Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
1920s etiquette required that an overcoat always be
worn with full dress, even in summer. No
wonder men preferred the dinner jacket.
David, Prince of Wales
(Popperfoto / Getty Images
The Prince of Wales' full name was Edward Albert Christian
George Andrew Patrick David Windsor but he went by David until
he became Edward VIII in 1936.
was another British fashion
He was a star of stage and screen
in the U.K. and in the U.S. and
is credited for introducing the double-breasted
dinner jacket to England.
Perfection or Nothing
Period etiquette guides warned
that unless a dress suit was perfect in fit, cut and
material it was better not to wear one at all.
Original Tuxedo Rag
A 1920s jazz band's formal attire
was the inspiration for their name, The Original
Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, as well as one of their
infectious tunes, "The Original Tuxedo Rag".
Click here to hear it on YouTube.
The Notched Lapel
Notched lapels (step collar in UK)
had been available on dinner jackets since the
early 1900s but were rarely endorsed by menswear
periodicals, ignored by etiquette books and
generally shunned by best-dressed men according to
numerous Men's Wear surveys.
They all but disappeared after 1930 and didn't
re-emerge until the 1960s.
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
tailcoat ensemble was
consigned only to extremely formal functions.
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:
of dressing formally
dress coat's lack of suitability to
the equalizing attributes of
the dinner jacket,
more effort was required to
and a fear
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
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
“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
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
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
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 United States was then only a matter
of time since style-conscious Americans were greatly influenced by
British trends during this period. Numerous other changes in
evening fashions soon followed as the Prince and other British
trendsetters skillfully set about improving formal attire’s comfort
and enhancing its panache.
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
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
and that half of waistcoats
observed in a survey of Palm Beach informal evening dress
were of the ivory variety.
A stylish mode for the white
waistcoat was the
"tub" fashion that had been revived in
America in 1921, a year after
its re-introduction in
Available in single- and double-breasted models
it was popular with both informal and formal evening dress because
high-waisted cut and lack of points could better accommodate the
height and fullness of the new trouser style.
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.
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’
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
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
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
Palm Beach crowd that year it would remain
largely confined to the sidelines until the following decade.
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.
The "roaring twenties".
1918: the war was over and the tuxedo
Trendy gents in 1919. Note the very early
double-breasted tuxedo. (courtesy
1921 evening wear from Finland.
1925 formal and informal
were once again fashionable with tuxedos.
example of how early double-breasted tuxedos were sometimes worn with a waistcoat.
1925 example of a link-front
The 1920s saw the return of faced
and false jacket cuffs. Flap pockets would disappear by the
Evening fashions from a 1929 Chicago tailoring
company catalog, including a relatively rare