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In Black and White

The intricacies of formalwear, from bow tie to shoes.

You may not realize it, but most rented formalwear is entirely different from the stuff you can buy. Rental jackets are reinforced like naval battleships, and many are about as graceful. They are built to last, not to flatter: Stan Gellers, an editor at the menswear trade publication DNR, explained to me that a rental jacket has to be able to survive the chemicals and the bruising brought about by at least 50 dry-cleaning cycles. The shell may be wool—and a rather coarse wool at that—but the innards are just short of spacesuit material. Besides, think about the last few guys who wore that tux. At least one of them was a 17-year-old on prom night. Do you really want to occupy his pants?

That said, I'll admit that there are certain situations where a rental can be mighty helpful. A colleague of mine reports that he once discovered, one hour before attending a wedding, that it was a black-tie event. So he has extremely warm feelings for Eisenberg & Eisenberg, on 17th Street in Chelsea, a spartan pipe-rack operation that had him out the door, fully and appropriately dressed, in ten minutes. I'd also confidently send you to A.T. Harris Formalwear, an old-line shop where the clerks understand arcana like detached shirt collars and striped morning trousers.

Both of these shops sell eveningwear as well as renting it, and to be honest, you really should buy a tux, if only as a matter of economics. A basic rental runs about $150; if you spend a little time shopping, you can put together a perfectly passable set of dress clothes for about $400. In other words, if it stays in style for a decade, and you wear it three times in those ten years, you're ahead. How do you get away so cheaply? Certainly you should visit the shops above, but be sure also to hit the off-price places like Century 21 and Syms. Yes, you'll wade through twenty pieces of schlock for every decent suit, but if you go back a couple of times, you'll almost surely find something good. On one trip to Syms, I saw a Burberry tuxedo for about $300; on another, I bought my own shawl-collared model, off a final-clearance rack, for the astounding price of $100.

For the shirt, tie, and furnishings, you don't need to get superfancy. Go to Brooks Brothers or its even more traditional neighbor, J. Press. The latter is one of the few shops that stocks a selection of straight-edged, narrow, old-school bow ties, the kind Archibald Cox used to wear—especially good for slimmer guys, who look clownish in the more common butterfly shape. (And please, learn to tie your own. A clip-on is strictly waiterwear, and everyone knows it.) I prefer a vest to a cummerbund, but that's just me; I would recommend to anyone, however, that you stay away from those ridiculous backless vests, which ought to be banned by law. As for shoes, it's quite permissible to skip the patent-leather pumps in favor of a good pair of plain- or cap-toe oxfords. Get 'em polished on the way to the chapel.

From the Spring 2005 New York Wedding Guide

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