Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
1947, New York City
Debutante balls date back
to at least 1780 when
George III held the first annual ball for daughters of the well-bred
to be presented to the
Court thus making their “début” into society
(and beginning their
search for a suitable husband).
The American upper class adapted many of the English traditions
at similar balls often referred to as cotillions.
the 50s Americans were enjoying more affluence than ever
and the stature and fancy nature of
proms grew in relation.
Note the trendy tartan cummerbund and bow tie on the lad on
► Evening Weddings
Formal summer weddings grew increasingly popular
through the forties despite the traditional taboo on wearing
tuxedos in church.
See Vintage Evening
Weddings for details.
The Bold Look
According to Esquire's
understated editors, this new look rejected the "stilted
traditionalism" of "European court dandies and of a
pallid, ineffectual continental society" in favor of a
home-grown "virile" and "masculine" look befitting of men who
"have hacked and hewn a nation out of wilderness and smashed
their way to a world dominance".
Formality At Sea
Dining aboard Cunard's RMS Curonia. (source)
According to 1953's Esquire Etiquette,
"On most transatlantic and cruise ships, a dinner jacket is the
norm after six in first class – optional in
cabin class – very likely show-off in tourist class."
Postwar Period: Semi-Formal Transition
the war, for various reasons, dinner jackets were rarely worn in
. . . and this custom has taken root in
America, particularly among the
Vogue’s Book of Etiquette
Spoils of War
After the Second World War
the industrial juggernaut that had built America into a military
superpower was converted to the production of consumer goods to feed
the reconstruction of Europe and Japan resulting in an unprecedented
economic boom. The
patriotic pride associated with this victory of
democratic nation over historic, aristocratic empires encouraged
Americans to begin celebrating their culture for its own unique merits.
For fashion this meant a
relaxed formality tempered by Cold War
declaration of war in December 1941 signaled the end of evening
wear’s heyday in that country.
With the nation focused on winning the conflict abroad,
formal fashions were limited by War Production Board regulations
that prohibited textile-intensive garments such
as double-breasted jackets and formal-front dress shirts.
Many men simply mothballed their after-six apparel
altogether, a trend noted in a November 1942 Esquire pictorial
titled “Putting Emily on Ice”.
Accompanying an illustration of an informal couple dining in a fine
restaurant was the caption “Wearing street clothes instead of the once de rigueur
formal attire, this man and his partner assume an Emily Post-mortem
attitude about the whole thing, as do many others in this new era of
simple taste.” The only
formal wear to be seen in the picture was
the tailcoat worn by
the couple's waiter.
Unlike the aftermath of
World War I when it gradually regained its lost popularity, full
dress never recovered from its Second World War setback.
The tailcoat’s patrician cast was now “thought to offend
democratic tastes,” explains menswear historian Nicholas
Antongiavanni, and thus even in the highest social circles it “was
in Europe relegated to the grandest parties, concerts, and occasions
of state, and in
to charity banquets.” Period
conduct guides indicate the author’s summarization of stateside
etiquette was a bit extreme, but not far off the mark. “The modern
trend is to wear 'tails' only for the most formal and ceremonious
functions,” stated The Standard Book of Etiquette in 1948, “such as
important formal dinners, balls, elaborate evening weddings, and
opening night at the opera."
Other authorities noted that even for these exclusive events
organizers were often forced to modify the dress code to allow Black
Tie as an alternative so as to avoid putting off younger men.
The subsequent history of
White Tie is essentially a protracted death watch as the few
remaining tailcoat traditions gradually fade away with each
The tuxedo fared much better
than its progenitor after 1945 but was significantly impacted by the
wartime preference for regular suits as acceptable evening attire. In 1948
Vogue’s Book of Etiquette described the new postwar
During the war, for various
reasons, dinner jackets were rarely worn in public places.
In restaurants, at the theater, even at first nights, they
became the exception rather than the rule.
And this custom has taken root in
America, particularly among the
Although dinner jackets are never incorrect for the theater or
dinner in a restaurant, they are usually worn in public only on
The dinner jacket’s new
status led to an interesting conundrum for etiquette authorities.
On one hand, traditionalists were not yet ready to water down
the customary “formal” label by expanding it to include the tuxedo.
Conversely, it was illogical to continue referring to the
as “informal” now that the acceptance of the common suit had
elevated black tie to the level of extraordinary evening wear.
The solution for most experts was to adopt the “semi-formal”
classification that sartorialists had begun using in the 1930s. While
term had become
common by the early fifties its effectiveness was limited because it
overlooked a more general shift in social standards. The 1955 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette reveals the
Merely to clear away much
confusion: Semi-formal does not mean women in formal evening dresses
and men in business suits.
