My first experience of “black tie” was attending a ridiculous teenage “ball” – in other words, visiting a London nightclub that could only break even by selling tickets and then alcohol (on an epic scale) to overdressed and underage drinkers. We all stood outside in our “black tie”. Once the bouncers let us in, each of us removed the tie, loosened our top button and slipped on a baseball cap, presumably to look casual and American. Black tie was just a wrapper, quickly and easily discarded, intended to legitimise the serious business of getting drunk and hooking up.
It proved a good inoculation against a ghastly dress code. The same principles that guided the mob of teenage boys still inform most adult black-tie events. The dressing-up is not about elegance or style; it’s a pretext for falling over drunk. The purpose is not to add meaning, but to eliminate memory. The point is not the possibility of elevation but the certainty of descent.
It is time, surely, to decommission the whole charade. The fate of black tie is so complete that its meaning has done a somersault. It used to be about dressing up; now it’s a precursor to throwing up. I often speak to large audiences and you learn, generally, not to prejudge a crowd. The most difficult evenings, however, almost always share the same combination of an advancing clock and a multitude of dinner jackets.
Black tie is still a code, of course, but not really a dress code. It is code language. It shouts to the sober world: we are on a serious bender here, so give us a wide berth and hope not to get caught up in the melee.
There are two annual peaks for black tie. This is one of them, the Christmas and New Year jamboree; the second is high summer. City centres are now heaving with packs of men dressed as identikit penguins, falling out of pubs in the early evening, merely warming up for the serious party that follows. (My sense of chivalry will not quite allow me to let women off the hook entirely; many of them seem to be wrapped only in several layers of clingfilm, then suspended uncertainly and unsteadily on two improbably high heels.)
The only good thing to say about winter black tie is that it’s preferable to summer black tie. Anyone who has walked through central London at 6pm on a balmy June evening will have observed a familiar spectacle: perspiring men holding pints of lager while wedged into winged-collar white shirts and shiny black suits that have been progressively let out at the waist – only now, sadly, to the point of bursting.
The question naturally arises: “Can’t you guys find something more comfortable in which to get plastered?”
There is a wider point about behaviour and uniforms. Deliberately superimposing a strict dress code on a humdrum event has a precise purpose: it confers anonymity. In dressing with the crowd, you give up a measure of personal autonomy and join a collective. Put differently, it is an excuse, a precursor to the sentiment, “It wasn’t my fault – I was just doing what everyone else was doing.”
Apart from the armed forces, no one spends more time in strict dress code than professional athletes. Some players prefer the kit to the competition. The county colleague of an injured England player once quipped: “He needed two operations when he got home – one on his leg, the other to get the England tracksuit off him.”
As captain of Middlesex I tried to reduce the cult of uniforms. A county cricketer wears playing kit or practice uniform, 9am to 7pm, five days a week. Surely, I argued, we didn’t need to travel to away games in tracksuits as well?
Tracksuits, I thought, subliminally reinforced groupthink. Team meetings when we were all wearing them seemed to be even more banal and cliché-ridden than usual. On the principle of individualism and self-expression, I encouraged people to dress how they wanted.
One coach, a devotee of blanket solutions, saw things differently. When one of our players turned up in combat trousers before a flight to an away game, the coach came to me in a rage.
“Skip,” he demanded, “what the hell is he wearing?” My reply – “If he bowls well out on the pitch, I don’t care what he wears sitting down in 47F” – wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
I’m not against all dress codes. They are supposed to help. Basic manners (usually) lead me to follow the dress code of any invitation I accept. I hope I’ll be considered merely polite rather than a hypocrite when I’m next spotted in black tie having written this column.
Phoney dressing-down leaves me cold, too. At the awards ceremony for a literary prize, I observed a television personality – who knew he would be giving a speech and must have deliberately scrunched up his shirt overnight to confer an especially tousled and casual insouciance – begin with a special message to his wife. “Babe,” he said to the assembled group, “we need to get me a proper shirt.”
The political columnist standing next to me whispered, “He must have been at Eton.” And indeed he had been.
Having warned against the misuse of the term “authenticity” in last week’s column, I hesitate to invoke it as a principle now. But there is a way of dressing more or less honestly, which is quite separate from and unconnected to dressing more or less smartly. That sentiment, not censoriousness, leads me to my New Year’s request: ditch the black tie.
Ed Smith’s latest book is Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune (Bloomsbury, £8.99)