Friday, May 27, 2011

Lost in the Eighties, For Instance.

(Part Seven of the series "Dressing the Average Guy.")
Chapter 17
Welcome back, Average Guys! It's been awhile since we left off our series about clothing basics in Part Six. I haven't forgotten about you, though! I hope the intervening weeks have been informative, and served to inform your continued sartorial growth. You've come so far in such a short time -- from nothing, mere naked mewling babes in the woods, and now, why, look at you! I hardly recognized you standing there. Well-scrubbed and groomed, and what a nice jacket you've paired with those trousers! Where'd you find that, an estate sale? Classic. Nice crisp shirt, too; that's a good color, and that collar shape really suits you. No, no, you're right: not wearing a tie was a good choice -- wearing one would have just tipped the outfit over the formal edge -- with such a nice jacket, an open collar is just casual enough to work. Good shoes, too. First pair? You're on the right track.

What's that, you say? You feel like there's something missing, like the broad strokes are right, but there's some subtle detail missing, like you're wearing someone else's clothes? I'm so glad to hear you say that -- it tells me you are now prepared for the next stage of your tutelage: the details that will make your newfound sense of Classic Style uniquely yours, and not quite so generic.

There's a nefarious habit out there, the results of which have strait-jacketed many a man into a never-ending cycle of horrible style choices. Left unchecked, this habit will guarantee you will be a social pariah and the butt of many jokes, most of which you will not be aware of. Used properly and wisely, however, this habit can be studied, crafted, pruned, and used to improve your mode of dressing and personalize your attire without being, well, quite as generic as it might otherwise be.

This habit to which I refer is so ingrained, so much a part of the Jungian collective unconscious, so inextricably tied to the hardwiring of the brains of Homo sapiens sapiens, and yet is so misunderstood and ignored, that it deserves mention as the Second Great Secret of Dressing Well.

(The First Great Secret, you may recall, started off our little literary excursions 'way back in Part One, on 13 Feb: viz., The purpose of clothing -- the very reason for the existence of raiment itself -- is to make you look better than you really do.)

The Second Secret runs thusly:
Left to himself, a man will always dress back to the era when he was happiest.

You've actually been surrounded by the collateral damage caused by this habit throughout your entire life, possibly without even realizing it consciously:

The grey hippy, grizzled and overweight, who still wears tie-dye shirts, jean jackets, long hair, round sunglasses, and sandals. He may still drive a Volkswagen microbus, but most likely has graduated to a feel-good Prius, or an old Renault diesel running on homebrewed biofuel. His heyday peaked around 1965, when he was in his early 20s, free of parents and responsibility, and is forever trying to recapture that long-lost feeling.

[We interrupt this post for a legal note: Dress Like A Grownup! has been notified on April 30, 2013, that a photograph illustrating the above paragraph (of an old man in a tye-dyed tee shirt, flashing the peace sign,) is considered to be in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA.) was not amused, and demanded immediate removal of the offending image. It has always been the position of This Here Blog that any images I post are used pursuant to the Fair Use clause of U.S. Copyright law: Title 17, Section 107 of the United States Code. It reads, in part, "The fair use of a copyrighted work...for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching..., scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright." Although I believe myself completely justified in using the image according to the Code, I also don't want to throw pebbles at lions out of spite. So away the image goes. Sorry about that. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog installment, already in progress.]

It wasn't for nothing that Mike Peters
sang of the "Spirit of '76." That's okay,
the awesomeness that was The Alarm
makes up for the clothing. And hair.
The wrinkled rocker, who sports a feathered mullet, aviator sunglasses, denim jackets, and cowboy boots, worn with a faded black concert tee. He was in his prime in high school, around 1978. Cruising in his Camaro while listening to Boston was his personal Camelot.

The breakfast clubber, who still favors a polo-shirt worn under a buttondown Oxford, tucked into a pair of Dockers with a braided-leather belt and penny loafers, a sweater tied around his neck. He's sometimes mistaken for a preppy, but his hair's a little long and he likes it that way, and his bright pastels and popped collars are the same as when he graduated high school, in 1984.

The boomtime MBA who got his first big break during the Reagan administration, and finally got the big paychecks that let him travel, see the world, and get the things he always wanted, has in his closet more than a few broad-shouldered, silk, low-buttoning Armani power suits with bagged trousers and florid ties. Wearing one of those suits makes him feel young, free, powerful, and in control again.

