Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
What’s in a name?
The Nehru jacket is modeled after the
coat-like sherwani preferred by the first Prime
Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.
After Six began targeting men who had stopped wearing tuxedos.
tried to enhance tradition with
8 lines of colored
jackets with hip names like “The End” then
reverted to outright ridicule of convention in ads that
touted 23 styles of shirts, 127 styles
of vests and a whopping 164 styles of cummerbunds. (See
section for more examples.)
"Party of the Century"
Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at the Black and
Ironically, the most
famous black-tie party of modern times
around the lowest point in
formalwear's history. Author Truman Capote's 1966 Black and White
Ball was the most sought-after
invitation for American celebrities and New York society
– all of
whom dressed in traditional black tie.
Powder Blue Tuxedo
pastel colored suits
the youthful prom and wedding
were constructed solely for economy and durability.
cheaply-made polyester outfits
were about as formal as rented table linens.
Crooner Dean Martin once said "In a tuxedo, I'm a star.
In regular clothes, I'm nobody." He
made the suit his personal trademark by wearing it in every episode of
his TV variety show that ran from 1964 to 1975.
The Velvet Suit
In 1972 GQ provided detailed guidelines for this newly
popular tuxedo alternative for "relaxed
formal situations". The suit's color was to be
subdued and the
tie, shoes and socks of a harmonious
deep shade. See the
section for more '70s tuxedo alternatives.
(Not So) Well Suited
1973 "formal" platform shoe
GQ also claimed in 1972
that "The ascent of patent leather
and similar looks as everyday footwear have resulted in an
abundant array of shoes equally suitable for formal wear." ("Similar
looks" referred to recently invented cheap synthetic imitations
of patent leather.)
Counterculture Era: Peacock Revolution
peacock has replaced the penguin and once-sacrosanct traditional
formal wear has been assailed by startling fabrics, designs and
GQ, November 1969
In the early sixties
menswear underwent its most dramatic change since
Beau Brummell. A
textiles exhibit in
Victoria and Albert
Museum in London –
the epicenter of
"youthquake" of culture, fashion and music
– explains that for the previous 150
years men’s clothing had been tailor-made in plain, dark styles
dictated by mature elite.
Now, suddenly, young people with their newfound affluence
were challenging the “staid rules of masculine etiquette” that had
prevailed since Victorian times.
These young modernists, or Mods, preferred clothing that was
mass-produced, brightly colored and slim fitting,
giving birth to what became known as the peacock revolution.
Because adherence to
established customs was anathema to a young generation that defined
itself by its opposition to uniformity, the concept of “formal”
became an increasingly tough sell during the sixties.
In response, tuxedo manufacturers focused less on being
formal and more on being fancy and subsequently transitioned from
merely tweaking tradition to turning it on its head.
Menswear magazines applauded this movement away from what GQ
described as "the formal formula of monotonous anonymity".
As the periodical noted in November 1969, “the peacock has
replaced the penguin and once-sacrosanct traditional formal wear has
been assailed by startling – but more elegant than ever – fabrics,
designs and colors.”
The Mod Look
In 1965 tuxedo manufacturer
After Six reported that sales of their increasingly popular colored
dinner jackets had gone “right through the roof” to the point where
they could not keep up with demand.
Clearly, the British Invasion had not only landed on
America’s shores by this time but
was already conquering its formal traditions.
Not long after influencing
informal summer jackets, the Swinging London look began to show up
in year-round black tie in the form of the Nehru.
This lapel-less, upright-collar coat debuted in American
menswear 1966 and soon made the transition to evening wear.
After Six featured their version of a formal Nehru in a 1968
ad titled “The no black tie black tie” which depicted a brocaded
silk coat worn with a white turtleneck.
More than just a catchy marketing slogan, this caption
heralded black tie’s surrender of longstanding fundamental
When the Nehru fad began to
dissipate (fairly quickly), the Mod look evolved into the
more flamboyant Edwardian look. While its name reflected its homage to
turn-of-the-century men’s fashions, the trend was equally influenced
by the nineteenth century dandy and his flair for the dramatic.
The neo-Edwardian dinner
jacket was distinguished by a double-breasted design with wide
lapels, square shoulders, suppressed (tailored) waist and a deep
center vent. Buttoned with two parallel rows of three buttons,
it was sometimes known as a Regency jacket. The cut became
longer as the years progressed, elongating into 4-button
single-breasted and 8-button double-breasted frock coats. The
velvet and brocade materials used for these jackets were fashioned
not only in black but also in royal blue, ruby red and
emerald green. Contrasting black
facings decorated the lapels
as well as
the flap pockets that had recently emigrated from the less formal
summer jackets. Complementing this finery were
trousers made from either matching hues or differing materials such
as white wool, red silk or blue velvet.
formal shirts were becoming equally opulent.
