Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Tony Tygers

Chapter 19
Attendees to the Tony Awards are usually better dressed, on average, than at other Hollywoody awards presentations. One side would say, it is because The Real Theatre is True Performance Art with thousands of years of history and tradition, which naturally would demand more exactitude of formality. The other side would say, it is because theater is a passé art form, a creaking relic, a reminder of pre-electric entertainment when the footlights were made of hollowed-out T.rex skulls filled with burning whale oil.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. The theater is old school. Why else would an otherwise sane human pay extortionistic fees to see tiny people shout their lines at each other on a stage -- when motion pictures are superior at delivering stronger emotional punches, more subtlety of acting, consistent performances, larger budgets, and more realism? Or for that matter, watching your high-def flatscreen TV in the comfort of your own living room? The more the Classical Stage-Crafters tried to convince us on Monday that the theater is, in fact, relevant, the more aware we became of the yawning artistic chasm between it and All Other Forms of Media. And the shrill cries of "Relevancy! Relevancy!" were in full voice at the awards... which, ironically, was broadcast to you on your high-def flatscreen TV in the comfort of your own living room.

But enough of that. You know the drill here: we will patently ignore what the pretty arm-candy was wearing, and cast a critical eye on the dudes' duds. I've chosen ten fellows as a representation of those in attendance, so let's dissect what framed these bright-burning tygers' fearful symmetry. To make sure all the players start on a level field, the pictures are from the red-carpet photo-ops before the show, so everyone should technically be at their best, just as they arrive to the event.

I'll look at several things. Foremost, the overall impression and silhouette. Then, using a low-contrast, lightened version of the image, I'll pick out some details of cut and design, and how they differ from the Classic Tuxedo form. I'll pass judgement as a Hit or a Miss, point out their glaring errors, and how they might have improved themselves.

Let's start out with Alec Baldwin. The burgundy long tie stands out immediately. This flummoxes me, because most everything else is so right. The shirt collar is a good shape for his face, and looks nice and crisp. The tuxedo is absolutely classic, a black single-button with matte silk lapels. The wool is nice and dark and doesn't reflect the harsh lights. Now let's turn up the contrast.

Notice some things here. The tie is tied with a four-in-hand, a very casual, asymmetrical knot that is inappropriate for a black-tie event. Notice also that it's too short for the jacket's crossover, and is trying to escape above the button. Big Miss there. The jacket itself is a big Hit, with beautifully shaped lapels, jetted hip pockets, and an elegantly slanted, curved 'barchetta' breast pocket. It's well constructed, and fits him perfectly. The thinness of the material is getting him in trouble with his trousers: habitually jamming his hand in his pocket is preventing them from falling elegantly, causing sloppy wrinkles. It would be easy to maintain his style while improving the details: I would ditch the tie and get a proper bow -- even one in the same color. Alternately, a proper black bow and sharp burgundy pocket square would give him the pop of color he wants. Keep his hand outta his pocket, wear high-waisted trousers or a black cummerbund, and unbutton the jacket. Tuxedos are best left unbuttoned. So close, and yet, the jacket can't save him from the tie, so I'll have to give him a Miss --just slightly-- for the error.

For our next example, we have a two-fer, with David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris. Here is a good example of why bows work better than long ties with dinner jackets. The button-point of a tuxedo is just too low for a long tie, and the visual elongation is awkward. Harris is not athletic, but the swath of white shirt and the cut of the lapels makes his chest look broader. Note also Harris' very correct use of midnight blue rather than jet black for the jacket. (I should probably note this is not the breakaway costume he wore for the opening number.) Now we turn up the contrast.

Burtka's flaws are many: the aforementioned tie, naturally, but his shirt collar is stingy and awkward as well. The jacket is all wrong. The satin lapels are too shiny; the lapels are notched; the sleeves are too long; and it's a button-two. Big miss. Harris' is better, as noted, being more of a classically traditional Tuxedo. His flaws are fewer and less grievous: the sleeves a touch too long; the jacket is buttoned; and the tie is obviously a pre-tied job. Shame! A begrudging Hit, since the flaws are not the fault of the outfit itself, but in his manner of wearing it.