The aging grunger never lived in Seattle, but you'd never know it from his collection of ratty flannel shirts and knit caps. He may have an IRA and secure employment now, but he was happier when he was an angry disenfranchised alt.youth commiserating with Kurt Cobain, Alice in Chains, or Nine Inch Nails in 1995, and his clothes (and lank greasy hair) gives him away.

When were you happiest, at your prime, at peace with the world and in love with life? When were your horizons limitless, the options infinite, the future open? Chances are, it was before reality started crashing in around you and closing the options down, forcing you into an ever-narrowing corridor of endless work-until-retirement.

For a fortunate few, the happiest point in your life may be after college and in the workforce; but for the majority, your personal Camelot was when you were a youth, when the most stress in your life was a final exam, and the summers were endless. And you will always be trying to get back there, for the rest of your life. Nothing wrong with that; it's human nature. The side-effect just happens to be that you took the fashions of the era and tied them subconsciously to that happy ideal. You are most at ease and feel best about yourself when you tie yourself in a physical sense to that time with what you wear. And fear not: we can use that.

For the next couple of installments, we'll continue to look at this phenomenon; at a more historically-based permutation first, then we'll figure out how to use this to our ultimate benefit when dressing well. We can use your natural impulses and "clothing comfort zone" to build a personal style that will reflect your happiest time, and still be in keeping with the grownup, mature fashion that you have learned about and honed over these last months. Stay tuned!

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Former Casual, Formal Causual.

Chapter 15
The more interested you become in wearing clothes befitting one who has passed puberty and has become a productive member of society in some form or another, the more questions are raised about just why some things are considered proper, and other things aren't.

The march of technology has changed the face of the planet in every way. A television of today looks and works nothing like a television of twenty years ago, although it performs the same function. The telephone has evolved from an ungainly box on the wall, powered by a cranked dynamo, and patched by a switchboard operator, to a tiny sliver of plastic in your pocket that can go anywhere, connect with anyone, and play music and movies to boot.

Why not, then, write off the leather balmoral, with its ancient brogueing and laces and welts and stitching, in favor of the Croc shoe? Crocs are easy to produce, made of modern materials, are comfortable, sturdy, waterproof, and drain well. The purposes of a tie and coat are lost in the mists of antiquity; why is it required to wear things that serve no purpose? Why not march into the new millennium with new clothes, made to serve us as we are now, not a reflection of a dead and forgotten paradigm?

On the surface, it's a compelling argument, and to answer it properly, we'll need to learn a bit of history. I've alluded to this history in previous weeks: now's as good a time as any to go a little deeper into the subject. As with any history, it's not an exact science, and the history of fashion even less so. Innumerable unrelated factors contribute to the Butterfly Effect...but this will do adequately for an overly-simplistic summary.

Young George W.
Let's begin looking at the middle of the eighteenth century. Everyone that has a passing knowledge of history, (or barring that, owns at least one American dollar,) knows how the Founding Fathers dressed. Young George Washington wore typical fashionable dress for the era; not formalwear, mind you, but everyday business attire. Powdered wigs, worn long, tied with a bow, and topped with a tricorn hat. Long, wide coats and waistcoats, trimmed with lace and decorative embroidery. Knickers of satin, white silk hose, shoes with silver buckles. Its origin was thoroughly French, and its style was the lingua Franca, (not surprisingly,) throughout Europe.

Wm. Bowdoin, 1748.
We might be wearing some variation of this today, if it wasn't for a cold, damp, island called England. In fact, we owe modern clothing to three factors:
(1) the British are an outdoor people, who like their sport more than poncing about indoors,
(2) the British Empire controlled most of the planet, and
(3) British colonials took as much of England with them as they could, rather than assimilate with the locals.

If the world had been conquered and colonized by, say, the Moroccans, or the Chinese, the face of clothing worldwide today would undoubtedly look vastly different. The West might have had centuries of loose-flowing cloaks and robes of brightly patterned cotton and silk. But Britain is not in a temperate climate, and had been undergoing a Little Ice Age for centuries. England's location was optimal for raising sheep for their wool, and keeping warm in the cold and wet dictated wearing multiple layers of clothing. So that is exactly what the British brought with them when they took over somewhere; the trappings of Civilisation, Order and Tea.

