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Originally published February 23, 2012 at 1:00 PM | Page modified February 24, 2012 at 7:29 AM

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How to wear a tux

A tuxedo is just a suit, but buying and wearing it strikes fear in a lot of men. Following some basic rules helps, as does emulating George Clooney. 10 tips on wearing a tuxedo

The New York Times

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MORE TUX LOOKS: See The New York Times slide show "Formal-wear looks from the star" at http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/02/23/fashion/20120223_TUX.html

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This Sunday, scores of men — some celebrated actors, others appendages to the famous — will expose themselves to the scrutiny of the world and, more alarmingly, Joan Rivers as they stride the red carpet at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.

Most are likely to be clad in what is surely among the more foolproof dress uniforms ever devised: the tuxedo. Yet few will manage to get it right. Why is that?

"Men take advantage of their advantages in general," Fran Lebowitz, the humorist and herself a tuxedo wearer, said recently. "But not with this."

Despite being given what Lebowitz termed "this perfect thing to wear," both stars and arm-pieces are certain to commit sartorial blunders at the Academy Awards. They will wear their pants too long and puddled on their shoes, as Brad Pitt did at the recent Screen Actors Guild awards. They will wear businesslike four-in-hand tie knots, as men like Robert De Niro routinely do, and not the requisite bow tie. They will turn up in suits that fit as though borrowed from Dad, or in shirts with wing collars best left to maitres d'hotel, or in colors that make them look like Steve Van Zandt.

"That whole black shirt thing is terrible," said the designer John Varvatos. "When you're talking about these kinds of awards shows, with the elegance of most of the women, the men should be a counterpoint to that."

Often enough these men display their "renegade" natures by adding loopy improvisations: sneakers or Samuel L. Jackson frock coats or open-necked shirts.

They will monkey around in some way with monkey-suit perfection — unless, that is, they happen to be George Clooney. Clooney always looks Rat Pack immaculate.

He has, of course, an obvious advantage.

"George has an easy and understated elegance about him," said Giorgio Armani, who has dressed the actor for years. "He wears the clothes rather than the clothes wearing him."

In truth, though, Clooney's many advantages tend to be shared by members of his demographic, male movie stars: men who are generally rich and handsome and able, at a snap of their fingers, to command free clothes from the best designers in the world.

"For a movie star to look pathetic, it takes a lot," Lebowitz said. Perhaps Brad Pitt is not the clotheshorse one might wish, she added. "But anyone can tell him those pants don't fit."

Why no one does is one of the enduring problems of black-tie dressing, a dilemma unquestionably rooted in fear. American men, it is generally agreed, are alarmed by clothes and shopping. And no article of clothing spooks guys more than the form of suiting first popularized by Griswold Lorillard and a group of 19th-century swells in the swank upstate New York enclave of Tuxedo Park.

"Men's tailoring comes from uniforms," the designer Tom Ford said last week by telephone from London. "And all uniforms look pretty great."

As the word itself suggests, the language of uniforms varies little, and that in and of itself should be a boon to the average man.

"It's so easy and you don't have to think about it," Ford said. "Yet there's almost this fear."

Like most phobias, he suggested, this one begins in ignorance, or rather on a vanishing body of sartorial lore.

"I sound like an old man, but we've lost manners," Ford said. "I didn't grow up in wealthy family. We were a middle-class American family. But we knew the rules. We knew that an afternoon wedding was a daytime suit, that black shoes were worn with blue suits and brown shoes with gray."

A classic tuxedo is simply a suit of black or midnight-blue wool with a lapel of satin or grosgrain, the collar preferably peaked to distinguish it from the notch style favored for business wear.

Typically a tuxedo is worn with trousers banded at the outer seam with a single braid of silk or satin, a black silk bow tie that matches the lapel facing, black dress socks of silk or fine wool and black dress shoes. Vests or else the cummerbund that originated in the military dress uniform of British India (and that is always worn with the pleats facing up) are traditional accessories to formal wear, although these elements have lately fallen out of use.

That's it. "You can break the rules, of course," said Ford, who routinely does in designing suits favored by stars like Colin Firth and, until recently, Brad Pitt, notable for their Gatsby-esque acres of lapel.

And that is fine because, for experts, tuxedo design is a game of themes and variations.

"I'm not sure there are any rules about what you can and cannot wear with tailoring," said Christopher Bailey, the chief creative officer of Burberry. "But I always feel that suits that give you a silhouette with clean details, defined lines and strict shoulders give more of a sense of confidence without trying too hard."

While the handsome Burberry Prorsum tuxedos Bailey designs (shown to crisp James Bond effect in an advertising campaign featuring the British actor Eddie Redmayne) look singularly unfussy, terms like strict shoulders and sharp silhouette are guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of the average consumer.

It doesn't have to be that way, said Tom Kalenderian, the executive vice president for merchandising at Barneys New York and a menswear expert. "It's still a suit," he said. "It's not a coat of armor or a metal garment to take you into battle. It's not an evening gown."

For Michael Hainey, the deputy editor of GQ magazine, fit is where most American men go wrong when buying evening clothes or suits for everyday wear.

