Black tie or bust: my hunt for a cheap tux

The (loose) inpiration.

There are certain phrases that strike fear into every living soul. Some – like “EARTHQUAKE!” “DUCK!” or “ZOMBIES!” – require an exclamation point to really hit their mark, but others are just as horrifying at a whisper: “Bedbugs,” to give one example, and, to give another, “black tie.” Bedbugs will stalk you, eat you, and spread dirty rumors about you, but – have you seen The Tuxedo? – the wrong piece of formalwear, in the wrong hands, can threaten the entire world. Thus, when I heard that a close friend’s wedding was going to be black tie, I was left with a serious problem: how to obtain a thoroughly unembarrassing tuxedo with the $300 that was left on my credit card. This is my story…


Disclaimer: This is written from the perspective of wild, rampaging ignorance. I’ve never shopped for a tuxedo before. I’m not a member of the charity circuit. Nonetheless, I currently have one more tux than I did last week, and I hope to simply share what I have learned in this, my hunt for elegance.

Rent vs. Buy: Based on web reviews and my own personal experiences at the (positively divine) Winter Wonderland Galas of 1999, 2000, and 2001, there are two core problems with rentals: (1) the suits tend to be stiff, and (2) if another event comes up – if, a la Cameron Crowe or Drew Barrymore, you have to go back to high school and wind up attending an escalating series of proms and high-stakes mixer events – then by your third formal you’re out $300 and you’ve still got nothing to wear. The standard tuxedo weighs in at around $500-$800, so it’s not easy to make it work for $300, but if you have the time and inclination, buying is best.

On the related question of used vs. new: Let me just say: new. A high-quality, relatively unused tux hanging from a vintage rack is like unto the leprechaun, or the monster at Loch Ness: it is a myth.

What Kind of a Tuxedo Are You? After consulting what advice was available online from places like GQ and  Esquire, I made a few key decisions: I wanted something relatively clean and casual: a slim-cut suit with a two-button jacket (since three buttons reminded me of 9th grade) and notched lapels, since a sweet shawl collar was out of my budget. I was hopeful that if I found the right suit I could do without some of the other, more traditional accessories and frills.

Taking Stock of What You Have: Once I’d decided to buy, I first took a look in my closet to figure out what I already had. NB: If you don’t have anything in your wardrobe that can complement a tux it’s going to be almost impossible to buy the whole outfit for under $300. At the same time, whatever you do have will also set the tone for your overall tux look. If you own a cummerbund and a bow tie then you have to stick by those items and spring for a set of cufflinks and a shirt to serve as worthy complements; and if you have a handsome pair of suspenders (like these ones from Brooks Brothers, or these cheaper ones from Macy’s) then you should feature those black beauties and drop the anachronism that is the cummerbund.

What I had was fairly unsurprising: a pair of black dress shoes, a black belt, and a black tie with a silver tie-clip. (I also had a gold watch with a purple Jesus on it.) The items I did not have included: an actual tuxedo, suspenders, a cummerbund, a pocket square, dress socks, and a gold watch without a purple Jesus on it.

Where to Shop: It turns out that there’s a strange sort of wedding row in TriBeCa, between Rector and Vesey. For a certain thrifty demographic this is the ideal spot for a good old-fashioned formalwear hunt. Within a ¼ mile of one another you’ll find Tiffany’s, Greenwich Jewelers, and Brooks Brothers (bear with me here), and also: Men’s Wearhouse (Pass!), Century 21 (Boom!), Century 21 Shoes (Boom!), Sym’s (Boom?!), and Wendy’s (BaBOOM!). So at this point we have to leave Brooklyn.

[A quick aside: whenever I’m shopping out of my standard price range (as for instance when I’m shopping for jewelry, or for non-plastic/paper bags, or for shoes), I tend to rely on online clearing houses like Gilt Groupe, which offer steep discounts on luxury items. In my case, friends, I reached for the stars of deep discount, and a wayward comet promptly blew my hand off. Gilt was having a sale on Italian suits, and I found a beautiful wool tux for under $200. In the end, however, I received a totally different suit than the one I had ordered, and by the time I realized the mistake, the actual tuxedoes had all sold out. Cue Stefan.]

