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Penguin Looks

"Black tie" no longer means having to dress like a head waiter -- it doesn't even mean having to wear a tie. A guide to buying the tuxedo that suits you best.

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Somewhere in the heavens, the god of unintended consequences is having a deep belly laugh. Just when men are eagerly embracing a newly relaxed dress code, the millennium comes along and gets everyone excited about playing dress-up. Or at least that's the way a lot of retailers explain the increase in tuxedo sales these past two years (remember, the real millennium is this year). Me, I think there's something else going on here. The casual atmosphere at the office has only increased our appetite for party clothes. Even guys who don't button their top button at work enjoy a special occasion now and then. And the tuxedo is the only part of a man's wardrobe that lets him indulge in the rococo aspects of dressing like a man: When else can you wear something as silly as a cummerbund?

If you're going to wear a tux, I say get a real one with peak lapels (single- or double-breasted) or a shawl collar. But if you've never felt comfortable in a monkey suit, now is the time to buy yourself a special party outfit, because what qualifies as black-tie is wide open.

For a classically tailored tuxedo, the safest place to go is any of the old-time men's clothiers. In keeping with black-tie tradition, Alfred Dunhill of London (450 Park Avenue, at 57th Street, 212-753-9292; 846 Madison Avenue, near 69th Street, 212-879-8711) sells an elegant six-button double-breasted or single-button model with notch or peak lapel for $1,550. And thankfully, Sulka (430 Park Avenue, at 55th Street; 212-980-5200) keeps up the distinction between formal clothes and the rest of what we wear by restricting its formal options to a lone, single-breasted jacket with peak lapel for $2,150. As you would expect, Paul Stuart (350 Madison Avenue, at 45th Street; 212-682-0320) carries a variety of styles, from white shawl-collar dinner jackets to peak-lapel velvet jackets, but its most popular is a one-button peak-lapel model, a sound investment at $874.

With each of these suits, you'll want to stick close to the conventions of formal dress, where details matter. To my mind, a pleated shirt looks much better with a turned-down collar than with an antique-looking wing collar -- though the new taste for a four-in-hand tie with a wing collar is a nice way to make an old tux new again. The only problem with the long tie is that it covers your gold, or onyx, or even jeweled, studs. So if you go out like this only twice a year, stick to the studs.

Cummerbunds go well with shawl collars, as they're both rounded. Which reminds me: Because a cummerbund sits across your middle, you're better off sticking with a slimming basic black. (A double-breasted tuxedo jacket, sadly out of fashion these days, doesn't need anything underneath.) Vests work best with peaked or notched lapels; and for those who want to make a statement, the vest is an ideal platform for personality.

Finally, the shoes should be black pumps, because you might not be going out dancing but you should always be ready for some fancy footwork. (And hey, when else are you going to wear pumps?) But if that makes you uncomfortable, get some plain-toed black calf shoes and give them the shine of their lives.

Ironically, today's stiff-necked penguin look was actually the casual revolution of its day, according to designer Alan Flusser, owner of the Alan Flusser Custom Shop, a tailoring boutique in Saks Fifth Avenue (611 Fifth Avenue, at 49th Street; 212-888-7100). The tuxedo debuted during the Gilded Age as a more comfortable alternative to white tie and tails. And what Flusser himself considers up to snuff is anything but strictly black and white. "When you went out in polite society," he says, referring to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century social codes, "you wore black and white. But at home, where things were more relaxed, people would substitute a velvet smoking jacket in bottle green or burgundy."

Following that lead, Flusser embraces all the classic dress code's secret splendors. He sells dinner jackets in light gray, burgundy, even a Black Watch plaid. Most come with shawl collars, cost $2,850, and take six to eight weeks to be made up. "The problem with color in formalwear is it's an upper-class thing," Flusser adds by way of explanation for the absence of color these days. "Who wears a velvet dinner jacket? Not the middle class."

If you're ready to loosen up but don't want Flusser's country-house look, talk to Jack Simpson, the designer at Dormeuil (21 East 67th Street; 212-396-8888). He's been putting guys in three-button, peak-lapel tuxedos with a silver-brocaded waistcoat and a silver four-in-hand tie. Just adding the vest and tie to your current tux will cost $800 (tie $145), but a whole new rig runs around $2,000 and will take six weeks to be made. Or, "if you feel overdressed in a full tuxedo, a rich, masculine red double-breasted jacket with covered buttons over black cashmere-and-wool trousers with a satin stripe," Simpson says, will be just what a tuxedo is meant to be: "beautiful clothes worn out of respect to special people and a special event." That outfit can cost as much as $4,000 and will take six weeks.

A guy who doesn't wear a suit may be more comfortable in a tux with a standard-issue notch lapel, like the one on his best interview suit. He might even think he's sexing it up by getting a three-button model. But in the end, he's missing the point. A tuxedo says, "I've come to spend the evening with you, and I would look silly running off looking for a better time." It's an outfit that makes you feel different, separate from the normal rules of having to get home early so you can get up in the morning. Think Carnaval in Brazil.

A good place to meditate upon updated classics is Ralph Lauren (867 Madison Avenue, at 72nd Street; 212-606-2100). John Vizzone, the designer behind Ralph Lauren Purple Label, suggests three quick and elegant options for overcoming the black-tie blues: an open-neck white shirt (perhaps with a white silk scarf instead of a tie under a classic six-button tuxedo), a black turtleneck with single-button shawl-collar dinner jacket, or a black tunic like a Mao or a Nehru jacket. Not everyone can pull off these looks. But, as Vizzone says, "if you're fit, confident, and have a good tan, you'll look great in something like this." And Vizzone, who is all three, should know. At Ralph Lauren, you'll find shapely Polo shawl-collar dinner jackets for $1,495 and that black turtleneck for $495.

If you're not sure which way to go, traditional or modern, there's always Barneys (660 Madison Avenue, at 61st Street; 212-826-8900). Tom Kalenderian, the store's ultimate authority on menswear, says that his most popular tuxedo is a wool-crêpe model from Giorgio Armani that retails for $2,750. And though his stock of shawl collars, double-breasteds, and peak lapels has dwindled to just three among a dozen or more models, he is making a splash with John Varvatos's eight-button tuxedo at $1,295 and long frock coat for $995. These clothes take the man who used to come in asking for a black tuxedo shirt to modernize his black-tie and put him in an outfit that harks back to the nineteenth century.

One of the real strengths at Barneys is the great variety of formal looks designers provide the store with year-round. In addition to a mohair suit ($1,910) that can be dressed up with an ecru ruffled shirt, Prada makes a stunning dark-brown tuxedo with peak lapels, a deep-blue pleated shirt, and dark-brown patent-leather shoes ($3,360 all together). For years, Issey Miyake has been making a black Mandarin-collar jacket ($940) that functions as an ideal go-anywhere uniform. And there is a horizontally pleated shirt by Romeo Gigli ($565) that completely reinvents the category.

Which brings us to the final point. These clothes are more in the spirit of black-tie these days than a frumpy tux and they'll take most men anywhere but a debutante ball at the Waldorf. So try it, and if anyone gives you a hard time, just tell them the Gods must be crazy.


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