Nicolas Tiolier, 1817.
The English country gentleman found the French fashions were terrible for spending time outdoors. The brocades and velvets were delicate and tore easily, and they were hard to keep clean of the English rain and mud. It was also a pain to ride in. So they had their clothes made of plain and sturdy cloth, made their waistcoats shorter, and cut off the front of their coat skirts, to get rid of the bulk over their knees when on horseback. These country clothes gained favor with the English gentry, who, appreciating their comfort and stoutness, started wearing them in the city. Conservatives were aghast, at first. By the Regency era, the old everyday French fashion was used only for formal Court occasions, and the country riding-coat had become everyday wear.

And that trend, the country-city-formal progression, is why you wear what you wear today. Yesterday's casual clothes, become today's business clothes, and tomorrow's formalwear. (And interestingly, in an odd reversal, the day after tomorrow it becomes servants' livery!)  Let's spend a few minutes and track this trend, right up to the present-day.

But in the same way that the old Court Dress became fixed as formalwear as it was pushed aside by the tailcoat, by the end of the Regency era, the tailcoat started to be reserved for more elegant purposes, and began to fall out of favor for everyday wear.

Chas. Trevelyan, 1840
Taking its place was the frock coat. Cut with full skirts all the way around, it was originally worn over the riding coat for warmth, but now was cut tighter, and worn as a dashing and shapely full-length jacket. As the frock became established as everyday wear, the tailcoat became fossilized as full-formal wear...and lost the variety of color and materials it employed in the Regency era. (The old French fashion was now employed for servant's livery. It was not unusual for a gentleman in a tailcoat to be waited on by a man in a powdered wig.)

The sportswear of the time was the morning coat, which was a cutaway frock coat used for riding as morning exercise. Can you guess what happened? Yes, that's right: it was worn in town, conservatives were horrified, but in a few years, the swallowtail morning coat was standard business wear, and the frock coat was beginning to be considered stodgy and formal. Fashionable servants' liveries now favored the riding-coat over the French coats.

The talma.
Enter the sportswear of the mid-century, the paletot. Originally a modified Spanish cape called a talma, it was a wide coat with wide sleeves, shorter in length and much less restrictive than a frock coat. Made less billowy and a bit closer fitting, it became known as the sack coat or the lounge coat. They were a form of leisurewear; for casual lounging, hence the name. You know the routine: began to be worn in town, conservatives shocked, et cetera. Now we've bumped the morning coat up to formal wear, codifying its standards, and the sack coat becomes de rigeur for work. The servants, meanwhile, are wearing tailcoats.

The sack suit, in ditto form. Sears' designs from 1906.
The next wave of sportswear in the late nineteenth century is the ditto suit. Worn at the beach or on vacation, it was the ultimate expression of casual idleness:  a three-piece easy-fitting sack suit with all three pieces made of the same fabric! The outcome should be obvious by now...Ditto suits become seen in town, the lounge coat gets a boost of formality, (and you've already been introduced to its cousin, the Tuxedo,) and the household staff was now wearing the morning suits.

Ditto suit as business wear, 1897.
For a long time, the three-piece business suit reigned supreme. It wasn't immediately replaced with sportswear, because sportswear no longer consisted of a variation of the "jacket formula." It did go through many variations of cut, drape, and fullness. Even though it's sort of cheating to equate a trim sack suit of 1910 with a broad-shouldered, draped swingback suit of 1940, the differences are really just in details of cut and fit. The essence of the suit remains the same. 

Casual ditto suit,
meet the casual lounge jacket.
But a casual replacement did eventually come: the sports coat -- an odd lounge jacket of loud pattern and flamboyant detail, designed to be worn with slacks. They were worn in town, and predictably, conservatives were befuddled. And then, they became everyday wear, the three-piece suit became formalized, and staff was seen in tuxes.

This isn't a hard-and-fast timeline, of course; there are decades of overlap in the styles, because not everyone throws out their old clothes the moment a new style comes out. All of the old forms are preserved in some immovable, musty way. British Court dress is essentially the French mode. Hunting Scarlet is the old riding-coat. White Tie retains the form of the tailcoat. People still go to Ascot in morning coats, and the Tuxedo (and its daytime lounge coat counterpart, the stroller,) are still worn. And the king of Tongo, as you saw at the Prince's wedding, favored the old-style frock suits.

