Jet Age: Supersonic Style
Male formal plumage turns to iridescent splendor!
After Six tuxedo ad, 1955
The highly popular 1955
novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit utilized the
middle-class American male’s typical corporate attire to represent the
conformism of the early fifties.
Yet by the time of publication these men were feeling the
influence of rock ‘n’ roll’s youthful rebelliousness and were
seeking a wardrobe that better reflected the modern world in which
they were living. The advent of jet travel and space flight
provided the perfect inspiration and so streamlined styles and
synthetic materials became popular in men’s attire just as they had
in their automobiles and household appliances.
Continental Dinner Suits
The Continental Look
modern face of the suit
for Americans and Britons alike was the slim
Continental look that emerged from Italy
in the late fifties. This new
style featured jackets that were shorter and more fitted than
traditional cuts and trousers that were narrow and cuffless.
It became the basis of the English Mod fashions of the early
sixties and when combined with a concurrent return to elegance in men’s
attire it resulted
in a deluxe makeover
of the dinner suit.
The continental-style dinner
jacket was typically single-breasted and
had narrow lapels.
The Roman influence led to the
replacement of the popular but casual shawl collar with
dressier choices such as
recently-returned peak lapel, the notched lapel
newly imported from
and the notched shawl collar in various shapes such as the
facings became more elaborate over the years, beginning with simple
silk or braided piping in the late fifties and progressing to
embroidered, brocaded or jacquarded motifs on a satin base. The same
embellishments were also applied to turned-back sleeve cuffs, pocket
edgings and trouser stripes. The most fitting choice of
suit fabric for this continental elegance
was silken black mohair.
Modern Waist Covers
often lay the newly reincarnated waistcoat, now commonly referred to
as a vest in America.
When purchased as part of a three-piece suit the waistcoat
was usually decorated with the jacket’s trimming before its revers
began to disappear in the mid-sixties.
A less formal alternative was the cummerbund which had
finally been accepted by etiquette authorities for year-round use.
fashion magazines occasionally featured waist coverings (and
matching bow ties) in various patterns and colors, conduct
manuals mandated that
only black or midnight blue
be worn with the dinner suit.
Paralleling the increasingly
ornate jackets and waistcoats, the stylish formal shirt of the time
began displaying columns of understated ruffles or subtly
embroidered lace either along the placket or across the entire front
of the shirt. After the
new style appeared on fashion-forward celebrities at the 1959
Academy Awards the patterns and effects became increasingly elaborate.
Other options for shirt bosoms included an ever wider variety
of pleats and tucks, frequently with fly fronts that did not require
Also resurrected from
black-tie limbo in the late fifties was the
bow tie which had formerly been eclipsed by the straight-end batwing
experimented with tucking their bow ties under their collar points
or replacing them altogether with the newly invented continental tie
White Tie Deluxe
periodically presented their take on continental white tie,
flourishes such as shantung silk tailcoats, velvet collars and
lined capes and even a pale blue jacquard silk
waistcoat and tie.
However these styles were completely at odds with the highly
traditional nature of white tie and it is unlikely they were ever
adopted by anyone outside of the fashion industry.
The only white-tie novelty
of the period that would have any staying power was much less
conspicuous: In December 1963 Esquire introduced a starched bosom
white piqué dress shirt that was unique for having the wing collar
attached to the shirt.
The jet age developments in
odd (non-matching) dinner jackets were not nearly so subtle as
changes to the classic suit.
In the early fifties formalwear retailers had begun to offer
warm-weather coats in blue and maroon but these were relatively
conservative hues and rarely seen.
In the somewhat relaxed political climate in the mid-1950s
this trend took off, launching around the time of a 1954 Esquire
pictorial that featured a tropical cruiser decked out like a Las Vegas
lounge singer. The
accompanying description read like sartorial poetry:
The [dinner jacket’s]
shimmering sheen of imported sheer silk shantung glistens like a
reflection of a golden sun shot with sparking undertones of blue
water. Silk shantung slacks pick up the jacket’s blue. A
black-ground silk cummerbund and tie, allied to the trousers’ black
side stripes, add to smooth sailing with a gold-and-silver Chinese
The following year the trend
picked up speed with the introduction of “parfait colors”.
The February issue of Esquire depicted jacket hues with soda
fountain names such as “crushed strawberry” and “French vanilla”
which a man could choose for his Caribbean sailing safe in the
knowledge that “no one will mistake him for the steward or an errant
bartender”. In 1956 iridescent “peacock tones” further fueled the
fad thanks to the availability of metallic threads then a couple of
years later patterned fabric began to appear, running the gamut from
plaid to batik. The only consistent factor in this
striking progression was that the jacket was invariably
single-breasted and featured a shawl collar that was either black or
Keeping pace with evening
wear’s new looks were contemporary fabrics equally suitable for the
new age. Wool and rayon
blends that had originated in the late 1940s became increasingly
popular in tuxedos during this time thanks to the synthetic
material’s lighter weight, better crease resistance and easier care.
