If you grew up at the end of the 20th century, you may not have worn a cummerbund since your 6th form ball.
It’s not like the cummerbund has vanished completely from the sartorial landscape, but these days you tend to see them only at the most formal events, whether evening weddings or the Oscars red carpet. If you’re anything like me, you may even have been tempted to write them off as a Victorian anachronism.
But this is a terrible mistake. The cummerbund is considered part of the black tie dress code for a good reason. You owe it to yourself to at least know what your options are.
For a start, what is the cummerbund and when and where can you wear one?
Origins of the Cummerbund
In many ways, the cummerbund is inextricable from the British Empire. When the British military was stationed in India in the 1850s, the British officers were impressed by the luxurious waist sashes worn by Indian gentlemen and decided to adopt the style.
Within a short time, the “look” had made its appearance in London society and gentlemen were swapping their waistcoats for cummerbunds left, right and centre. As often happens with fashion, the original reason for the cummerbund’s popularity (the fact that it was cooler to wear one in the hot Indian weather than a waistcoat) was forgotten in the rage for a stylish new look.
Since those days, the cummerbund has been an attractive alternative to the waistcoat on any single breasted dinner suit.
Why a cummerbund?
There’s one pressing reason why a cummerbund makes sense. By covering your waist, the cummerbund completes the black tie dress-code and creates an attractive shape.
GQ magazine puts it perfectly: “One of the most important rules for black tie… is the one most commonly forgotten: cover your waist. Wearing a waistcoat, a double breasted jacket or a cummerbund means that the only shirt visible is a powerful V at the chest, shooting up towards the shoulders, framed by silk, peaked lapels. No untidy white cloth is left to billow around the waist. The legs are lengthened, the waist suppressed, the shoulders emphasized.”
Check out Chris Pine’s suit below for an example of what happens to a dress shirt and the overall look of a dinner suit when it’s worn without a cummerbund. If Pine had covered his waist, that unsightly ruffle wouldn’t be seen.
Only Wear With a Single Breasted Suit
Only wear a cummerbund on a single breasted dinner suit. The reason you don’t wear one with a double breasted suit is that the purpose of the cummerbund is to cover your waist, something that’s already achieved by the double breasted jacket or a waistcoat. They’re also only worn with a bow tie, never a neck tie.
Many different colours are available today but if you’ve never worn a cummerbund before, I’d stick with the traditional colours: black, red or maroon. Better to follow tradition when venturing into untested waters. At a push: a shade of blue.
Match your cummerbund and your lapels
If your lapels are satin, wear a satin cummerbund. If your lapels are ribbed or grosgrain, find a matching cummerbund.
When shouldn’t I wear one?
This is an evening look only. Wear it with a black, navy or midnight blue dinner suit. The cummerbund is on the ultra-formal side of eveningwear, shy of white tie, so wear one only at the fanciest of events.