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Skip the Formality

If black-tie isn't required, what do you wear to really dress up?

Wool pin-striped suit, $479 for jacket and flat-front pant; cotton checked shirt, $89; striped tie, $49; and silk pocket square, $25, all at Linus.

Many men just will not wear a tuxedo, and it's not hard to figure out why. Although a dinner jacket does belong in every proper wardrobe, it's an ugly sartorial truth that a lot—a lot—of tuxedos are stiff, coarse garments, manufactured and sold with the knowledge that they won't be worn often. They're a uniform: appropriate, for sure, but rarely luxurious or stylish or comfortable. Even the designers who try to add contemporary zip to the tux often borrow against the future—that is, they tart up the suit so it looks fresh for the moment, slathering on the sequins or brocade or some other silly treatment, not caring that you'll regret it all in a few years when you look at the pictures. Unless you are Bono and you are attending the Oscars, you'd best stick to something restrained.

Nonetheless, on your day of ceremony, you do want to wear something a little bit out of the ordinary. So if you're not doing the full-on formal wedding, what you want is a great, dressy suit—one with more flair than you'd wear to the office. I recently spent several days as your personal shopper, looking for that unique quality you want in a suit that you'll probably never wear to a job interview.

You'd be smart to start at the three best department stores for menswear: Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Though Saks stocks a few fashion-forward lines, including a very good selection from the designer John Varvatos—dig those skinny lapels!—it's the most traditional of the three. Much of the floor space is given over to labels like Armani (that slouchy silhouette, of course) and Arnold Brant (a generous all-American cut rendered in very nice fabrics). Saks also carries suits by Corneliani and Luciano Barbera, two Italian houses known for material so fine and drapey you really do wonder how they get wool to behave like that. (They charge four grand for a suit, that's how.) A fancy made-to-measure boutique, Domenico Spano, occupies the back of the seventh floor, and during the trunk shows in March and September, the prices are kinda, sorta affordable. And you can always fall back on the Purple Label luxury line by Ralph Lauren, which incorporates a tasteful blend of forties formalwear cues and eighties swank. For a preview, watch Charlie Rose's lapels for a few nights running.

Bergdorf Goodman Men also devotes a lot of space to fine traditional suits, like Kiton's superbly obnoxious plaids. But I say skip the second floor, where the traditional businessy stuff lives, and go straight to the third-floor designer boutiques. Here, you will find Jil Sander (get it while it lasts!), Marc Jacobs, and Gucci. I had the most fun nosing through the supercool, super-slim, high-waisted suits made in tiny numbers by Thom Browne. They are most definitely not for everyone: They're expensive, at about $2,200; he makes nothing larger than size 42; and most of the selections at Bergdorf's now are tweed, which isn't really your classic wedding material. If you're into the Browne look, you might as well go for his custom work, which isn't all that much more expensive; beg him not to cut the pants legs really short, as is his wont.

From the Spring 2005 New York Wedding Guide

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