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When it comes to business wear, don't count on black Add to ...

Dear Mr. Smith: Are black business suits still considered a little tacky?You don't hear that question much any more, as black suits are now considered acceptable for daytime, but I, too, grew up in a time when black suits were strictly the province of the mobster or the funeral director. And I still think they are an unwise choice for business wear.

Thomas Fink, author of the useful and entertaining The Man's Book (it was published in Britain in 2006 by Orion Books), says black suits, when they aren't part of a formal black-tie outfit, "look cheap," and I agree with him. I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps because of the way they reflect the light and pick up lint, perhaps because of our associations with uniforms (security guards, bodyguards, fascists). You are always better off with a charcoal grey or navy suit for your dressy occasions.

However, the craze for 1950s silhouettes, partly inspired by Mad Men, has brought back a tolerance for severe and somewhat straight-laced looks, prompting the advanced class to don narrow black suits with white shirts and skinny ties, tie clips, folded linen pocket squares, heavy horn-rimmed glasses and maybe even porkpie hats. They look like science teachers from the educational film strips of Cold War childhoods. It can work, but it verges on being a costume. You don't want to look as if you're playing a role.

Check out what Colin Firth does with a similar look in the exquisitely stylish film A Single Man: He plays a 1962 California college professor and he executes the straight-laced skinny suit thing perfectly (belying the fact that the character is far from straight-laced himself). It's hard to tell from the muted grey and sepia tones of the photography, but I think that all his suits are actually very dark grey or brown, not totally black.

I have a black suit myself, an inexpensive but stylish one from Tiger of Sweden, and I wear it as casual dress - that is, without a tie and with a sport shirt. It's good for evening receptions and nightclubs, being basically invisible.

Russell Smith's new novel, Girl Crazy, has just been published.

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