Now we move on to James Earl Jones. His jacket is absolutely Darth black, with the barest sheen on his silk lapels. The dark red brocaded waistcoat is remarkable.

The pattern is elegant and subtle. Jones is a broad-shouldered fellow, and his Tuxedo could have easily handled a broader lapel to take up the extra space. The pre-tied bow is a little stingy as well. All things need to be in proportion, and a larger frame needs larger details!

Here, later on under the glare of the stage lights, you can see the color of the vest come out. You can also see more clearly what I mean about the narrow lapels. (Properly unbuttoned! Thank you, James.) The length of the jacket is perfect; this style would even shine as a full-frock. I'd call this a Hit, fake bow and narrow lapels notwithstanding.

Next up, let's look at Joel Grey. A man of slight stature, he should benefit from a Tuxedo's chest-broadening lines. But what have we here? Shiny fabric -- satin edged -- buttoned all the way up, with tiny little notch lapels? We need further investigation!

Oh, heavens. Always remember: just because there's a button there, doesn't mean it is supposed to be fastened! The poor jacket is forced to fight against its own lapel padstitching: see the diagonal stitches running down the front of the jacket? That controls the roll of the lapel. This jacket's lapels are meant to roll smoothly past the buttons. Simply worn unbuttoned, everything would fall into place: an artsy Tuxedo cut along the lines of a button-three Edwardian sack jacket. (Which, unfortunately, would still look silly.) Any points given for tying his own bow are offset by the awful pouf of his black pocket square. An inappropriate jacket worn completely incorrectly: a big Swing-And-A-Miss. Sorry, Joel! At least you are teaching others what not to do.

Now let's look at Kelsey Grammar and his granddaughter --oops, sorry, I mean his wife. (Silly me.) This brings up an important question: Is it proper to wear a white tie (even one you've tied yourself) to a black tie event? Even if Kelsey's not doing it to co-ordinate with his prom date's dress, then technically it still isn't. Sorry. Black tie is black tie. But...I'm willing to give him a pass here, because everything else he's wearing is so excruciatingly correct! Just look at the cut of that Tuxedo! Look at that shirt collar, and those pearl buttons!

The size, shape, and sheen of the silk peak lapels, the jetted pockets, it's all just perfect. This is a man who knows how to do it right, and is bending the rules just enough. While it is true that with a black tie he would have it exactly right, the odd tie in this case works. Why? Because it doesn't look like a mistake, but rather, a deliberate deviation from the standard that was consciously made. White articles have provenance as an occasional deviation from black in semiformal wear, and have been used by historical figures in bygone years. Grammar is insouciant enough, elegant enough, and in all other points correct enough, to get away with the variation. For these reasons Grammer gets a resounding Hit. Two minor points off: unbutton your jacket, and get your hand outta yer dam' pocket.

Next let's look at Reeve Carney. This is a man who doesn't have a clue what he is doing, and it shows. Painfully. He's trying for a retro-Edwardian look, with the club collar, grey pindot bow, and slicked hair. A club collar is the wrong shape for his frame, first of all, and although the tie is nice, it's not appropriate for a black tie event. But the jacket is so, so wrong. Whither the pear-shaped silhouette? He looks narrow up top. Surely this is a grievous error of some sort...Let's look closer.

Why, it's not a Tuxedo at all, or even a dinner jacket of any stripe: just a button-three notch lapel suit jacket, and an ill-fitting one at that! Observe the details: wee little lapels rolled right to the top button, flapped pockets, and even a ticket pocket. Much too fussy for formal wear. Observe the fit: too tight across the chest, pulling at the waist, creases at the button. Awkward, sloppy, long, arms. Someone should have stopped him before he got nearly this far. Epic Miss.

Rob Marshall. Well, now we're just compounding problems. No, it's not all bad...his shirt collar's nice. The only detail that makes this anything other than a black business suit, is the odd satin edging on the lapels.

Long tie. Pants far too low, and worn with a belt. That awkward satin stripe. Notch lapels. Pocket hands, buttoned jacket, sloppy fit. Not much else to say. This isn't anything close to black tie. I actually feel sorry for him: no one has bothered to explain formal wear to him at any point in his life. And he's at the Tonys!

