Men navigate H'w'd's dress code

There once was a time when dressing for a black-tie affair was fairly straightforward for a man. You wore a tux. Sure, you could get creative with the details — silver or brass cufflinks, pleated or unpleated shirt, black or white bow tie — but otherwise real fashion decisions were left up to the ladies.

No longer. Today’s dress code is a little blurrier, with dark suits considered an acceptable substitute for the traditional tux at certain, if not all, formal events. Navigating the code can be confusing — what goes at the Golden Globes may not suit at the Oscars — which is one reason so many men hire stylists during awards season, and fill up their Palm Pilots with Valentino and Armani fittings.

If a tux is selected as the outfit de nuit, it is only half the equation. Men are increasingly opting for open shirts and neckties, colored shirts, and jacket embellishments like shiny finishes, braiding and velvet.

“Relatively speaking, men are being as creative as they can be in the confines of a suit and tie,” says stylist Phillip Bloch, who is in charge of Jim Carrey and Pierce Brosnan’s Oscar duds this year. “You’ve got the basics, but you’re basically playing with the basics and readjusting them.”

Wanda McDaniel of Armani — past outfitter to Oscar host Billy Crystal, Samuel Jackson and Mel Gibson — agrees. “Men this year are tending toward classic looks made casual in some instances, of good taste and just having a little fun with it,” she says. “They want to wear an open shirt, or something unusual in the shirting: shirts in colors, shirts that have very refined ruffles. Also shirts with unique button configurations — a loop-on button instead of a stud.”

“I don’t think men want to break the rules, but they want to be more comfortable.” says Merle Ginsberg, a longtime fashion observer.

Ginsberg points to style icons like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — who ushered in the open collar in the mid-1990s — as well as Johnny Depp, as leading pioneers on the red carpet.

“Look at Johnny Depp. The guy is just cool. He’s got a real rock ‘n roll thing going on,” she says.

At this year’s Golden Globes, which has historically had a playful approach to formal wear, Depp looked like a cross between a hobo and a gangster in a black-on-black suit and fedora.

The Grammys have long had a loosened sartorial standard and today that ceremony doubles as a hip-hop fashion runway. This year, Sting treated the aud to a kilt and shirt opened to his navel. Fashion watchers expect a more traditional look Oscar night, however.

The Academy Awards has traditionally looked down its nose at creative dressing by its male participants. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, there have always been deviants.

In 1971 Erich Segal showed up in a turtleneck and a smoking jacket. Nicholson wore a beret in ’75. Sting’s past tuxedo-clad appearances aside, music icons Prince, Stevie Wonder and Bono have not exactly worn outfits you’d call conservative.

And even formal wear of the past seems outlandish by today’s standards.

McDaniel’s husband, producer Albert Ruddy, won an award for “The Godfather” in 1972, and she recalls her better half’s outfit on Oscar night.

“He wore a cocoa brown tux,” she says, chuckling. “Everyone in the audience had mutton chops. Some of those pictures are quite hilarious.”

Yet for all the insistence that the Oscars are the Oscars, and “not the Grammys” — as Variety’s own awards vet Army Archerd curtly maintains — the proliferation of other, more casual, award kudocasts seem to be having an effect on Oscar’s formality bar.

The proliferation of ceremonies crammed into an ever shorter period of time doesn’t help either. Like women, men find themselves scrambling for not just one but a dozen outfits to don on all the red carpets.

“It all starts to blur at a certain point,” Bloch says. “They’re all over the place, going ‘Oh, God, another awards show, did I wear this already?”

The danger with the new emphasis on men’s awards wardrobes, of course, is that there is a fine line between fashion forward and fashion faux pas.Sean Connery’s ruffley bib at last year’s Oscars raised a few eyebrows.

But ruffles are the exception. For the most part men are avoiding big flourishes, following the Ashton Kutcher approach to style: tousled, unshaven, unbuttoned.

For those old school traditionalists, who maintain that there’s only one thing to wear to the Oscars, and only one way to wear it, there is some hope.

In the cyclical world of fashion, some say the pendulum will soon be swinging back to the penguin.

Bloch predicts the return of the cummerbund and even the — gasp — double-breasted suit.

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