Suitings with irregular and nubby finishes also became more common
as the fifties progressed
By time seersucker appeared
in dinner jackets in the early sixties, loud colors and
attention-grabbing patterns had virtually replaced the classic white
summer coat on the pages of menswear magazines.
And although the periodicals continued to pay lip service to
the stricture that limited these showy alternatives to warm-weather
occasions, their depiction in Manhattan theater lobbies and
"discotheques" in mid-
winter photo shoots belied a broader usage.
As if to sidestep this breach of etiquette, editors began to
imply that such unorthodox jackets
could correctly be worn at one's own home as a
Tie and Cummerbund Sets
Another vogue of the mid
fifties was matching colored and patterned bow ties with cummerbunds
of various new styles, most notably the hybrid
This trend was primarily limited to warm-weather black tie
and began to die out with the introduction of the dressier
Jet Age Etiquette
As trendy as they might be,
the unconventional jackets and shirts of the period were the
exception rather than the rule and standard black tie remained
relatively conservative. In fact, in New York as well as in
Europe, tropical-weight black tuxedos were preferable for all formal
evening occasions, even in summer.
The 1963 edition of Amy
Vanderbilt’s The Complete Book of Etiquette begrudgingly allowed for
colored or patterned dinner jackets but limited their
appropriateness to cruises and suggested they were best left to the
young. The 1965 edition of Emily Post’s
benchmark book had
been completely revised for a new generation by
Elizabeth but its evening wear protocol, while significantly
condensed, offered equally limited concessions.
Patterned jackets or cummerbunds
were acceptable but only in summer and only for “less formal”
parties. The younger Post did support the new trend for matching bowties
with colored cummerbunds while Ms. Vanderbilt remained insistent
that maroon was the only alternate hue for warm-weather
The 1965 Emily Post book no
longer attempted to list specific occasions when black tie was
required, offering instead the umbrella provision that “it’s correct
on almost every formal occasion”. Such occasions continued to
include the opera (particularly in the boxes and orchestra seats)
and opening night at the theater. Movie premieres also called
for tuxedos according to an article that same year in GQ (the
recently launched successor to Apparel Arts) although “many appear,
incorrectly, in dark suits (including those who wear a bow tie in
the hope of looking evening-suited in a shadowy lobby)."
A significant new addition
to the list was the evening wedding.
Previously only the tailcoat or dark suit had been considered
appropriate for church ceremonies because the tuxedo was seen as
"frivolous". Now dinner
jackets were acceptable in church at even the most formal of
weddings. The only caveat was that the coats be strictly
limited to black or white according to the season, regardless of
whether they appeared on groomsmen or guests.
In reality, this development meant little to the
average person as wedding parties had been ignoring the prohibition
for years. It was also common practice by this time for
Americans to don evening wear for daytime ceremonies,
being either oblivious or indifferent to the inherent incongruity.
One other contemporary
concession made by both Post and Vanderbilt was to acknowledge the
practice of renting one's formal wear instead of owning it.
However, this allowance applied only to near-obsolete
full evening dress and
formal day wear. Tuxedos still were expected to be pertinent part of
a man’s wardrobe “if he is going to have an active social life in
Ms. Vanderbilt also
advice on correspondence etiquette to indicate
that "black tie" should be specified on dinner invitations rather
than expecting guests to infer this based on the formality of the
request as was previously the custom.
In the United Kingdom dinner
jackets continued to be the norm for social gatherings according to
Etiquette Handbook published in 1962. Author Barbara
Cartland advised that if the Black Tie dress code did not appear on
an invitations for "ordinary dinner parties and for informal dances"
then full dress was expected. No doubt this applied to the
social circles where it was "perfectly normal for people to eat at 9
p.m. and to regard the night as young at midnight."
Full evening dress was also worn to film premieres attended by
royalty if a
person was likely to be presented to them.
Conversely, the 1964 book
ABC of Men’s Fashion noted that “Royalty has now indicated to ball
hostesses on many occasions that . . . full evening dress need not
be worn. This has really
meant the death knell to white ties and tails that were already
white tie remained reserved primarily for opera openings, as well as
balls, dinners (especially public dinners) and weddings of the most
The Times They are a-Changin'
The highly unconventional
dinner jackets of this period were representative of a much larger
social upheaval taking place in the sixties. America's conception of
“formal” would become ever
more subjective in the years ahead as the
first postwar generation rebelled against their parents’
conservative values. In
the process, time-honored black-tie convention would be brought to
the verge of extinction.