The subtle embroidered lace front that had appeared in the
late fifties had evolved into columns of small ruffles in the early
sixties then blossomed into a forest of oversized frills by the
middle of that decade. Synonymous with these developments were the
rise of lacy cuffs that spilled over the palm and the decline of the
shirt stud which was being increasingly replaced by fly fronts or
white buttons. In addition, understated traditional white fabric
began to give way to a kaleidoscope of colored alternatives running
the gamut from bright pink to dark blue.
previous return to
favor in the early sixties was made impractical, not
to mention redundant, by the extravagantly ruffled shirts
and double-breasted jackets of the later years. When it
did appear it was more likely to be a modernized version with a
higher cut, much like the vest of a three-piece business suit. The
traditional alternative to the waistcoat did not fare much better
due to the growing popularity of the wide, satin-covered trouser
waistband designed to eliminate the need for what the May 1969
Esquire referred to as “the unsightly scourge called a
In order to effectively
assimilate into such a baroque milieu, the neo-Edwardian bow tie
grew to titanic proportions. Although it too was available in
rainbow of colors, black remained the most popular choice and
thus the sole link to the classic elegance of years past.
While the theatrical Edwardian look faded out with the sixties, the
enthusiastic disregard for time-honored black-tie principles
continued unabated into the 1970s. Formal separates introduced
by menswear magazines during the decade included jackets made of
brown madras or silver and white paisley, the latter depicted with
an open-collared black shirt à la John Travolta in Saturday Night
Fever. Not to be outdone, formal trousers appeared in red and
black checks, red and blue window pane patterns and a blue and
magenta "tapestried paisley" among other designs.
As for the formal suit, a November 1970 GQ article appropriately
titled "Only the Black Tie Remains the Same" identified floppy bow
ties, broad lapels, narrow waists and shorter jackets as uniquely
seventies tuxedo traits. Other period manifestations of what
the magazine un-ironically labeled “urbane elegance” included evening suits made
of brown knit wool, black corduroy and even blue denim, many of
which featured trousers cut in the now iconic flared bottom
silhouette. Rounding out the stylish disco-era options
was the "formal jumpsuit" which the writers claimed not only removed
the need for a separate vest but could even stand alone at less
Forgotten Full Dress
Not surprisingly, the
aristocratic white tie outfit was virtually unseen in the pages of
menswear magazines during this counterculture era and the rare
exceptions did not paint a pretty picture. In 1967 a white tailcoat
was presented as an example of what London’s bespoke tailors
considered to be “fashion sophistication” and a 1972 Lord West ad
depicted a white bow tie being worn with a tuxedo as the formalwear
company’s “virile interpretation of the classic full dress”.
traditional full-dress kit finally appeared in the October 1975 GQ
it had become so uncommon that the writers incorrectly described it
as a “cutaway suit”.
Faux Formal: Rental Costumes
Also absent from the
pages of men's fashion periodicals was the most iconic formal wear of the seventies: the
This was partly because the magazines'
editors were shifting their focus
from the mass-produced commodities offered by traditional formalwear
manufacturers towards more exclusive evening wear produced by newly
emerging menswear designers such as Ralph Lauren and Pierre Cardin.
And while ads from industry giants such as After Six
continued to appear, they generally featured their lines of higher
quality conventional dinner suits rather than the prom
and wedding rentals that targeted young
men with little sense of
sophistication or tradition.
While the late sixties and
early seventies witnessed a revolutionary change in tuxedo stylings,
black-tie etiquette remained surprisingly faithful to pre-peacock
standards at first. In its 1966 “Fashion Guide for All
Esquire advised readers that despite all the recent
innovations in evening wear, “There is very little leeway here.
The concepts of formality are narrow indeed and tradition is
practically binding.” Other etiquette authorities of this
period offered advice that was virtually identical.
Essentially, the black or midnight blue dinner suit was still
the first choice in the city whether in winter or summer.
a white dinner jacket with black trousers was common in
warm weather at resorts, in the suburbs and on shipboard, it
remained taboo in the city “unless one has a napkin over his arm or
a saxophone up to his lips”.
Weddings continued to be held to the highest black-tie
standards while at the other end of the spectrum the authors
acknowledged that there was increasing latitude for colored and
patterned jackets and bow ties at relatively informal affairs.
By the early seventies
black-tie etiquette issued by menswear periodicals was becoming
noticeably more liberal.
The February 1972 GQ "Fashion Handbook", for example,
offered generally conservative guidelines but concluded with a
lengthy caveat typical of the times: “while the rules surrounding
formal wear aren’t being broken, they are being subjected to a
considerable amount of bending.”