The Stores: So if, like me, your miracle turns out to be some sort of a sad parable for life at a hip deep discount, then return with me now to TriBeCa. The lessons to be learned here are many, dark, and deep, but they can also be summarized roughly as follows:

(1) The “Men’s Wearhouse” (that is, a house in which men “wear”) is from the 1980s, and, more to the point, unless you need two suits or have a friend who can help you benefit from the buy one/get one free offer, you can find most of the same suits – especially the tuxes – for fewer dollars elsewhere.

(2) Century 21 is a zoo and it has very little in the way of non-velvet tuxes (even as far as zoos are concerned). If I had an exotic animal – an axolotl, for instance – I would take it here to graze. But with that being said, it’s hard to do better than the current century for all of your accessory needs, including especially: bowties, socks, and tuxedo shirts.

(3) At Sym’s there are three possible outcomes: you (a) happen upon the perfect suit for absolutely bottom effing dollar; or (b) you find the perfect tuxedo but the tuxedo you find is only available with supersized pants; or (c) you find nothing but chaos – rack upon rack of indignant vests, clownish pants, and dapper blazers that seem to have no time for the 48L “trousers” drowsing nearby.

(4) For shoes, take your pick: Century 21, DSW, and Sym’s all have something to offer. At Century 21 the selection is of course more extensive (especially when it comes to actual tuxedo shoes) and it includes a higher-end product than the other stores; at DSW you’ll find some of the best deals but the selection tends to be a bit more prosaic; and at Sym’s, again, God only knows what you’ll find.

Decision Time: In the end, TriBeCa was a bust (which sounds like the opening line of a novel from 2064), but my diligence had at least yielded some benefit: with ten days remaining until the wedding I had made exactly zero purchases, but I had at least confirmed my sizing with four different tuxedoes Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and [two other brands that I now forget]) which were all close to my price range. It was at this point that I went to Macy’s. Based on past experience, I knew that the Alfani “brand” (which is, on the one hand, a lie – since Alfani comes from Macy’s and not from l’Italia – but which is also very wearable and very, very cheap) could provide a fallback option; but ideally I was hoping to find something a bit more, how to say… slimmer in the leg, wrier in the cheek, and more natural upon the proverbial boat.

The formal accoutrements.

To cut a long story short, I succeeded. And please, do not begrudge me my success. I went to Macy’s during one of their very regular one-day sales, and I got a well-cut, well-lined, and tremendously comme-il-faut Tommy Hilfiger tuxedo for $227.98 after tax – just $20 more than the lesser (in every respect) Alfani outfit.

Finish him: This particular tuxedo had belt loops. Belt loops meant that I either had to buy suspenders and a cummerbund, or it meant that I could just wear my belt. I am no fool, less is always more. Therefore, I took the latter option. With a belt, I could probably also eschew the bow tie in favor of the more (shall I say integrative? let us say integrative) full-length black tie that I already owned… and with a full-length tie there was no need for either a set of cufflinks or for a new tuxedo shirt. When it came time to buy the shirt I was also pretty much exhausted, so it was just a matter of picking the best fitting white shirt with an understated collar. This is the one I wound up actually buying, and it worked out well.

The author getting dog hair on his dashing new tux.

Between a trip to the Brooklyn Flea where I was able to find a white silk pocket square (for six dollars… steal!) and a return trip to Macy’s for a very brand and very spanking new pair of black dress socks I managed to squeak through this entire ordeal with a complete outfit for $287 before tax… and just above $300 afterwards.

The Tuxedo Speaks: The tuxedo is an eloquent piece of clothing, and one way or another it will speak its truth, whether that truth is that you feel uncomfortable wearing it or that it is due back at Formalwear Depot tomorrow by noon. What would my $300 tux say about me once I had it back home? On the night of the wedding, the tuxedo’s debut, I straighten my tie, pull the cuffs taut, and turn around to face the mirror. “You look good,” the tuxedo finally says, “but there’s a spot on your shoe.” The tuxedo is a perfectionist, but he’s right. “You look good too, tuxedo; but you’re a real bastard.”

Items, in Summary

From the Closet ($0):
Black Shoes
Black Belt
Black Tie with tie clip

From Elsewhere
Tommy Hilfiger Tuxedo ($226)
White Dress Shirt ($40)
Socks ($17)
Pocket Square ($6)

Total: $310.29 (including tax)

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