It’s a risky business, taking one’s fashion cues from movie stars. You may, as I did on a balmy evening this summer, have seen Quentin Tarantino’s latest pop-cult provocation, the irresistible Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, which is, apart from anything else, a love letter to late-1960s California style (with costumes by the great Arianne Phillips, Madonna’s stylist). Here is a film that glories in the moment when macho, slicked-back midcentury Americana met the hang-loose, shag-haired counterculture: muscle cars, free love, gunplay, acid-dipped cigarettes. It’s a potent concoction, and catnip to anyone with a weak spot for hot people in cool clothes.
If any of the women sitting with me at the Vue Westfield Shepherd’s Bush that night left with the idea that they must immediately purchase a murder-black Porsche like Margot Robbie’s, in which to cruise the sun-bleached boulevards of west London, shopping for black turtlenecks, white miniskirts and matching vinyl boots, then I’d bet my last million bucks that every man in the auditorium had resolved, not 20 minutes into the action, to dress more like Brad Pitt, as the twinkly stuntman-turned-celebrity factotum Cliff Booth.
I myself was struck, quite forcibly, while admiring Pitt’s wardrobe, by the fact that my own off-duty sunny-day uniform (navy T-shirt, navy chinos, maybe a navy blazer if there’s a breeze) was shamefully off target. Clearly I needed a head-to-toe makeover. Like Brad in the movie, I should never be seen not wearing a washed-out logo T-shirt under a Hawaiian shirt, preferably in French’s mustard’s yellow, faded Levi’s held up by a cowboy belt, buckle the size of Wyoming, and crazy-cool battered brown suede moccasin boots. And a Wrangler jean jacket, so I can rock double denim next time I find myself in the parking lot at Musso & Frank, giving my best bud Leo DiCaprio a manly shoulder to blub on. Plus tinted aviator shades. Also: maybe grow my hair? And consider blond?
It’s always wise, I find, when in the grip of one of these periodic spasms of sartorial susceptibility, to take a deep breath, pause and ask oneself a number of stern questions. In this case: are you a stuntman? Do you live in Hollywood? Is it 1969? Is your name Cliff Booth? Are you played by Brad Pitt? If the answer to any or all of these questions is “Yes”, then by all means let your freak flag fly. Otherwise, maybe the navy-blue chinos aren’t such a bad call after all.
Another day, another image of Brad Pitt, this one from the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival, where our hero is seen promoting another film, Ad Astra. He is pictured in traditional black tie. Here is a lesson in classic, conventional, conservative, formal men’s style. Conventional but not boring: Pitt’s dinner jacket is fitted and black, with one button, slit pockets and wide, peaked lapels. It was made for him, along with the matching trousers, by Brioni, the venerable Roman tailoring house also responsible for his pleated white cotton shirt with its concealed placket (a strip of fabric covers the buttons) and double cuffs, as well as for his pleated cummerbund, his silk bow tie and his classic leather lace-ups. Brad always looks dashing, of course (he’s Brad Pitt), but here he also looks glamorous, elegant and – stuffy menswear term – “correct”.
Is this, perhaps, the moment when those of us who dwell on a lower astral plane might be able to look at Brad Pitt and think that, in the right light and with the indulgence of the gallery, we too could look a bit like that? Yes! Yes, it is! Because here is a look, to use the fash speak, that would suit even we who do not appear to have been sculpted from the granite rock of the American sublime, we who do not grow more incomparably handsome with every weather-beaten year, we who do not have piercing blue eyes that the world would like to swim in, rippling muscles and an aw-shucks grin that could stop traffic even on the Grand Canal.
Admittedly, the dinner jacket is a specialist ensemble, very much occasion-appropriate: only actors can wear it to the cinema. And it’s not cheap. But here is an outfit that won’t go out of style; that most men have, at one time or another, an opportunity to wear; and that every man can wear, without – if you’ll forgive the men’s mag how-to cliché (I can’t help it) – looking like a dickie.
While Brad may have represented the very best of the bunch on display in Venice, he wasn’t the only star to make the case for the continued contemporary relevance of the traditional dinner jacket. Adam Driver in Burberry, Nicholas Hoult in Giorgio Armani… All were similarly understated, all were equally conservative, each was as dapper as the last.
