With apologies to Mr. Porter.
It used to be simple, lounge suits just weren’t worn in the evening in town. One wore white tie and tails. At least until the 1930’s. Then the black tie and dinner jacket became the standard. At home one was permitted to don a smoking jacket or dressing gown with velvet slippers. Country clothes — those patterns of glenurquhart plaid and estate tartans, for example — and sporting clothes, like the striped, loudly coloured “blazers” — had no place at the dinner tables in town (or really at supper at all — one didn’t want to bring the smell of sport to the table, even in the country.) Changing for dinner was a time-honoured practice.
Today, things are less and more complicated at the same time. At least if you are one of our little tribe who aspire to a daily elegance. There are almost no restrictions on dress and even fewer guidelines.
A suit, which is what we call the “lounge suit” today, is perfectly acceptable for wear at dinner in even the most formal of restaurants. There are some who hold to the custom of not wearing “brown [shoes] in town”, (especially in London where it is actually a rule for solicitors at courts) or patterned suits after six o’clock in the evening. I would venture a guess that the dark coloured solid suit is considered more formal as it relies on the elegance of its cut and the quality of the fabric instead of dazzling with bold pattern. The dinner jacket is always considered elegant in its simplicity; unconsciously, we may be trying to get as close to the high-contrast colour scheme of black tie as we can.
Once dressing for dinner fell out of regular custom, the custom of wearing business wear to dinner began to take over, especially if the dinner were client-related. And serious business wear had evolved from the black frock coat and striped trousers into the matching coat, vest and trousers, to the two piece suit we know today. No, today dark solid suits are it.
“Why is that,” you ask? Especially since we’re all concerned with travelling as light as possible. Need we pack another suit just to go out to dinner if most of what we wear are sports coats and patterns? Surely that will signal the death of the striped suit. Not at all. Patterned suits and sports coats should always be included in the well-dressed man’s wardrobe. But only after he has acquired the requisite solid worsteds and woolens.
Nicholas Storey, blogger and author of History of Men’s Fashion: What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing sums things up this way:
I think that plain, dark colours (ideally navy blue) for suits and black shoes for the evening became the norm after Brummell introduced his near monochrome for evening dress. The former taste for bright colours and patterns for evening wear were suddenly ‘out’, except for some types of old court dress which lingered on into the twentieth century. When we contemplate the options for the evening, which now increasingly include lounge suits, I think that we still, almost instinctively, gravitate away from patterned suits (including striped suits); especially since pin- and chalkstripes are often associated with professional or business life, rather than leisure time. However, restaurant reviews often mention dress requirements such as “Jacket required; tie desired” and I can think of places such as Les Ambassadeurs (a high-end casino) in Hamilton Place, Mayfair, that suddenly (and without any plain reason), declined from jackets and ties as requirements to the stage of permitting entry in tee shirts, bomber jackets, chinos and moccasins. Therefore, although plain dark suits and black shoes might be a counsel of perfection short of actual evening dress, we should be glad that men still wear suits and ties at all in their leisure time, regardless of colour. Moreover, I suppose that there is some point that, especially in large cities, men have often gone straight from work to social or entertainment functions and taken their striped suits with them.
So, where does all this leave us? To begin, a hearty “thank you” to Mr. Storey, who let me ramble on and cut to the heart of my query with a well-structured and prompt response.
Should you wear only dark, dressy suits and black shoes to dinner? Yes. Do you have to? No.