Published in 1973, Esquire’s Fashions for Today offered almost
identical advice for black tie but emphasized that “white tie rules
remain relatively rigid”.
Consequently, the only full-dress developments of note during
this period were an allowance for attached collar shirts, silk
pocket squares and black Homburgs.
In addition, piqué was now the universally prescribed fabric
for the bow tie.
The generation who's maxim
was "don't trust anyone over 30" had
little interest in formal tradition. They rejected proms as
archaic and their weddings were apt to be held barefoot in a field.
The much protested establishment had also become more casual,
forcing traditional authorities such as Amy Vanderbilt
grant significant indulgences. Among other
contemporary trends, the author noted that men were now attending
the opera in clothes as informal as tweeds and sweaters and that
many public dinners had adopted a “dress optional” code which
allowed guests to completely dispense with white tie in favor of
either the dinner jacket or the even less formal dark suit.
Conversely, a noticeable
number of late sixties conduct manuals stuck to their guns regarding
the proscription against donning evening wear prior to six o’clock
or anytime on Sundays unless employed as a waiter.
This emphasis was likely a reaction to tuxedos having become
commonplace at weekend afternoon nuptials according to evidence
provided by vintage wedding photos taken during broad daylight and a
February 1973 GQ pictorial featuring oxymoronic “black tie” daytime
It is notable that the 1967
Encyclopedia of Etiquette categorized its tuxedo advice under the
heading “Formal Evening, Black Tie”. In the minds of most Americans,
black tie’s previous “semi-formal” status was no longer adequate as
the white tie tradition receded further into history and the dinner
jacket inherited its mantle as the most formal type of attire most
men would ever don.
At the same time, the rules
for black tie were becoming increasingly gray.
Prior to the war, it had been a fairly distinct two-tier
dress code with the most traditional attire (black jackets,
waistcoats, wing collars) considered appropriate in any season or
locale and the least formal attire (white jackets, cummerbunds,
turndown collars) generally limited to warm-weather soirees in the
tropics or the countryside.
Now the tuxedo’s informal variations were increasingly casual
and increasingly popular year-round resulting in a sliding scale
principle where sartorial appropriateness was judged in the context
of each occasion’s unique formality.
Another consequence of the
period’s unorthodox variations was that “black tie” and "tuxedo” were
no longer synonymous.
Instead, the former term became typically associated with the
most customary style of dinner suit while the latter would often
mean little more than a flashy party outfit.
Re-Thinking the Revolution
In the midst of GQ’s
wholehearted endorsement of the reinvention of formal wear, the more
conservative Esquire cautioned that blindly dismissing tradition
could be just as detrimental as remaining stubbornly conformist.
The December 1968 issue
explained that the true merit of evening wear's peacock revolution
lay in its alternatives to the traditional black and white color
scheme and not, as many mistakenly assumed, in its banishment of the
scheme all together. "It's okay to refuse to wear a Nehru or a
turtleneck,” said the writers, “Just wear what pleases you and what
becomes you, to hell with conformity."
years later in Esquires Fashions for Today the magazine’s editors
once again acknowledged the merits of some peacock alternatives
while simultaneously cautioning that “a wise man will inevitably
choose carefully, bearing in mind that the extreme fashion all too
often carries its own built-in obsolescence.”
By the early seventies it seemed that formalwear
had taken to heart such sage advice.
Showing up alongside the
unconventional formal garments during this period were conservative
trends – most notably the gradual re-emergence of traditionally dark
colors – that hinted at a return to black-tie tradition.
dichotomy of old and new
would become ever more pronounced with the dawn of an all-new
golden age of formal wear.
Rock band The Who epitomized the Mod look of
Mod-inspired (in)formalwear: red rayon
dinner jacket with clashing royal blue ruffled shirt and
skin-tight "flower-splashed cotton velvet evening pants."
formal Nehru jacket.
take on classic black tie: 6-button
separates: blue jacquard double-breasted
jacket with velvet trim, blue velvet trousers, pink shirt,
jackets became popular in 1967.
Clockwise from top left: terra cotta
voile, fuchsia voile, gold cotton with mustard
bosom, blue Dacron turtleneck
with embroidered front, peach cotton with edged lace.
article of formal attire was beyond reinventing in the
1970 designer "formal jumpsuit" shown without matching
1970 formal outfit from another new designer,
tuxedo with self-cummerbund. Click the
thumbnail for more images.
The tradition of wearing White Tie to the
Academy Awards passed into history by the late '60s.
GQ's suggested daytime wedding wear circa
1972 contradicted major principles of formal
traditional styling creeps back into formal wear.