Very few men actually own a tuxedo, which explains the proliferation of rental shops in the Washington area. However, those with an active social calendar -- especially in this city -- and tighter funds should consider purchasing used formal wear. It sounds expensive, but even a high-end used tuxedo can be bought for about what it would cost to rent three times; and most evening wear, if bought wisely, will never go out of style.
A word, then, about what to look for. You can never go wrong with a basic black tuxedo; in some cases, it's the only acceptable form. As with suits, there are various styles of button patterns and lapels. The most common are the most simple: single-breasted with one button and double-breasted with two buttons. However, designers like Perry Ellis and Tommy Hilfiger offer up to four buttons as the latest in style on both single- and double-breasted suits. Pants should have a silk or nylon strip down the side and be uncuffed at the bottom.
The white dinner jacket, as worn by Sean Connery's James Bond, is not a look everyone can pull off. It's stylish, but you will stand out. Be careful before purchasing one and avoid white pants. Those looking for the ultimate in style and class should look beyond black and white. "The most elegant tux is not black at all, but midnight blue," advises former GQ Senior Editor Steve Friedman in "The Gentleman's Guide to Life." "Midnight blue actually looks blacker than black at night. Black can take on a sickly green tint under harsh indoor lights."
As far as accessories, there are many variations: vests, cumberbunds, bow ties -- it's usually best to choose the tuxedo first and then experiment.
There are plenty of options for those looking for used tuxedos in the Washington area. The first to consider is a previously rented tux. Masters Tuxedo, which operates 14 area stores, boasts that every tuxedo in its stores is available for purchase; it also has a warehouse of "retired" suits for sale.
Label fiends will find that it can really pay to buy used. At its well-stocked south Arlington warehouse, Masters sells tuxedos by Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Blass, starting at $500, depending on the style. Pulled out of Masters rental stock, the same suits can start at $199. (That's not including shirts and cummerbund-tie sets, each starting around $30.)
Non-designer suits that have been retired from rental service are cheaper, starting at about $100. These tuxes -- the vast majority in standard black -- have just been rented so often that they've shrunk a bit or have small blemishes that don't affect the overall quality of the garment, according to Masters staff. Make sure you inspect a suit thoroughly before purchasing it.
If you'd rather not buy a pre-worn outfit, Masters sells full packages (coat, pants, tuxedo shirt, tie and cummerbund) for $200 and up, depending on the brand. After Hours Formalwear, which has shops at Tysons Corner Center, Montgomery Mall and the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, among other locations, sells new wool tuxedos for $159, and Geoffrey Beene styles for $229 on its Web site, www.afterhours.com, as well as in stores. (The shirt and accessories are not included.)
Need an even cheaper option? Try J.C. Penny's Tuxedo in a Box, which includes a tux, shirt, tie, cummerbund and cufflinks for $129.
For true bargain hunters with time on their hands, thrift shops prove a good buy -- if you can find what you're looking for. Trolling through Goodwill stores can yield the stereotypical powder blue tux with lapels the size of elephant ears, but those willing to look around might occasionally be rewarded. Past trips turned up everything from a size 42 Woodward and Lothrop label tux at Goodwill in Woodbridge to a single-button Pierre Cardin size 44 tux at Goodwill Arlington. Both suits were stylish, wearable and showed little wear and tear. The prices were meager: $25 for jacket and pants.
There are two problems with buying a tuxedo from a thrift store: First, at many stores, the jacket and the pants are sold separately, so it may take several trips to complete your dream tuxedo. Also, there's never a guarantee that a particular size tuxedo will be in stock at one area location, so finding something on a deadline requires perseverance, not to mention magic.
Consignment shops generally have a wider selection of tuxedos, but prices for basic black will start at about $75 for both pieces, going higher as the style and label improve. At consignment shops, you won't find the deals you expect; sellers usually know what they have and want a return on their purchase. Still, you'll save plenty of money over frequent renting or buying new, and you'll always be ready for that short-notice state dinner at the White House.