Capes & Canes: What Would Don Draper Do?

Posted on March 25, 2012

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When readers ask me if it’s okay to embellish their tuxedo with a cape, cane, top hat and/or gloves it’s immediately apparent that they have not yet grasped the true essence of black tie.   This is quite understandable considering that the typical man’s wardrobe today is so casual that a formal wardrobe can appear entirely unrelated.  Novices who experience formal wear only as a rented novelty available in a few specialized shops can’t help but regard it as a foreign element akin to a Halloween costume.

In my experience it was only when I purchased my own black-tie kit and learned about classic menswear in general that I developed the mindset required to view formal wear in the proper context.  Essentially I had to mentally travel back in time to the Mad Men era, the last period when men truly dressed well (excluding a 1980s revival of classic business attire).   For these men who viewed suits and ties as the norm, black-tie apparel was simply the most formal extension of their daily attire: the tuxedo was the finest suit they owned, the formal shirt was their most elegant linen, the patent leather shoes were the best of their footwear and so on right down to suspenders, cufflinks and socks.  Similarly, the more I wore suits and tuxedos the more integrated they became both in my mind and in my closet.

Once a man has attained this sartorial state of enlightenment he can answer many of his own questions about formal attire by extrapolating from his informal attire.  It’s a lot like asking yourself “What would Don Draper Do?”  (Or, if you’re not familiar with Mad Men, “what would Frank Sinatra do?”)  Framed in this context, common dilemmas such as self-tied versus pre-tied bow ties practically solve themselves.  Can you picture any self- respecting man attending (or performing in) a Rat Pack show wearing pre-tied neckwear?

Similarly, this is the mindset I employ when answering the readers who ask about the aforementioned formal embellishments.   The average middle-class male of the 1950s was not very likely to have a selection of daytime cloaks, walking sticks or indoor gloves in his wardrobe as these were the domain of a Victorian leisure class that possessed the time and wealth required to devise elaborate dress rituals that visually segregated itself from the rest of society.  Thus, donning such articles simply because it was after six o’clock would appear affectatious for the average man in the mid twentieth century, let alone the typical guy today.

Interestingly, as I researched the history of the evening cloak for a new addition to The Black Tie Guide’s Vintage section I noticed that some fashion and etiquette authorities in the 1960s tried to legitimize the cloak – previously associated only with white tie – as a black-tie accessory likely because full dress had become largely irrelevant.  Needless to say, the Austin Powers-esque look did not take hold.  This only bolsters the argument that such flourishes should be left to white tie and even then they should be used with great discretion.  Witness the end result of these two prom outfits:

Need I say more?