Swellboy on… a formalwear conundrum

Our man seeks eternal truth and a dapper shirt at Emma Willis

Image: Brijesh Patel

Happily, I am still able to experience moments of sartorial elucidation. Not quite of the order of epiphany undergone by Saul of Tarsus as he was minding his own business on the road to Damascus, or Archimedes as he hopped out of the tub having made the momentous discovery that if you get into an overfilled bath, it has a tendency to overflow: my brush with eternal truth took place in the fragrant surroundings of Emma Willis’ eponymous shirt shop on Jermyn Street.

shirts. The vibe – as I believe old people trying to sound young say – was part London Collections Men, part Clarence House Christmas party. I happened to be looking for a shirt to wear to a formal party, so the auguries were good.

I have examined the smoking-jacket, no-tie dress code and concluded that it is acceptable to wear a silk shirt or fine-gauge rollneck sweater, but this time I was being asked to wear a smoking jacket with a tie. I tend to get a little lost in the arcana of formalwear, but as far as I know smoking jackets used to be worn when entertaining at home or, to stretch a point, dining at the club, which is a sort of home from home. My difficulty was that I have velvet jackets and even a corduroy dinner jacket with corded silk facings. However, since giving my children some of my older velvet evening garments (including a spectacular Edwardian one), I have just one item that fulfils the frogging and toggle criteria one expects of a smoking jacket. It is a very fine ready-to-wear damson-coloured example that I got at Ede & Ravenscroft some years ago, and this seemed the occasion to wear it. 


Oddly enough, it was the shirt that caused me problems. In such circumstances, I would normally wear a plain silk shirt. However, now that I have assigned the plain silk shirt to the tieless end of formalwear, I feel it should stay there. The difficulty is that the décontracté manner of the belle-époque flâneur in the velvet jacket to which I aspire is, I feel, incompatible with the pleated or cotton Marcella-front shirts that I tend to wear with black tie.

Fortunately, like all pioneering geniuses Emma was ahead of me, and when she had put the finishing touches to what looked like a voodoo shrine to the Prince of Wales (framed photo, scented candles, monogram embroidery samples and letter from the Master of the Royal Household), she showed me a silk shirt with a waffle-piqué front also in silk. It was perfect, achieving just the right level of formal informality – or do I mean informal formality? Even the bib was rounded rather than overly formal and straight edged. Further relaxation is imparted by the textured Oxford weave of the silk, and of course – as any fool knows – natural-coloured silk is the softest, as there has been no dyeing. 


What is more, it had the option of using dress studs – and given that I wear more personal ornament than most Christmas trees, this suited me perfectly.  

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