And that brings us to today.  Today's sportswear, as we all know, is a baseball cap, sneakers, jeans, and a tee-shirt. It's worn ubiquitously -- and now you can see the pattern observed through hundreds of years of history! Conservatives were predictably aghast when men were first seen schlepping through town with no shirt and flipflops. Some men (notably IT techs) dress for work today just like this. The sports coat is now considered the extent of most necessary levels of formality. And butlers dress in three-piece suits.

So you see, nothing exists in a vacuum. Even the most recent sportswear, vying for everyday attire, is just the latest mode in a long continuum of sportier garments replacing the previous fashion along the way. But what will replace the tee-shirt? We have the sports coat-style lounge jacket remaining as the last holdout -- but what after that? Once it becomes formal wear -- the twenty-first century "tuxedo" -- what will be our new sportswear?

Dressing like a grownup isn't a reactionary counteraction back to an antiquated mode of Victorian dress: it's merely forestalling the inevitable, by holding the sartorial battle line where it is -- Lounge jackets for everyday use, suits for business, Tuxedos for semi-formal affairs. Change will come, as it always does -- but it won't be into a tee-shirt. Someday, our advanced New Millennium technology will develop a form of sportswear that will be a suitable replacement for the lounge jacket.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011


Chapter 14
For the past few weeks, we have concerned ourselves with the formal side of life, what with proms, weddings, Easter, and so forth...the impression given to the uninformed masses might be that the well-dressed man should always be attired in some form of tuxedo! This explains why the Average Guy jumps into a black rental suit whenever the formality of an event exceeds his capacity to wear a tee-shirt to it.

In actuality, dressing like a grownup necessitates dressing well for all sorts of events, most of which aren't formal at all, some that are downright casual, and some of which don't even involve leaving the house!

To illustrate this, let's take a break from the pomp and grandiosity of recent events. Set the WABAC Machine to the middle of the last century, and let's take a peek inside the closet of a well-heeled gent to get a look at his shoes, (courtesy of an illustration from an Esquire of the time.) His selections are, of course, tremendous overkill for most men of today -- but some of these styles can surely serve as a spark of inspiration for you, to include in your own closet's shoe rack.
Starting at the top left of the rack, we'll work our way across and down. Follow along with me as we poke our nose in where it doesn't belong! Don't make too much noise, or our host's valet will find us snooping about in his chambers, and kick us out of the house before we've had our tea.

At the upper left, we find a pair of patent leather opera pumps. (Even in a closet, we can't seem to escape formality! Its position of prominence in his rack shows that he probably gets a lot of use out of 'em.)
Yes, this is actually a man's shoe! Impossibly dainty and fey to our modern eyes, this 18th-century French style is actually the "most formal of the most formal" shoe in existence. Most correctly worn with white tie and tails, it can also be worn with black tie semi-formals. The bow must be dull black grosgrain. If you really have a driving need to possess these, they are still being made, but they are not easy to find, nor are they inexpensive.

Next to these, we find an unusual pair of brown calfskin monk strap bluchers. It's a good middle-choice for most situations, neither too formal nor too casual, and can be worn as an everyday shoe for a bit of flair either in town or country.

On the second shelf, our host has a pair of brown suede full-brogue captoe balmorals. These are great country-casual shoes, worn to spectator sports or at sporty events. In light tan, ivory, or white, it would be a smashing summer resort shoe. Worn in town with a suit, it looks informal and comfortable -- in other words, don't wear this to the office.

Next to them, a popular style today, a Norwegian-style blucher in brown calfskin. Notice what makes the shoe a Norwegian:  the tongue and upper are in one piece, stitched to the sides in a curve over the toe, and the two sides are stitched together with a vertical seam in front and back. These are considered even more sporty and casual than regular bluchers, even in black. They can pick up a rakishly casual style by having them made as spectators, by substituting the upper in a contrasting color, in suede, or in cloth.

On the third row, we find the workaday town shoe, the old standard, the black calfskin captoe balmoral. Most often worn with dark suits and businesswear,  it's the quintessential town shoe. Notice that this pair is not brogued, which makes it a touch more formal than it would be otherwise. This is more than likely a reflection of this particular gent's many casual shoe options.

Next over, he owns a pair of brown wing-tipped fringe-tongue brogues. The nubbly soles tell us this gent is a golfer -- but even without the cleats, these shoes are nice, but too rustic and casual for any other use but country sports, perhaps a picnic in the park, or lounging around the house.