All of which is welcome and reassuring because the dinner jacket and its associated ensemble has been under threat in recent years from the rise of something known as Hollywood black tie or even creative black tie (yuck), where attempts are made to add “personality” with pops of colour (red bow tie and matching cummerbund, m’lud) or wacky accessories (bootlace ties, egregious brooches and even worse).
At the risk of sounding excessively curmudgeonly, this regrettable trend – pioneered in the 1990s by such stars as Robin Williams and Johnny Depp, who at least had unconventionality woven into their personal brands and so could be allowed rather more leeway than the rest of us – has reached full maturity in recent years as men’s red-carpet dressing has begun to attract almost as much attention as women’s. In a “likes”-driven media culture, where men are encouraged – not always with flattering results – to compete with their female counterparts for digital exposure, using wardrobe as costume, increasingly unsuspecting showbiz folk are shoehorned by their stylists into flamboyant outfits that have more in common with Austin Powers, Mike Myers’ shagpile spoof of James Bond, than with 007 himself. There are otherworldly beings who can get away with this: Ryan Reynolds in Gucci, Robert Pattinson in Dior, Timothée Chalamet in anything. And there are those who can’t… Safe to say, the rest of us are well advised to follow Brad’s lead and stick to the basics, rather than to take the more experimental line.
I won’t detain you too long here with a history of the dinner jacket, except to say that it developed from the even more formal, military-influenced evening dress of the 19th century, when the jacket had tails attached and was worn with a waistcoat, white bow tie and wing collar. It was the future Edward VII who pioneered the shorter jacket, in the 1860s, and his grandson, the future Edward VIII, who perfected today’s look a century ago. (The current Prince of Wales is arguably the greatest modern exponent, Brad notwithstanding.)
Confoundingly, the rule is that there are no rules. But convention dictates that the dinner jacket be black, unless it’s midnight blue or, in hot climates and on special occasions (or if you are James Bond), white. It is single-breasted, unless it is double-breasted, which it mostly isn’t. Shawl collars are encouraged, on occasion. Lapels should usually be silk, or perhaps velvet. Ditto bow ties, which should never be clip-on. Shirts should be white, starched, stiff-fronted or pleat-fronted, and if the fastenings are unconcealed, they should be studs rather than buttons. Shoes should really be patent leather, often but not always slip-ons. The cummerbund is now regarded as an anachronism. It looks good on Brad, because all things look good on Brad. (See also: crazy-cool battered brown suede moccasin boots.)
The one danger in wearing the full DJ, for the rest of us, is that if it is too bog-standard, we are in danger of being mistaken, at glamorous soirées, for head waiters, escapees from the orchestra pit, or even bouncers. I have two. (I edit a men’s style magazine – I never said I was normal.) The first, bought seven or eight years ago, when menswear was having a moment of peacocking, is from Hackett. The jacket is blue velvet with black satin peaked lapels. It’s a lovely thing, but a bit of a statement. I think I only wore it once, so apparently it wasn’t a statement I was keen to repeat. More recently I’ve been wearing a rather less bold number from Brunello Cucinelli, designer of sumptuous Italian tailoring. In keeping with the Cucinelli aesthetic of understated luxury, it is a black wool suit, the jacket unstructured, with a soft shoulder, making it exceptionally lightweight and comfortable. It has peaked silk lapels, and a silk stripe running down the trousers. I wear it with a white pleated-bib cotton shirt from Emma Willis, a bow tie from the same and patent lace-ups from Church’s.
It had its first outing last summer, when I walked it uptown through Manhattan to meet the editor of this magazine for drinks at The Carlyle hotel, before we went to a very sprauncy party in Central Park. The party was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Ralph Lauren’s label. Lauren himself was on hand to soak up the applause. His top half was classic old-school eveningwear – double-breasted DJ, bow tie, pocket square – while his bottom half was faded blue jeans and steel-toed cowboy boots. He looked impeccable. But then he’s Ralph Lauren. He helped invent the rules, so he can break them.
For my part, I can’t say I looked a million dollars – that’s for others to decide – but I know what I felt like. I felt like… what’s his name again? Ah, yes: Brad Pitt. Maybe the blond dye job’s not such a terrible idea?
Alex Bilmes is editor-in-chief of Esquire.
This story was originally posted on September 26 2019.