcoat, the shirt front was amended to a long, rectangular section, which suited pleats. And thus choice was born.
But it’s not just a choice between starched, marcella or pleated front. Also up for debate are wing collars or turndowns; French or cocktail cuffs; stud, button or a fly front. Not to mention the shirt’s back, which can be anything from regular cotton to an almost transparent voile. British army officers even established a tradition of using cotton printed with bright patterns or cartoon characters. During mess dinner, their jackets would remain on and the outfit seemingly formal; afterwards the jackets would be removed, displaying their humorous creations. It’s enough to give a man option anxiety.
“There are so many possibilities that customers usually need a little bit of guidance on combinations and propriety,” says bespoke shirtmaker Sean O’Flynn, who has seen an increase in orders of dress shirts in recent months. One was from an ambassador in London who ordered three in different styles: wing collar with a starched front, turndown collar with marcella, and plain-fronted.
“Wing collars have been particularly popular, as well as designs that have a tab to fasten into the waistband of the trousers,” says O’Flynn. This elasticated tab is intended to keep the shirt front taut, mimicking the old starched fronts.
Damien Paul of matchesfashion.com has observed “a surge of interest in formal and dress shirts as the party season approaches”. “This season there is a particularly wide range of styles, from point-collar pleat-front shirts at Valentino and Saint Laurent to simple wingtip shirts from Balenciaga,” he says. “And several brands are introducing unique elements to their dress shirting: Dolce & Gabbana, for example, has created a collarless dress shirt with a lace front bib, while Maison Martin Margiela’s white shirt comes with a contrasting navy front.”
Indeed, you need only consider the shirts that Karl Lagerfeld wears to see the dress shirt’s influence on designers. Lagerfeld has his shirts made at a very traditional shirtmaker, Hilditch & Key in Paris. His father shopped there and introduced him to the shop when he was a young man. Forty years later, Lagerfeld’s style has blossomed into the high, stiff collars that have become his trademark, often with a long wing collar just touching the body of the shirt.
“Mr Lagerfeld sends me his new designs by post,” says Bruce Philips, store manager at Hilditch. “We send back a finished shirt, and if he likes it we will probably make 30 or 40. He is very much inspired by dress shirts, particularly wing collars and their iterations. It helps that nearly all the collars are detachable and stiff, in the old-fashioned style.”
Nicholas Fugler, retail director of New & Lingwood, one of the few tailors that still make detachable stiff collars (partly because of its links with Eton College, where detachable collars are still part of the uniform), says: “We have seen a consistent increase in demand for such collars over the past five years. It’s part of a trend towards smartening up and a desire to do things right – not like the bastardisations of the 1980s, when men wore horrific things like patterned and shadow-striped dress shirts.”
That, apparently, was an option too far.