Moving down to the fourth shelf, we discover a brown pair of quarter-brogued captoe balmorals. This middle-range shoe is an all-purpose town-and-country compromise between his black balmorals and his brown suede balmorals, in the upper two rows. As a result, this is a shoe that most men would wear quite a lot, in a wide variety of situations: the traditionally-styled equivalent of the monk-strap shoes on the top row.

Next to them, we find a grand old pair of button-top balmorals. They are the daytime formal equivalent of the opera pumps on the top row -- the most formal thing you can wear with a morning suit or to a wedding. (This gent must get a lot of use out of his morning suit; otherwise he'd just wear his captoe balmorals on the third row.) Black with boxcloth uppers in fawn color. Often the uppers matched the waistcoat of the morning suit, so I'd be willing to bet this fellow's morning vest matches the shoes.)

On the bottom row, we find a pair of patent-leather wholecut balmorals with flat silk laces. Its lack of brogueing and stitching, as well as its patent-gloss, makes it more formal than any of his other balmorals -- in fact, it is his second-finest pair of shoes, just behind the opera pumps. What his black captoes are to his button-tops for day formals, is what these shoes are relative to his pumps for evening dress: a little less grand, but still a perfectly fine option. (He probably reserves these for black tie, and uses the pumps for white tie, which would be most proper.)

The last pair on the rack may seem humble: a pair of buckskin house slippers. Soft and cozy, the usefulness of a nice pair of shoes to kick back in should not be underestimated. They may become your favorite pair, and will get plenty of use. Just never wear them out of the house.

On the floor, next to the rack, we find another pair of Norwegian-style slippers, the peasant shoe. Yes, this is the well-known penny loafer. Many wear them with suits, but you'd be better off using them with respect to their humble origins: for lounge wear, around the house, or at a summer resort. Penny optional.

The last pair of "shoes" are actually field boots, and if you don't have access to a horse, you'd look a little silly wearing these. Our gent apparently spends a bit of time at the paddock, and riding the countryside. These would be best replaced with driving moccasins, if you enjoy recreational country outings.

You don't have the bankroll for a closet full of shoes, you say? Give it time. With a bit of clever searching, you can build up quite a nice usable collection over several years. You don't have to start out quite this grand -- You can distill our wealthy patron's closet down to the basics, and still be well-shod in most situations. Begin with a brown brogued balmoral for general use, a plain black balmoral for more formal purposes, and a pair of casual loafers. From there, you can build more specialty shoes as the bank account allows.

Shh--do you hear someone in the corridor? It may be our host, looking for us. Close the closet door, quietly now! we shall wait for him to pass by, and rejoin him downstairs. With luck, he'll never suspect we were here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The PROMulgation of the PROMise of PROMpt PROMiscuity.

Chapter 13
Have you guessed? Yes, it's The Prom, the end-of-high-school formal to-do that assures its young participants it is to be the end-all and be-all of their entire lives. Except it isn't.

(This is to be distinguished from the British The Proms, which is something else entirely.)

The Prom in its current form is practiced, in some form, in most countries, the world over. Originally an American event, the "Promenade" (thus the name) began in the Northeast college scene. The earliest reference to a "Prom" was in 1894 at Smith College, and was more than likely an offshoot of the old debutante balls, and a celebration for the graduating class. It was taken up by the secondary schools by the turn of the century, and filtered down to not merely the graduating senior class, but the junior and sophomore classes as well.

In the early years, proms were reflections of the Edwardian times for middle-class youngsters: well-chaperoned socializing and light refreshment in the afternoon. Clothing was nice, but not formal: boys wore their Sunday best, and girls wore one of their nicer dresses.

As the tradition extended through the 1930s, relaxed standards, (brought about by such consciousness-expanding developments like radio and the automobile,) changed the focus of the prom somewhat, into an evening banquet with a dance/party atmosphere.

Postwar lads, 1950.

Prom couple, 1950.
The economic postwar boom in the 1950s brought with it ever-more-elaborate settings and venues. Girls started to save for special prom dresses, and the prom court took on an ever-more important social gravitas. Music had progressed through the string quartets and swing bands of previous decades, and the dancing was just as likely to be to an amplified hi-fi phonograph, as it was to be a live jazz or rock-n-roll combo.

