How to Dress for Prom – A Young Man’s Guide To Formal Menswear

Tuxes, rentals, alternatives to black tie, and everything else a young man needs to know for prom.  FYI, I dedicate this article to my friend Justin over at http://www.mytuxedocatalog.com – a family run American business looking to make the black tie-rental business a great experience.

young man's tuxedoThis is the time of year for high school proms, and that means it’s also the time of year for a lot of dress-related anxiety.

Relax and take a deep breath with us here. Sure, I set a towel on fire with a hair dryer when I got ready for my high school prom, but I’ve learned a lot since then, and you get all that wisdom of the ages handed down to you here on the blog and at our YouTube channel. (Also, hair dryer safety standards have improved a lot since then.)

Getting dressed for prom is fun. And there’s one simple trick that, more than any other piece of advice, will guarantee that you’re one of the best-looking guys there:

Keep it classic, keep it timeless; and keep it tasteful.

These are all three facets of the same idea — that you want to look like a man who took control of his clothes, not a man whose clothes got draped over him by a relative or a rental tux salesman.

That means staying away from the gaudy offerings you’ll see a lot of places. Whether you go for a tux or a suit, avoid anything — seriously, anything — that comes in a shiny, plastic-like, brightly-colored fabric.

Instead, deck yourself out in the powerful elegance of black and white. With just a few tasteful touches of color here and there you’ll be an impressive alternative to the guys in the goofier, novelty-style “formal” garments.

For most proms you’ll have two basic dress code options:

True Black Tie: The Semi-Formal Option

young mens tuxedoWhat most people call formal wear is actually semi-formal, and it means a tuxedo jacket and black-tie outfit.

Realistically, your prom won’t be a strict black tie event. It’s impossible to hold a crowd of high school students to that standard, to say nothing of unfair to students who don’t have the resources for an elaborate rental outfit. But it will certainly be an option at most proms, and for a guy who wants to look wickedly sharp it’s still the best choice out there. By dressing to true black tie standards when most of your peers are in more costume-like garments you’re sure to stand out.

You won’t want to buy a tuxedo at this stage of your life — you’re still growing, and they’re expensive garments to replace. Instead, you’ll be renting. Make it clear at the rental store that you want proper black-tie attire, including the following:

1. The Jacket - Tuxedo-style jacket in plain black with either peaked lapels or a shawl collar. The lapels can be faced in black satin or left the same surface as the jacket, though the former is more traditional and a bit sharper-looking. If you plan on wearing a boutonniere flower (which I recommend), make sure there’s a working buttonhole for it.

2. The Trousers - Matching black in the same material as the jacket. There should be a stripe of satin (the same satin that’s on the lapels) down the outside of each trouser leg. They should be held up with suspenders, not a belt, and the trousers should have tabs for the suspenders inside the waistband. You don’t want the cheaper metal clip style of suspenders showing from underneath your jacket while you dance.

3. The Shirt – Plain white with a stiff vertical band (called a placket) in the center where the sides join. The buttonholes will be holes on both sides, fastened with studs rather than sewn-on buttons. Cuffs should be French-style. The collar can be either a basic point collar (like you would see on most good dress shirts) or the raised wing-style collar with stiff, elevated points.

4. The Tie - A plain black bow tie. Take the extra five minutes to learn how to tie one yourself, rather than using a clip-on. It’s about as easy as tying your shoes, there’s easy how-to guides online if the rental outfit doesn’t come with one (Wikipedia alone can get you through it), and it’ll look much better. People will notice.

5. The Shoes - You could rent formal pumps to go with the outfit, but if you have a pair of plain black dress shoes of your own I’d recommend shining them up and wearing them instead. A night of dancing is a tough way to break in shoes you’ve never worn before.

6. The Waist – You can wear either a vest or a cummerbund. Either one is fine, but plain black satin is preferable for both. You can wear a colored cummerbund, but if you do, stick to very dark and sober colors. Bright colors look terrible. A colored vest of any kind is too much — if you opt for a vest, stick to black.

7. Accents - You can usually select your shirt studs and cufflinks from several options. They should either match or be complementing, such as plain black shirt studs and gold-and-black cufflinks. Never mix silver and gold metals in the same outfit. For a touch of color, consider adding a boutonniere — a plain red carnation is always striking, or you can talk to a florist about a matching boutonniere-and-corsage set for you and your date. Just stick to ones with a single flower for you; gentlemen should never be wearing a bouquet on their chest.

If this sounds a little too restrained to you, think again. The elegant simplicity of the black tie outfit brings out everything that goes with it. A single flower becomes a vivid accent; a darkly-colored cummerbund is suddenly a bold fashion statement. And, most importantly, it means that you and your date — not your gaudy outfit — will be the center of attention.

Dark Suits: The “Black Tie Optional” Alternative

young mens prom suitUnless your school specifies in explicit terms that you have to wear black tie, you can treat prom as a “black tie optional” event.

That means that instead of wearing a tuxedo you can wear a plain, dark suit with a white shirt and a colored tie.

This is often a more affordable option (particularly for sons lucky enough to fit in their father’s business suits), and it gives you a little more leeway to add colored elements, particularly the necktie.

Just exercise restraint — you’ll look better in a simple dark suit with a nice muted tie in the same color family as your date’s dress than you will wearing wild patterns and neon colors.

It isn’t as striking as black tie, but a good suit (especially one that fits well) will still set you apart as one of the sharper-dressed young men at the prom.

A Word on Matching Your Date

Try not to get talked into matching outfits. A little complementing contrast between you and your date is a good thing. If she’s wearing a light blue dress, a dark blue boutonniere flower on your tux or a navy-and-gold necktie with your suit is more than enough of a nod to her choice. You’re trying to look like two charming young people, not a wedding cake topper.

It’s easy to get talked into some of the big fashion mistakes of prom — wearing bright colors, breaking the black tie rules, and matching your date too closely — but this is a great chance for you to take charge of your own outfit and stand out on your own.

Whatever you choose to wear, good luck — and remember that the most important part of your outfit is your demeanor and your respect toward your peers and your companion for the evening.