Jazz Age: Swinging After Six
A dinner-jacket used to be the sign of extreme informality in the evening. A man might put it on for dinner at home and change it for a dress-coat if he went to the opera or a dance afterward. Now it has become so usual an evening garment that, except on most ceremonious occasions, most young men wear it habitually.
Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (1925)
A New Standard
The new world order that emerged from World War I was a youthful one epitomized by the innovation and energy of America's wildly popular jazz music. The rigid formality of Edwardian evening entertainment and attire became a casualty of war on both sides of the Atlantic; consequently, the formerly de rigueur tailcoat ensemble was consigned only to extremely formal functions. In its place the dinner jacket which had been previously considered too vulgar for female sensibilities was promoted to the role of standard evening attire. As Emily Post advised in the 1922 first edition of her definitive Etiquette series, “To a man who can not afford to get two suits of evening clothes, the Tuxedo is of greater importance. It is worn every evening and nearly everywhere, whereas the tail coat is necessary only at balls, formal dinners, and in a box at the opera.” A dress coat was also mandated for evening weddings as the wearing of dinner attire in church was still considered impertinent by polite society.
A Vogue article lamenting the
decline of masculine elegance posited a number of theories for the
tuxedo's domination of the tailcoat:
A Vogue article lamenting the decline of masculine elegance posited a number of theories for the tuxedo's domination of the tailcoat:the inappropriateness of dressing formally for evenings during wartime, the dress coat's lack of suitability to all physiques compared to the equalizing attributes of the dinner jacket, the (mistaken) perception that more effort was required to don full-dress, and a fear of being labeled as old-fashioned. The resulting preference for the tuxedo disheartened the author who felt that the less formal jacket "gives all the men such a monotonous and tiresome aspect, as if they were clerks who had simply changed their coats."
Such proponents of Edwardian gentility were fighting a losing battle. In fact, the wearing of an evening tailcoat anywhere other than prescribed was now considered a faux pas. “People of the social world are supposed to dress for each other, not for the populace” explained Vogue’s Book of Etiquette in 1925. Thus, when in their private opera boxes and orchestra stalls such people were among friends and could dress as if they were socializing at home. In restaurants or theatres, however, they may or may not be exclusively among their peers therefore good taste dictated they moderate their full finery so as not to appear conspicuous. “Overdressing in public places such as restaurants, hotels, [and] steamers, is generally done by people who have only this opportunity of exhibiting themselves.”
Despite the reversal of their popularity, the classification of the dress coat as formal and the tuxedo as informal remained unchanged. Interestingly though, the tailcoat ensemble also became known as “full dress” once again, a befitting moniker for its new exclusive status.
The rules for corresponding accessories also remained the same at first. One notable exception was the renewed allowance for the white waistcoat to be worn with a dinner jacket. This popular practice of the early years, combined with a corresponding preference for peaked lapels instead of shawl collars, was seen by period authorities as an attempt to impart the formality of the full-dress outfit onto its replacement.
Eveningwear protocol then took a decidedly informal shift as the decade progressed thanks in large part to a stylish young Prince of Wales known as the twentieth century Beau Brummell.
Roaring Twenties Style
David, Prince of Wales
After the death of Edward VII in 1910, his son George V worked diligently to restore the formality and discipline that his father had let slide at Court. However, George’s own heir shared more than his grandfather’s name (see sidebar). The new Prince of Wales also enjoyed the elder Edward’s preference for sartorial style and comfort over stuffy tradition and beginning in the 1920s this maverick’s impeccable fashion sense would influence menswear for years to come.
By regularly opting for the
dinner jacket over the full-dress coat the future Duke of Windsor and his
aristocratic circle of friends played a pivotal role in its
elevation to standard evening wear. The adoption of the
practice in the
One of the first evening wear innovations championed by the Prince was an alternative to its standard black shade. Midnight blue – a deep, blackish blue – was appropriately muted hue for formal attire yet appeared darker and richer than black under artificial light because it did not have the latter’s tendency to give off a greenish cast or show up dust. The revival of this Regency-era fashion was limited to select English aristocrats and dandies at first but the color’s popularity grew steadily over the twenties foreshadowing its mass appeal in the following decade.
During the 1920s the white waistcoat had come
to be considered the most formal color because unlike its ebony
counterpart it required frequent laundering and starching and
therefore more expense. Consequently, black models ceased to
be an alternative for full-dress suits while white models became
increasingly popular with dinner jackets, especially at occasions
which had previously required tailcoats. In April 1924 Men’s Wear reported that adoption
of the tuxedo and white
waistcoat trend by such fashion leaders as the Prince of Wales and
Lord Mountbatten had made it widely acceptable in
A stylish mode for the white
waistcoat was the
"tub" fashion that had been revived in
A few years later another waistcoat innovation was rapidly gaining in popularity: the backless model. Yet another contribution from His Royal Highness, this design replaced the full back of the waistcoat with just two small straps that held the front in place thereby allowing the vest to retain much less body heat and making it particularly ideal for tropical climes.
Double-Breasted Dinner Jackets and Soft-Front Shirts
In 1928 the Prince of Wales publicly condemned the “boiled shirt” of his ancestors and two Men’s Wear surveys from that year revealed that American men seemed to share the sentiment. The periodical reported that while most men continued to favor wing collars and stiff-bosom shirts with their dinner jackets, some of the younger generation had taken to wearing negligee shirts with soft attached collars. The magazine’s editors scolded that “This style mirrors the quintessence of informality, in fact, these men could hardly adopt any more radical style and still be ‘properly’ dressed.”
The editors pointed out that this trend away from traditional formality was further emphasized by the increase in popularity of double-breasted dinner jackets, an American invention that had first appeared at the turn of the century and which was usually worn without a waistcoat. Etiquette authors were equally disapproving and advised their own readers that the appropriateness of both the new jacket and the soft or pleated shirts was strictly limited to summer evenings and other equally informal occasions.
Minor fashion developments that applied to both informal and formal evening dress in the twenties included bolder wings on shirt collars, wider bow ties, the appearance of button trim to match lapels (although some etiquette sources only accepted bone buttons on the tailcoat) and an increasing preference for laced shoes in place of pumps or button shoes.
In regards to full dress, the tailcoat’s front was cut shorter to accommodate higher trousers which could feature either two narrow braids as before or one broad braid (as opposed to one optional narrow braid on dinner trousers). Some affluent men continued to wear shirt bosoms, waistcoats and bow ties of matching piqué although the high cost of these custom-made sets limited their popularity.
As for the dinner jacket, it
began sporting a link closure (a
buttonhole on either side of the jacket front fastened by a
cufflink-like accessory called a "coat link" or "link button") and was now usually buttoned up.
The addition of a breast pocket during this decade prompted the debut of the formal pocket square.
Also appearing at this time was a new
take on an old Victorian accessory called a
cummerbund. A 1928 issue
of Men’s Wear explained to readers that this was a black silk sash
used as a replacement for the waistcoat on warm evenings. While it
may have made a slight gain in acceptance among the fashionable
Dawn of the Golden Age
The movement towards informal variations introduced in the 1920s would provide increasing comfort, variety and style in the following decade and the tuxedo would gain popularity with a wider range of society than ever before. At the same time, full dress would reclaim some of the formal tradition it had lost during the war. Evening wear was about to enter its greatest era in modern history.