Jeremy Langmead: How To Wear A White Suit

Care to channel Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca? Our resident style columist on how you can master the world's trickiest formalwear look 

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When did you last watch Casablanca? If more than a decade ago, it’s time for a revisit. Not only is it a charming classic, with high-wattage glamour in the form of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but it’s useful from a men’s style perspective, too. Besides seeing Bogie looking the business while drenched in a trench on a Paris train platform (almost every existing outerwear company claims to have supplied him with that), you also see the possibilities in that trickiest of items – the white dinner jacket.

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Bogart gets the look just right. Admittedly, he has a head start: he’s already a legend, has a North African cocktail bar as a setting, Sam on the keyboards, Hollywood’s best lighting him to perfection, and Bergman staring longingly into his eyes. But it’s the basics that are spot on, too: the jacket is double-breasted, the fit is neat with a pinched-in waist and high armpits, the shawl collar is a generous width, and the matching pocket square makes its mark without appearing too flamboyant.

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The word “white” in a dress code – unless referring to a work shirt or an item of underwear – usually instills fear in those who have to heed it. Even more so when it comes to evening wear.

At the recent Met Costume Institute Gala in New York – a big fundraiser hosted each year by Anna Wintour, and attended by almost every designer and celebrity you’ve likely spotted on the society pages – the dress code was white tie and decorations. This actually means a black tailcoat, white waistcoat, wing-collar shirt and white bow tie – all accessorised with white studs, patent black shoes and matching socks; white or grey gloves and top hat optional.

Alas, many male guests were left confused. The designer Tom Ford said he was inundated with requests to help, some of his customers thinking that they were supposed to hang a few Christmas tree decorations from their outfit. Others misunderstood altogether and turned up looking, according to Wintour, like waiters in tropical countries.

Even a white day suit can be tricky to pull off. First of all, you need the right setting and the right temperature – not often found on our shores – but they are hard to accessorise, too. I’ve just returned from a 40th birthday party in Marrakech – my second in eight weeks – and a few white linen suits made their appearance.

And, like it did for Bogart, North Africa provided a suitable backdrop. One gentleman teamed his with a pale blue shirt, with a suitably frayed collar, a striped regatta tie, and a pair of scuffed tan shoes. The fact that it looked a little worn, and that the pale blue shirt stopped his face looking too pasty next to the white jacket, made the ensemble look enviably good. The large gin and tonic in his hand undoubtedly helped, too.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Linen creases enormously, dirties instantly and hides very little. A college acquaintance of mine, now a close friend of the royal family, spent much of his youth travelling across the globe. While in Kenya, he was invited to dinner by an exceedingly posh expat. A last minute mix-up meant he arrived late and with no time to change for dinner, or take something to deal with a troublesome stomach complaint.

His hosts were charming about him turning up a little sweaty and unkempt, in a grubby white suit, and seated him immediately at the table for 12. Alas, as the main course was served and he reached forward for the salt, he felt an awful pain, heard an even worse sound, and realised – as, unfortunately, did those sat either side of him – that he had released the cause of his stomach complaint into the seat of his pants.

In front of the entire room, he had to stand up and walk slowly to the bathroom with an unsightly brown stain spreading slowly across the back of white trousers.

His hosts were most sympathetic, but he’s never been able to bring himself to wear a white suit since. He’s now 48.

If you want to don something white that’s more adventurous than a T-shirt this summer, a pair of trousers is the easiest option (Hackett do some nice versions). Team with a navy blazer (Kilgour’s new ready-to-wear line has some great, slim-fit blazers), or for the weekend wear with a colourful polo shirt or light linen sweater (there are some lovely striped ones at Oliver Spencer this summer). I always think black shoes look too harsh with white trousers – even for formal wear – so try brown or navy footwear instead, ideally something soft like a car shoe or suede loafer. Oh, and it might be best to carry a packet of Imodium, too.

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