When we think of the stereotypical high school boy dressing for prom, a couple of things come to mind. On one hand, we think of bright, oddly colored velvet tuxedos like the one in the prom photo from Edward Scissorhands — a cliche look that comes off as tacky if not done extremely well. On the other hand, we have the suave, sleek, young James Bond impersonator who you’re surprised isn’t asking for a shaken, not stirred gin martini from the snack bar. It is this article’s goal to help you appear as the latter if you’re going for a more traditional look. While not everybody knows the specifics of what goes into men’s formal wear, conventions exist for a reason and will make you look your best.

1) What’s the main thing that I should wear?

Prom is what is known as a black-tie-optional event, meaning you have three options: a tuxedo, a suit, or dark slacks and a blazer. For a strictly black-tie event, the suit or blazer would not be options.

Before we can continue, let’s establish what exactly the differences between a suit, tuxedo, and blazer are. A suit is simply a jacket and pants cut from the same cloth (and of course styled to look like one). A tuxedo is a specific type of suit where the lapels, buttons, and pants seam are all faced with satin, and a blazer is effectively a suit jacket without accompanying pants. Tuxedos are extremely formal and should only be worn at social events like prom, the opera, awards shows, or galas. Blazers tend to have more ornate buttons than a full suit, often made from metal.

When deciding between your options, there is no right and wrong. It all boils down to how formal you want to be with your outfit. Convention dictates that dark tuxedos are the most formal option, followed by dark suits, light suits, and then slacks and a blazer.

A shawl lapelled tuxedo; the lapels and buttons are shiny from the satin facing.

The other element of formality besides convention that often gets overlooked is the color and fabric of the garment. For tuxedos, all black or a midnight blue with black satin is ideal. For a formal outfit, you should keep the colors formal as well. Suits have the most freedom in the color department, but I do have recommendations; a navy blue, a charcoal gray, or a medium (Cambridge) gray suit will provide the most versatility outside of prom out of all of these options, due to their relevance in the business world. Black suits are, obviously, colorless, and remove a dimension from the outfit unless there’s a pattern or something to help add that back in. You can always go for light gray or medium (‘true’) blue, but these are less formal and less useful in a variety of environments. Black is okay for a blazer, but dark navy blue with khakis is the most classic look.

It also goes without saying that whatever you choose needs to fit you properly, rented or bought; a cheap blazer that fits perfectly will look infinitely better than the exact model tuxedo that Leo DiCaprio wore in The Great Gatsby that’s a size off and not altered to fit your body. Additionally, you should pay attention to proportions and avoid trendy choices; go for a lapel that is about 3” wide at its widest point, possibly a little more than that. Anything wider looks dated, anything slimmer is not applicable to a more formal situation that you may want to reuse the outfit for and tends to be of shoddy quality. For a suit, go with a 2-button unless you’re super tall, then you can go for a 3. For a tuxedo, go with 1-2 buttons. Don’t tailor the pants so short that they float above your shoes but not so long that they pool up: 1-2 breaks is perfect. And don’t go for the short-cut jacket unless you’re under 5’9”, no matter how trendy it looks. You’ll thank me in six years.

Things to NOT wear or do:
-White-tie (tailcoat)
-Suits with more than 3 buttons
-Anything ill-fitting
-Sports coats (similar to a blazer, but made of a more rugged fabric i.e. tweed, flannel, etc; it’s too informal)
-Button your bottom-most button (sans a 1-button tuxedo of course)

2) Okay, well the shirt should be pretty straightforward, right?

Right you are! No matter what garment you pick to wear, you should wear a plain white dress shirt. Go for the slimmest fit that you can comfortably wear, usually a ‘trim’ or ‘slim’ cut. If you want to be extra fancy, invest in a shirt with French cuffs and a classic pair of cufflinks to match. This element of jewelry will bring an air of sophistication to your look.

French cuff shirt with decorative cufflinks

Should you choose to wear a tuxedo, the chest of your shirt should be pleated. Go for a pointed collar rather than the more formal winged one. Rather than traditional buttons, the middle of the shirt should be held together by tuxedo studs. Go for plain black studs with silver-colored metal. French cuffs are practically required for a tuxedo due to the formality and elegance of the look.

Things to NOT wear or do:
-Heavily patterned shirts (Really dude, just stick with white)
-Ruffled tuxedo shirts
-Baggy shirts
-Shirts with a chest pocket, unless this is all you have
-Oxford button downs (WAY too informal)
-Novelty cufflinks

3) What about ties? Waistcoats?

Wear a tie no matter what.

As I said before, prom is black-tie optional; an important part of this is that you do not have to wear a black bow tie with your tuxedo as you normally would at a fully black-tie event. However, if you are wearing a tuxedo, a bow tie is a must. Even though you can mess around with colors, you should also keep it decently simple; elegance is key. Solid colors or small patterns are the best. You should wear a form of waist covering, either a waistcoat or cummerbund. Match the color of this to your tie; buy or rent them as a set if possible. The tie and covering should both be made of silk/satin or a similar material to match the facings of the tuxedo.

For a suit or blazer, you can opt for a bow tie but I would suggest a traditional necktie instead. The widest point of your tie should be about as wide as the widest point on your lapel as a general rule of thumb. However, ties are where you can go trendy if you want; skinny ties add a pinch of youthful sleekness to any outfit. Do not go below 2.5” at the widest point or over 3.25”, you will look like a 1960’s and 1990’s congressman, respectively. If you would like to wear a bow tie, avoid satin as it is too formal of a material for a business suit. Employ color, pattern, and texture to your advantage.