"There's something with American men where they think their clothes should fit like an SUV," he said. "They think, 'I'm a big guy so I have to have big clothes.' Close to the body does not mean uncomfortable." Look at Jackie Gleason or LeBron James, Hainey suggested, for a quick tutorial on the advantages a snug fit provides even oversize guys.

"Your tailor is your best friend," he said, and it should probably be remembered that the formal-wear departments of most department stores still employ the services of those undervalued pros.

"What's weird is that guys spend all this time within the culture of the gym, getting toned, fit bodies, and then they wear suit coats that are two sizes too big," Hainey said.

For Hainey, who wore a Thom Browne tuxedo to his wedding last year, looking great in evening clothes is a matter of getting the basics right — a simple black suit with a grosgrain notch collar, a point collar white shirt, a tie neither too fat nor too thin and a well-buffed pair of black calf shoes — and of never, ever renting.

"That's the equivalent of wearing a bowling shoe," he said.

TEN TIPS FOR WEARING A TUXEDO

1. Shoulder fit is crucial, said Tom Kalenderian, the guru of menswear at Barneys New York. It's worth sacrificing a little mobility for a snug, high armhole. No one is making free throws in a tuxedo.

2. A four-in-hand tie, a favorite style default in Hollywood, is a solecism and "just wrong," Tom Ford said. Put on a bow tie and by all means learn to knot your own. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube.

3. Take an honest measure of your neck. Nobody looks good in a horse harness or a noose.

4. In a standard two-button suit, the closure defines an anatomical equator, said the menswear expert Alan Flusser. The closure should be at bellybutton latitude.

5. Shirts fit better with a taper, according to the designer John Varvatos. "It's about elegance," he said, adding that there is nothing elegant about yards of cotton bunched up under your coat.

6. The half-inch rule for the cuff reveal has always been inflexible, said Michael Hainey, deputy editor of GQ. Unless you're Bruno Mars.

7. Thom Browne fans may favor Pee-wee Herman lengths, but most men are best served by a modest break atop the shoe.

8. No cuffs on tuxedo trousers.

9. While pumps are preferred, Ford said, "most men think they're too femme." A calf lace-up is an acceptable option; avoid perforations or extraneous details.

10. A simple steel (or white metal or, if you are bucks-up, platinum) watch with a black leather strap is preferred by those who hold with the tradition that gents don't wear gold after 5 p.m.

READY FOR MY OWN RED CARPET

A reporter shopped on the high end but ended up buying a lower-priced tuxedo off the rack.

Massimiliano Giornetti, the designer at Salvatore Ferragamo who dresses Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling for awards shows, suggested a natural shoulder was the way to go. Brett Fahlgren, the stylist and Style Ledger blogger, said the most important thing was not to look as if you were trying too hard.

Alan Flusser, the menswear expert, was unambiguous about the details: a peak lapel, a fine merino wool, well-cut trousers that are not too narrow or too wide, no flaps on pockets, a shoulder shape suitable for your physique and a bow tie that you have knotted yourself.

"It should bear some resemblance to your face," Flusser said. "You don't want to look gift wrapped."

Armed with advice from the experts, and in need of a new tuxedo to wear to the Vanity Fair Oscars party at the Sunset Tower hotel in Hollywood on Sunday, I made my way to the seventh floor of Barneys New York, where I was met by the menswear honcho Tom Kalenderian and faced with a rack of preselected tuxedos to try.

My personal stats (6-foot-3, a relatively gym-fit 170 pounds) would not suggest too much liability when looking for clothes, or so one would have thought. As it happens, though, there is no such thing as a standard 40L suit. Beyond that, the choices themselves were overwhelming, even to a guy who has covered fashion long enough to have lost all fear of shopping.

The jacket to a Prada tuxedo was handsome, yet the trousers were so snug they could have been pegged. The Ami suit allegedly in my size fit as if I were John Candy. The Ralph Lauren Black Label was a good Goldilocks option, not overstyled or dowdy, like some models by his big-name competition. Still, it seemed a trifle generic to my eye.

Having gone out with the conviction that I wanted a relatively narrow notch collar and not a peaked one, that the suit had to be two buttons and conservative in cut, I found, with Kalenderian's guidance, that the best suit for my tall frame was, in fact, a double-breasted four-button tuxedo with a distinctly Fred Astaire lapel. It was beautifully tailored and carried the label of Andrea Campagna, a designer whose father, Gianni, was famous for having dressed Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat chief.

"It's all about the silhouette," Fahlgren had told me. "You nail the shape and build from there."

It took Kalenderian and me some hours and 10 suits, but we nailed the silhouette. With a few tweaks I could have walked out of Barneys and into Oscar night. I could have, that is, if I had Fiat finances to match my tastes. The Andrea Campagna suit cost well over $4,000, so I left dejected and with nothing to wear.

Stimulated by my expedition, however, I stopped at the J. Crew Men's Shop and found exactly what I sought. The J. Crew tuxedo (trousers, $295, and jacket, $510) from the Ludlow range was in stock in my size and fit me right off the rack. The store even had a pair of trousers sized perfectly for my point-guard legs.

— GUY TREBAY, The New York Times

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