Gents – get it right

Get it right, boys, or you’ll look like a big chump, says ANDREW MUNRO

black tie may balls May Week sartorial elegance

May Week will soon be upon us, exams forgotten in a flurry of decadent champagne (or substitute sparkling wine product) receptions, grimacingly-gulped oysters and nocturnal festivities (you thought all-nighters were for getting your essay in on time? Nope – Ball practice). Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But what are you going to wear?

I’m sure the ladies have it all figured out, and even if you don’t I wouldn’t dare to proffer advice (except when asked, but that’s a whole different minefield to navigate). The gentlemen on the other hand… I’m a veteran of five May Weeks now, and every year I encounter an array of crimes against sartorial excellence. Frankly, this has to stop. Cambridge is not just about getting a great education in your chosen Tripos, there’s an education in life to be had as well, and this article is one of its lessons.

It’s really this simple

Black Tie. The masses may associate it with James Bond and the red carpet at the Academy Awards, but at Cambridge it is the utility knife of dress codes: subject dinners, May Balls, feasts, even the odd common-or-garden formal will demand Black Tie. The key word in the previous sentence is demand, there is nothing optional about black tie, if your host has chosen for their event to be elevated to eveningwear then it would be nothing short of a terribly impolite slight to arrive wearing anything less. Even worse is trying to ‘mix it up’ or ‘improve’ it. Don’t even try. Despite your aspirations (delusions?), you’re not some sort of sartorial saviour, nor menswear messiah; so desist from attempting to better an outfit that nigh on 200 years of high society has fine-tuned into making any gent look his absolute best. Seriously, the combination of sleek black, slimming lines, and a crisp white shirt cannot be improved upon, it is the zenith of gentleman’s attire; even the fancier white tie does not stray from these themes, instead it simply adds tasteful garnishes.

If you’re not convinced of the importance of sporting good black tie by now, I fear there is little hope for you. For the reader with better taste there are a few pointers on how to wear it well below. For more comprehensive advice, consult a dapper compatriot, dig up a copy of Debretts, or delve into

Don’t hire. Hiring is for chumps. At Cambridge you can comfortably don Black Tie several times a term, even in my sixth year social senescence my dinner jacket gets dusted off on a regular basis. As such, it’s quite simply uneconomic to hire, once you’ve done so twice, you should have just bought it in the first place. Furthermore, hiring gives you little choice over the precise make up of your outfit, and experience shows that these usually don’t meet the exacting specifications of true black tie, nor do they usually fit the wearer very well.

Your bow tie should require a knot, a self-tie looks sublimely superior to any pre-tied monstrosity and comes with the added bonus of the ‘3am at the ball’ untied around the neck look. Tying it is really no more difficult than tying your shoelaces, one of your sartorially superior friends will likely happily show you or, failing that, YouTube can teach you.

Wear a cummerbund! Strange word and a slightly absurd bit of clothing, but neither of those are an excuse to omit it from your outfit. Its purpose is to smooth the transition between trousers and shirt, so by maintaining the sleek line of your outfit. Note: The folds should be upwards, so that you could tuck your opera, or May Ball, ticket in them.


On the subject of cummerbunds, Cambridge suffers from a particular affliction of coloured matching bow tie and cummerbund sets, tribal markings for sportsmen and sportsdrinkers. Now these have their place: at an event associated with whichever institution they represent. Any other time, half the people in the room are simply marking you down as a bit of a dick, insecure, or tasteless. As my good friend, who is a member of one of the esteemed clubs of our university, puts it “I’m going to put my prick tie on tonight”.

Finally, footwear. Perfection is patent black Oxfords. Failing that, at least polish your shoes. Many if not most gentlemen of this university appear to have a severe allergy to boot polish, and it leaves them looking like scruffy school boys. So gents, make your way to the aisle next to the booze in Sainsbury’s and buy yourself some polish! Kiwi even make a speed polish thing now which can spruce up your shoes in about 30 seconds, so there’s no excuse.

So, good men of the University of Cambridge, this May Week, fix up, look sharp and, at the very least, polish your bloody shoes.