Swellboy on… black tie therapy

Our man extols the mood-improving benefits of dressing for dinner

Image: Getty Images

I recently crossed an Instagram Rubicon – nothing quite as momentous as Julius Caesar’s symbolic fording of a small northern Italian river, but in its way symbolic enough.

My Instagram conforms to the narcissistic stereotype interpolated with pictures of watches, paintings and places that have caught my eye. I initially got into it because I felt it would help publicise my new book Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist. I do not know if it has worked, but that has been my excuse anyway. The Rubicon that I crossed was the posting of a self-improvement slogan.

On the whole, the quality of the catchy maxims posted on Instagram veers from the merely platitudinous to the downright Christmas-crackery in motivational mawkishness. However, I came across the perfect one when I was sitting down in the Marbella Club Grill the other day and found myself flicking through the menu. This is more unusual than it sounds as I seldom change my order and am almost automatically brought a cheese soufflé followed by a bit of grilled lobster and a few langoustines, then a double portion of chocolate mousse. Having not consulted the carte since about 2011, I spotted that they had been bound in fancy new leather covers on which the aroma of box calf fresh from the workshop still lingers. There are changes inside too. Happily not to the chocolate soufflé and the cheese mousse, but at the back there is a page carrying a quote from Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, the founder of the club and the eponym of the dual carriageway that links Marbella to Puerto Banús and which used to be – so I am told – the most dangerous stretch of road in Europe.

The pearl of princely wisdom runs thus:

“Dressing for dinner is like taking off the day’s worries and slipping into a relaxed and celebratory evening mood.” As philosophies go, these are words to live life by.

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I have decided to call this method of mood improvement dinner jacket therapy; after all, it is hard to feel too sorry for yourself or discontented with your lot in life if you find yourself wearing black tie.

And once in the habit, it need not be such an imposition. The Marbella Club’s Count Rudi Schönburg told me that at the Palace in St Moritz in the Fifties Andreas Badrutt “kept a superb style in the hotel – from 7.30pm onward only dinner jacket was allowed, with ladies in long dresses. Every evening at 7.30 he himself was in the lobby, in the most perfectly tailored dinner jacket. St Moritz was very sportive at this time, and very elegant in the evening. He said, ‘If you change out of your ski clothes into a blazer why not change into a dinner jacket.’” The logic is irrefutable.

However, the dress code in Marbella is rather more subtle, as I found when talking to Prince Alfonso about this very subject some years ago. “At the beginning everybody arrived with dinner jackets,” he remembered. “But I said, ‘Stop! This is not the Marbella way! You only wear a dinner jacket once a year on New Year’s Eve.’ We started being casual.”

He was particularly fond of recalling a visit by the Duke of Windsor (pictured), the man who had been King Edward VIII of England but had given up the British Empire to marry the woman he loved, American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

“The Duke of Windsor came, and at that time the club was full of about 60 really good friends, so I told them that I was giving a dinner at the Beach Club for the Duke of Windsor, and asked them if they would like to come. I told the Duke I would collect him at 9.15pm and I told the other guests to arrive at 9pm. So everybody dressed up in blue suits with ties, looking like lawyers, and the Duke and Duchess looked down at them; the Duke was wearing a red and white Hawaiian shirt. So he said, ‘Alfonso, I have to go quickly back to the bungalow.’ So I took him back to the bungalow and he dressed in a dark blue suit and we went back again. We came over to the terrace and everybody had seen the Duke of Windsor with a colourful Hawaiian shirt, so everybody had taken off their jackets and ties. And the Duke was so funny because he took his tie and threw it into the pool and he took off his suit jacket and there was a big applause. That was what made him come back again and again because he felt at home. The people respected him but at the same time made him feel comfortable.”

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So there it is: dressing up in a dressing-down sort of way. The solution is of course obvious: ask Charvet or Emma Willis to make me a dress shirt from vividly printed Hawaiian shirt fabric with parrots, palm trees, flowers, surfers and what have you. The only slight problem is that I will then have to get onto Van Cleef & Arpels to make me a suitably polychromatic set of dress cufflinks and shirtfront studs in the “tutti frutti” style to pick out the colours – it promises to be an expensive bout of black tie therapy.   

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