Oh, waiter, I'm ready to see the wine list...Oh, sorry, that's actually Samuel L. Jackson, going in a different direction, with the variation of a white dinner jacket. Nothing wrong with that, it's a legitimate tradition. You've gotta be careful to get it right, though. White jackets are a whole degree more casual than a Tuxedo: quite literally a lounging jacket, on par with a green velvet smoking jacket. White jackets are reserved for tropical climates, usually on vacation, at a resort, or on a cruise. As a black-tie alternative, you really do need the black bow tie. Although his jacket is the correct shade of ivory, and he would look good in a much more casual evening venue, I have to rank him a black-tie Miss for the lapel shape (notch instead of the requisite shawl collar,) button-two fastening, too-long sleeves, and his long tie and button-down shirt collar. In "Rick's Café" mode, it would have looked fan-freakin'-tastic. I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson...please don't hurt the messenger.

And while we're listing the Misses, let's pick on John Leguizamo. This is another case of oh-so-close, trying to push the artsy envelope until the essence of formalwear is accidentally lost. The jacket looks inky, velvety black, which is a good start. It doesn't go any further than that, though. His shirt collar is slack and sloppy, his tie loose and askew, and, oh, yeah -- long. His shirt is visible under the jacket buttons: a clear sign that his pants are too low.

Turning up the contrast, we do see some interesting details. It's cut as a true button-three, as the lapel breaks at the top button. The lapels are notched, which is not surprising, considering the casual button stance. More interesting is that there are no exterior pockets. None. As a fashion-forward semi-casual jacket example, it would need to be balanced with the proper accessories. John might have worked this look better with proper trousers, shirt, tie, and waistcoat, and leaving the jacket unbuttoned. Perhaps even a boutonniere for a little color. Oh, and also by not playing with the car keys in his pocket.

So as not to leave us too depressed about the state of humanity, I shall depart on a Hit. Andrew Rannells came as close as I'd seen to hitting all the Classic Style buttons with very little deviation. The silhouette is as classic as you'd expect, trim, shaped, jet-black, with just a hint of sheen to the lapels. Compare the overall effect with Kelsey Grammar's outfit. Both are well turned-out, but Andy lacks some of the gravitas and insouciance of Kelsey: much of this can be attributed to his age, but his self-consciousness is very apparent: Rannells' Tuxedo is wearing him. This seemingly minor point, is why Grammar can get away with a variation of black tie that Rannells dare not: in the world of black tie, exactitude is required in lieu of insouciance. Let's note the details.

Notice his shoes are correct: patent-leather plain toe Balmorals. (The laces should be flat silk; I can't tell if he's done it, but I wouldn't be surprised.) The trousers have the proper silk stripe down the leg, and the length is right-on, breaking just at the top of the shoe. The Tuxedo is button-two, instead of the more proper button-one, but otherwise is very correct: jetted hip pockets, no breast pocket, and silk-faced peak lapels broad enough to hit just at the midpoint of the neck and shoulder seams. The sleeve length is spot-on, although I'd like to see a quarter-inch of shirt sleeve at the wrist. Actually, the only thing I'd nitpick is the button stance: a longer lapel, rolling to a single-button closure, would give a longer and more elegant front line. And, of course, wear it unbuttoned.

Coming away from all this sartorial hit-or-miss, there are three very important lessons that you would do well to keep in mind, should you find yourself at the Tonys, or any other black-tie event.

First: don't button a proper Tuxedo. If it fits (and it SHOULD,) the fronts will come together naturally without buttoning. Folks don't understand about buttons nowadays. It's actually more formal and elegant for a jacket to sit on you just-so without the need for buttoning. Just because it's there, doesn't mean it's supposed to be used.

Second: don't show your trouser waist. With your Tuxedo unbuttoned, it needs to be covered by a waistcoat or cummerbund. And it needs to sit at, well, your waist.

Third, and most important: don't stuff your hands in your pockets. It throws off the whole effect of your fine clothes to schlump around in them. Have something to do with your hands. If it helps, carry a prop to give your hands something to do. A walking stick, a pair of gloves, a pocketwatch, a pen, a spider monkey: anything to keep your hands busy and outta your pants.

See you next week!

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