- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

I am attending the Gridiron Dinner in a few weeks for the first time, and the dress code is white-tie, which I have never worn before. I plan to rent the full rig at a reputable tailor’s shop and no doubt will get good advice there, but I also would appreciate a few fine points. I don’t want to be embarrassed by getting anything wrong.

A: White-tie events in the nation’s capital once were routine, but — sadly in my opinion — that is no longer the case. The custom was dropped by the White House early in the Kennedy administration and has not been revived since except for a few protocol-heavy state dinners honoring long-reigning monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth II of England and the late Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The National Symphony Orchestra dropped it for good as de rigueur attire for its annual ball in the wake of the September 11 tragedy. Now, save for a few private debutante cotillions, the media-hosted Gridiron Dinner honoring the president is the last official white-tie event in Washington.

Getting the details of wearing white-tie right is essential to passing muster — apart from a healthy dose of self-confidence, that is. You already have gone to a reputable rental company, so at least you won’t be following in the footsteps of forlorn guests who have turned up at the Gridiron wearing white summer dinner jackets instead of the required white-tie-and-tails ensemble.

“It’s happened more than once, and I don’t understand why. We always tell them they have to wear a ‘penguin suit,’” a longtime Gridiron organizer told me some years back. “They either stick around and brave it out or disappear immediately into the night.”

So much for history; now on to the basics:

The principal garment for white-tie is, of course, the tailcoat, which is black with silk satin lapels and tapered sharply at the front, with a rear vent so the tails fall from the back. Unlike a black-tie dinner jacket, it does not button in front.

• Trousers: Made from the same fabric as the coat. They are straight with silk satin side stripes.

• Shirt: White, batiste voile with starched pique front, winged collar and double (French) cuffs.

• Waistcoat: White, heavy silk or cotton pique, V- or U-shaped, single- or double-breasted without lapels or a shawl collar. Leave the bottom button unbuttoned.

• Tie: White pique bow. It is best to avoid pre-tied versions, although you are unlikely to get anything else when renting. Important: Make sure your hands are clean to avoid staining the cloth.

• Jewelry: The rental company will supply black enamel, faux onyx or faux mother of pearl cufflinks and studs, although you may want to use your own. If so, do not wear anything gold, which is considered too flashy. Also, forget about putting a big wristwatch under the French cuffs. (Once upon a time, men wore pocket watches with fobs and chains.)

• Socks: Long, black, over-the-calf and made of silk or fine cotton.

• Shoes: Black patent leather or calfskin, lace-up or slip-on.

• Overcoat: A classic Chesterfield is ideal; otherwise a long black overcoat that covers the tails.

• Accessories: A white silk pocket square or handkerchief adds flair, as does a long silk scarf (which is removed with the coat). Gloves made of white kidskin or cloth once were indispensable but are less common today. Nonetheless, they are a nice touch — if you can find them anymore. They are always carried in the left hand.

• The full monte: The total look is completed with a high silk hat, classic opera cape and silver-handled walking stick. (Never call it a cane.) Apart from old guard New York gentlemen attending the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, few can carry this off nowadays without looking like a magician, symphony conductor or Jackie Gleason doing his famed “Reginald Van Gleason III” routine. (Most Gridiron members are old enough to remember it.) If you think you can carry it off, by all means go ahead and have fun. One thing is for certain: You’re sure to be blinded by photographers’ lights the minute you walk through the door.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@washingtontimes.com.

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