Don’t wear a cummerbund with a suit under any circumstance; a waistcoat should only be worn with a suit if you bought/rented it as a 3-piece. Do not wear a sweater underneath your jacket. This is good at a Christmas party, not a school dance.

Do some research into tie knots and try some out for yourself; the three classic knots are four-in-hand, half-Windsor, and full-Windsor, but you can go beyond these. Keep the knot proportional to yourself, the tie, and the collar of your shirt. If you have a spread collar, you will need to wear a larger knot.

Do not go wider than the tie on the left (3.25″) or thinner than the tie on the right (2.5″). The 3″ tie between is a good middle ground of style and formality.

To tie all of this together, you should wear a pocket square as well. WARNING: THIS SHOULD NOT MATCH YOUR TIE. In a tuxedo or a blazer, a white silk or square is really your only option. You can do this with a suit as well, but you also have other options. If you decide to deviate from a simple white, it should be distinct from your tie in some way. Pocket squares are there to make contrast.

To pair your tie and pocket square, you need to consider two different things: color and pattern. The patterns should be different but go together well, and the colors should only match if there are other colors present as well in either the tie or square and if the two have distinctly different patterns; if not, go for a contrasting color. My go-to method for matching is going for a solid tie with a paisley pocket square, but that is not set in stone; you can do the reverse or mix in different patterns as well, this is just a mold. Paisley is a good go-to because it usually has other colors mixed into it allowing for easy pairing and versatility with many tie colors.

Things NOT to wear or do:
-Use a tie and pocket square set
-Wear a sweater underneath the jacket
Crazy tie knots, no matter how cool they are (you think you can tie them; you cannot)
-Pre-tied bow ties if you’re not renting; at the very least get a genuinely tied one that you can clip on
-Bow ties meant for a tuxedo (black, satin, etc) on a suit or blazer

4) What do I wear on my feet, and what about leather in general?

Shoes get overlooked in formalwear way too much. Shoes are an end point in your outfit, meaning that even the most basic dress shoes will make or break what you’re wearing. Like everything in this guide, there are different rules for what you can wear with each main garment. There are a couple of terms we need to define for this section: oxford, derby, and broguing.

Oxfords are the most formal style of dress shoe and are characterized by their closed lacing, meaning that the bottom of where the laces are is closed and tucked into the shoe. A derby is characterized by the open lacing, which has the bottom of the lacing ‘open’ and accessible. Broguing is the name of the decorative perforations in the leather.

Note the bottom of the lacing; the bottom is open on the left (derby) and sealed on the right (oxford).

If you’re wearing a tuxedo and going for a classic look, you have only two options: plain, black oxfords, or patent leather black oxfords. No broguing, no open lacing allowed. The plain option is much more versatile and can be worn with a suit, blazer, or a simple dress shirt; patent leather should only be worn with tuxedos.

With a suit or blazer, you can really do anything sans the patent leather. There are color conventions to keep in mind, however. With a charcoal gray or black suit, go with black leather shoes. With a navy, medium blue or medium gray suit, you have the option of black, brown or other various colors. When wearing lighter blues and grays, you should stick to brown, preferably a light one. Oxblood is a dark red that goes with pretty much everything except for black. Broguing is totally acceptable here, and so are derby shoes. In fact, for a blazer, the latter is often the best option as it fits in with the reduced formality of the outfit.

Unless you have experience in planning formal outfits and know how to be smart about mixing, stick to one color for all of your leather unless you have an odd color for your shoes. In that case, use a black belt for dark cloth, brown for lighter colored. If you’re wearing a tuxedo, do not wear a belt. Your trousers should come with adjusters built in and if they do not, use plain black suspenders. Suspenders can actually be used for any of these outfits as an alternative to a belt and going support-less if the pants are tailored to your waistline is always an option as well.

Things NOT to do or wear:
-Tuxedos with anything but solid black oxfords
-Patent leather with anything but a tuxedo
-Anything but black leather with a black suit
-Brown with anything dark
-Belt on a tuxedo

5) Can and should men wear jewelry?

Absolutely! There is a ton of jewelry that goes into men’s fashion besides the aforementioned shirt studs and cufflinks. Tie bars, bracelets, watches, and lapel pins are all great ways to give your outfit a unique flair. However, you need to make sure that you do not go overboard. Too busy of an outfit is not flattering to anybody. Limit yourself to one torso accessory and one wrist accessory and match your metals: silver to silver, gold to gold, gunmetal to gunmetal. If an item is a blend of two metals, you can obviously match to either of those, but do not exceed two different metals in your outfit.

A tie bar should never be wider than 4/5 of the width of the tie.

Thing NOT to wear or do:
-Novelty jewelry
-Too many items
-Metals that don’t match

6) Can I break any of these rules?

Yes and please do. All of these rules were at one point a taboo. Tuxedos used to be seen as the ‘wrong’ version of a tailcoat, belts were unheard of on a suit, and broguing was not formal enough for a suit. Style is constantly evolving, and smartly breaking the rules is how we’re able to make that happen. Let’s discuss which of the things I’ve told you are most open to interpretation.

There are a couple of baseline things not to change. Don’t mess with proportion. Don’t go overboard with anything. These are things that flatter nobody.

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