Prom couple, 1960.
The 60's and '70s were slack years for proms; economic depression, the Vietnam war, and disgruntled youth protesting everything they considered to be "Establishment" took its toll. The prom pulled back from the ballroom, into the crepe-paper-draped gymnasiums of forty years previous. The music was guitar rock and disco, the dresses were piles of frills to match the hair. And the tuxes were pastel aberrations with lapels out to the shoulders and broadly frilled shirts, as if in rebellion of actual, sedate, adult formal wear. But by the 1980s, the damage had been done.

Prom couple, 1970.
The economic boom of the '80s brought back prom excesses on the heels of the fashion horror of the '70s. Factor in a series of youth-oriented movies that exalted the prom to near mythic status, and the result was a catastrophic explosion of neon colors, zebra patterns and checks, and hair-out-to-there that mimicked the styles on the silver screen.

Prom lads, 1980.
The problem isn't the clothes, of course; it's the nature of the beast itself. The original concept of the Promenade is long-lost. It could be argued that the nature of the prom was dulled, as soon as it made the transition from colleges to high schools. When children were taught the nature of formal interactions between the sexes from a young age, a college promenade could be a successful event -- but the maturity level of most high school students is not developed enough to permit a truly formal experience.

Prom lads, 2010.
After decades of being taught nothing along the lines of formal male-female interaction, the prom today has devolved into an embarrassing farce. Hypersexualized children are thrown into a situation where they are expected to behave like adults, with no prior instruction on how to act, how to dance, or how to dress. The result is ritualized orgy; where adults look the other way and pretend little Susie and Johnny are all grown up, and are shocked --shocked!-- when it is learned that little Susie and Johnny spent the evening grinding their pelvi together, followed by an "after-prom" of heavy drinking, experimental drug use, hotel rentals, and uncertain, fumbling sex. And the ritual continues, year after year after year.

If you are the parent of a prom-age tadpole, or are a tadpole yourself, there are a few pointers I feel compelled to share with you -- ignore them at your peril. Follow them, and you will have a much better time than if you don't. I guarantee it.

First: You have heard that the Senior Prom is the high point of your life. You will form memories to last a lifetime, blah blah blah. Don't believe a word of it. Your school is selling tickets to the prom to make money off of you, because you are stupid and impressionable. Life is long, and high school is short. Your college memories and friendships will overshadow everything you'd ever amassed in high school, and those years will all too soon become a dim and hazy memory. (Oh, and there's no "permanent record" in your file, either. Colleges couldn't care less how many times you were late for English class in 9th grade.)

Second: You will probably hear your prom called a "formal" at some point. It isn't formal, in any capacity. No one there will treat their date formally, dance formally, or dress formally. What it is, is adolescents playing dress-up and pretending to be adults for a night, like children who have tea parties with their stuffed animals. It is a party: what the English call a "fancy dress" ball. What you are wearing, is a costume. It isn't a Tuxedo in any sense of the word, so don't ever, ever call it that. If you want to treat your prom as just a party where everyone dresses silly, go ahead. But it isn't a "formal" anything.

Third: You aren't fooling anyone with "after-prom" activities that last until four in the morning. There's only one "after-prom activity" that lasts until four in the morning, and we all know what it is. If you want to retain any thread of self-respect and integrity, (and you're too young to know it yet, but you do,) you will be home after the prom is over, young man. And if you let your sons or daughters stay out 'til four in the morning, you're a tool. Get over it.

So, let's say you are one of the few who want to get (or want their sons to get) the most out of the prom experience. Certain things will always be a compromise: you can't change the other people who will be there, the venue itself, or (most telling) the type of music and dancing chosen for the event. What you can do, involves yourself, your date, and your attire.

Step out of costume and into grown-up formals. Specifically, Semi-Formal Eveningwear, also called Black Tie, Tuxedo, or a Dinner Suit. This is technically a dinner, not a dance, so don't try to wear anything close to a tailcoat, which is a different animal altogether and doesn't belong here.

Rule One: do not ever match your date's dress. Period. This has always been a cutesey prom standard. Is it so that after everyone has had too much to drink, they can find their dates by matching colors? No, it's because adolescent boys want to be the center of attention. They want to be splashy peacocks, they want to be noticed as much as the girls are, or else they get jealous. True formal wear for men does not involve color. No colored ties, vests, or cummerbunds. As children, you probably will not have access to custom-tailored formal wear, and will have to rent for the evening.

Keep the classic rules for black-tie in mind, and deviate from them as little as possible. Excellence is in the details, not in the flash.