In communities where the tail coat is worn, semi-formal means
dinner jackets (tuxedos) and simple evening dresses.
In others where the dinner jacket is formal, semi-formal
would mean men in dark sack suits and women in so-called cocktail
The need for this advice
reveals the increasing relativization of
formality following the war: With every passing decade standards
of behavior would be dictated less by a like-minded social elite and more by the
democratic tastes of disparate socio-economic groups.
The result would be an ongoing dilution of universal
conventions and increasing confusion on the part of young adults
seeking social guidance.
Forties Full Dress
Dandy shawl lapels,
dramatically high waistlines, exaggerated collar wings and showy
blue boutonnieres were among the
golden-age stylistic flourishes
that faded into history at the close of the 1930s marking a return
to more conservative full dress.
Postwar developments were relatively few, the most notable
being the allowance of satin trouser stripes and well-polished
calfskin footwear as alternatives to traditional braids and patent
interest in full dress, along with its highly conservative nature,
meant that these would be the last stylistic innovations of any
Consequently, the mid-fifties interpretation of White Tie remains
the standard to this day.
Bold Black Tie
The Bold Look
Although no longer status
quo evening attire, the dinner jacket was by no means out of the
picture as postwar celebration and prosperity
provided plenty of excuses for Americans to dress up once again.
With the end of fabric rationing the boxy double-breasted with
wide lapels became the
dinner jacket of choice
particularly after Esquire
launched the “Bold Look” in 1948.
This uniquely American style of men's wear brashly manifested itself
in "wide borders, big patterns, bold colors".
That same year the
encyclopedic Vogue’s Book of Etiquette listed some relatively new
dinner shirt alternatives.
Besides the formal stiff-front shirt with wing collar and the
less formal semi-starched pleated model with stiff fold collar, the
postwar man could also choose a soft-collar shirt either in silk
with plain or pleated bosom
or in broadcloth.
According to the book the latter was “the most informal and
probably the most usual.”
Trim and Relaxed Style
Other than the new shirt
options, semi-formal evening wear in the late 1940s was
pretty much identical to its pre-war incarnations.
Styles did not truly begin to change until 1950 when Esquire
introduced two new concepts in men's
fashion. One was the “Mr. T” look; a conservative
silhouette featuring natural shoulders and trim, straight lines.
The other was the “American Informal” concept
that highlighted “the greatest trend to date in men’s fashions:
American Informality built right into even your dress and ‘formal’
The impact on evening wear
was evident in both comfort and appearance.
became lighter during the decade
in at ten ounces to the yard. The visual manifestation
of this slightly relaxed formality was
a preference for the slimming single-breasted
jacket with streamlined shawl collar
and understated cummerbund. Add to this a turndown collar shirt and
narrow bat wing tie and the result was the quintessential fifties
Thanks to the availability of
tropical worsted and the relaxed standards of formality
introduced by the war, warm-weather attire became increasingly
popular in the postwar years.
As before the war, white single- or
double-breasted shawl collars were still the preferred models for
summer dinner jackets. Postwar
and style authorities also continued to allow colors in accessories
although they were
now generally limited to
black, midnight blue or maroon.
The informality of
warm-weather black tie provided a launching pad for some
significant innovations in the early fifties.
Esquire introduced a subdued tartan dinner jacket as well as plaid
cummerbunds with matching bow ties. At
the same time formalwear manufacturer After Six began advertising red and blue jackets for
notable departures from tradition would prove to be a harbinger
of fashions to come.
Ready for Change
The first ten years
following the war was a period of transition for American formal
wear. The brash new
superpower was ready to reinvent British tradition in its own
uniquely informal image but wasn’t quite sure how to do it.
To wit, while the habit of when to wear evening dress was
quickly redefined, the practice of what to wear was primarily a
shift toward pre-war casual styles.
There was little originality in formal fashions during this
period and the return of Esquire’s “correct dress” charts
in 1952 was a reminder that conformity was the duty of every
patriotic American in the ongoing covert struggle against
After a decade of such
caution though, the country began to grow restless with the
prevailing conservatism and black-tie fashions were set to catch up
with the modern age.
The postwar American Dream: prosperity
WPB-approved semi-formal attire:
single-breasted jacket, matching waistcoat and plain-front
1948 semi-formal evening dress.
blue remained very popular for evening wear.
1955 whisky ad featuring quintessential fifties
black tie: shawl collar, trim silhouette, cummerbund and batwing
1948 formal evening dress.
Bold Look semi-formal outfit
with broad lapels and wide pleat shirt.
Note bottom-buttoning style.
The "Mr. T" look
was a conservative silhouette with natural, trim
1951 warm-weather black tie with trendy maroon
accessories and pointed-end bow tie.
This 1950 jacket was described as
"one of the most original and daring designs in years."