Henry Poole & Co.:
inventors of the Tuxedo
The short evening jacket, or Tuxedo, or dinner jacket, is a very specific animal. It was invented by Henry Poole & Co. of London in 1860, and got its name after having been worn in the Tuxedo Park Club in NewYork in 1886. It should be of midnight blue or jet black wool, completely matte, with no sheen at all. The lapels should be peaked, well-shaped, and completely faced with black grosgrain silk right to the edge. It can be single breasted (one button only) or double breasted, and should fit as well as absolutely possible. The cream-colored tropical dinner jacket is often seen, but is not technically correct for this venue. Wrong time of year, unless you are really in the tropics. The jacket should never be removed. Double-breasted should never be worn unbuttoned; single breasted should never be worn buttoned.

The tie should be a self-tie bow (no cheating!) of grosgrain silk to match the lapels. Absolutely no long ties.

The trousers should be of high waist, of the same material as the coat, with a single black grosgrain stripe down the outside seam, and should be exactly fitted to length.

Shoes should ideally be black patent-leather plain toe balmorals with no decoration and flat silk laces.

The waist of the trousers should never be seen: with a single-breasted jacket, either a black cummerbund, or waistcoat in any style of black or white, must be worn. The shirt should be white, crisply starched, with a fold collar. Pleated shirts are a bit passé. Yes, I know you want to wear a wing collar, but it's not strictly correct for black tie. (Save your wing collar dreams until you can do it right, please, with a proper detachable collar and stiff-bosom shirt. You'll be glad you waited.)

If you must wear a hat, a black homburg is most correct...but you won't be wearing it indoors anyway.

Walking sticks, capes, top hats, and other silliness have no place with black tie. White tie, maybe, but this isn't that, and don't pretend it is. Keep accessories and jewelry to a minimum: shirt studs and cuff links. No wristwatches. (If you have a pocketwatch with a tasteful chain, now's the time to use it.) Pocket squares should be white linen. A small single boutonniere of dark crimson or dark blue, if worn, should be the only color on your person at all.

The purpose of evening wear is to not stand out, and by doing so, to make your date stand out all the more. Events like this, "formal" or not, are all about making your date the star and center of attention all evening. Is it fair? No. Is it chauvinistic and archaic? Yes.  Does she deserve all the attention? Probably not. Is it awkward and uncomfortable for an adolescent? You bet. But you wanted to play like the big boys, so suck it up and get with the program.

This doesn't mean you get the evening off: it does mean you get to work hard all night and get no recognition for it. You have to be witty, charming, aloof, respectful, and obeisant as the circumstances allow, all with the end goal of making your date appear perfect. The old saying, "treat every woman as if you loved her, and every man as if he bored you," is a good adage to keep as a buffer between your brain and your mouth. You must look irreproachable, so as to take nothing away from your date.

A real limo: this Rolls Sedanca de Ville
has an open chauffer's compartment
It's popular nowadays for a gaggle of giggling children to pool their parents' money and buy a 20-person stretch limousine. That, my friends, is not a limousine. That is a bus. A low, cramped, awkward bus. If you are to do this right, that is, treat your date as if she is someone special, and not someone on public transportation, you will be better off driving her yourself, if your event has valet parking, and if not, rent a proper limo: chauffeured, division-window luxury transportation for two. If you can find a rental service that has vintage autos in its livery, especially Rolls-Royces, you are set.

Another real limo: Rolls Landaulette
has an open passenger compartment
Do all the things you've heard of: hold the door. Stand up when she does. Hold her chair. Take her wrap. Proffer your arm. Better still, read a vintage copy of Emily Post's Etiquette online and brush up on the basics.

After all this pregame preparation, you may notice that the evening will seem a bit shallow to you. The hooting masses in their underlit Humvees, baby-blue suits matching the baby-blue miniskirts and stiletto heels, might seem a tad crass now. You just might find a more pleasurable evening leaving the boozy crowd behind, and motoring self and date to a nice restaurant instead. And then, you'll find yourself ahead of the game, by several years, over your peers. And that will be a memory that'll last awhile.
Disclaimer: This post contains images of prompersons of yore. I don't know any of these folk personally, but I'm sure they were all fine upstanding young people who had a grand time at their prom. I mean them no inadvertent disrespect by using their images of really embarrassing sartorial choices. I hope it's taken in fun, but if one of these is your image and you are offended, let me know and down it comes!