Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
Admitting the lack of value in purchasing formal fads destined
to quickly fall out of favor, After Six
introduced a conventional black tuxedo in 1973
and promised to manufacture the model for
at least the next five years. This marked a complete
turnabout for a company that had been championing flashy
separates since 1955.
What’s in a Name?
"Dinner Jacket" Redefined
As matching dinner
jacket and trousers returned to favor by 1973 GQ began to
consistently refer to the ensemble as a tuxedo, dropping
the traditional synonyms such as "dinner suit"
which remained standard in the UK.
For most Americans the term dinner
jacket was now associated specifically with the
non-matching coats that had become so popular over the
previous two decades.
The Tuxedo T-Shirt
The irreverent T-shirt that became popular
during the '70s was a tongue-in-cheek subversion of the
establishment that targeted one of its most iconic symbols.
It was also an indicator of how irrelevant formal dressing had
become to modern youth.
Black Tie in a Bottle
A common downside
to iconic status is the tendency for the original to
become viewed as little more than a gimmick. In 1977 a new
cologne apparently offered the sublime essence of the evening
suit's century-old tradition in a convenient bottled format.
(Check out the two groovy TV ads on
Yuppie Years (Part 1): Classic Renaissance
Now hear this, America. Formal wear
is back on top. Back and better than ever.
GQ, October 1974
As the eldest baby boomers
began to mature from yesterday's hippies into tomorrow's yuppies
America began a gradual return to conservatism. The result for
formal fashions was a marked paradox. On one hand, the younger
boomers continued to rent the kitschy tuxedos immortalized in 1970s
prom and wedding portraits. On the other hand, the upscale
tastes of the new yuppie demographic inspired the return of classic
black-tie styles not seen since the 1940s.
etiquette was equally schizophrenic during this time as
traditionalists rejected any further changes to convention while
modernists proclaimed historical precedent to be all but irrelevant.
1974 the country’s newfound appetite for elegance and luxury
meant that “formal” was no longer a four letter word.
An After Six
ad that year
announced that Americans had begun
to rediscover proms, galas, balls and banquets,
prompting the delighted
to welcome “the millions of American men
who grew up deprived of the romance and debonair elegance of formal
wear and the memorable moments for which it is worn.”
Mid & Late '70s Fashion: The
Neatly dovetailed with this social transition was the migration of
women’s fashion designers into the new world of men’s couture.
Practically overnight, GQ shifted its focus from mass-marketed
tuxedos which had never cost more than $175 to chic evening suits
styled by likes of Pierre Cardin and Yves St. Laurent
and priced at up
to $900. As a consequence of
tuxedo variations such as
jackets and pastel shirts were swept away by a tide of classic
black and white in the pages of menswear
magazines. Neo-Edwardian excesses like velvet trim,
satin edging and embroidered ruffles followed suit shortly after.
Not content with simply
discarding the contemporary innovations of the sixties, period
designers also set about restoring black-tie details not seen since
the tuxedo’s golden age. The September 1974 issue of Esquire
exhibited a designer formal suit of “unerring elegance” featuring
wool-gabardine material, grosgrain lapels and the return of the
long-absent matching waistcoat described as “a classic touch that looks
new again”. The traditionally styled ensemble was
finished off with a flourish by a wing collar, appearing with a
tuxedo for the first time since World War II.
During this time patent leather pumps also returned to popularity
and the gradual narrowing of formal neckwear precipitated the
reappearance of the straight-end bow tie. The renaissance of
classic black tie arguably reached its zenith in 1979 when designers
reintroduced the shield-shaped waistcoat, a formal wear detail
virtually unknown for the previous fifty years. When combined
with a return to conventional styling – looser cuts, narrower
lapels and straighter trousers – some late seventies tuxedos
appeared nearly indistinguishable from those of black tie's 1930s
There were some new twists on the old classics, though. A number of single-breasted jackets were sporting two or three
buttons and contemporary waistcoats were being styled more like suit
vests with a high cut and no lapels. The wing collar shirt in
particular had undergone significant changes.
Originally introduced in the 1960s, the modern version had a
soft, attached collar instead of one that was detachable and stiff,
and the previously rare appearance of an
accompanying pleated bosom was now
standard. There was no doubt that this new style was
much more comfortable than the original but in traditionalists'
minds it was also infinitely less formal – particularly as its once
grand collar became reduced to paltry proportions towards the
Mid & Late '70s Etiquette:
In December 1974 GQ announced "There's a new day dawning and it's
bringing back manners . . . refresh your memory with a copy of
Amy Vanderbilt and/or Emily Post." Readers who picked up the
1975 edition of the latter book would have found its black-tie
guidelines were essentially unchanged since ten years prior.
Similarly, the 1978 completely revised edition of the Amy Vanderbilt
tome noted that evening wear seemed to have become more formal even
as men’s daytime dress grew more informal. First and foremost,
classic black remained the preferred choice, particularly in
winter; colors, patterns and piping were simply “not elegant”.
Conversely, informal summer black-tie evenings still allowed for
colorful jackets or trousers worn with black counterparts. Underneath a man's jacket, the new author advised that white,
off-white or pastel shirts in cotton or silk were acceptable but
agreed with her contemporary that ruffled, flouncy shirts were not
in good taste (“and never were, in the opinion of many”).
Guidelines offered by fashion pundits continued to be much more
lenient. For example, whether due to ignorance of
custom or simple ambivalence towards it, menswear magazines began
issuing formalwear protocols that contradicted nearly a century of
tradition. Thus at the same time that they were hailing
evening wear as “an elegant island of rules” that had not been
washed away by the tide of fashion democracy, the periodicals were
also erroneously referring to the tailcoat as a type of tuxedo,
pairing the full-dress coat with black-tie accessories
and incorrectly depicting the
dinner jacket as being suitable for daytime wear. Despite the
best efforts of the Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt authors to
repudiate these fallacies, they became accepted as fact by the
American public and still are to this day.
Style books were no better.
The 1976 bestseller Dress for Success heralded the end of
fashion’s capitulation to youthful rebellion by offering evidence that conservative colors and styles were essential for a
man to advance in business.
However, author John T. Molloy’s
treatment of formal wear – arguably the most recognizable symbol of
success – was meager, derisive and ill-informed.
While Molloy would backtrack considerably ten years later, by that time the original volume
become a sartorial bible for business schools and blue-chip
corporations which no doubt tainted the tuxedo’s integrity in the eyes
of millions of men.
Similarly, in 1978
the GQ-inspired hardcover Dressing Right countered a classic description of
black tie with the author's personal ambivalence towards tradition. “When the invitation says ‘Black Tie’”,
“usually that enjoinder only means that the guest is expected to
wear a dinner jacket or something ‘formal’.
What style or what color is often beside the point.”
In 1977 GQ was still
prescribing tuxedos for diplomatic receptions, balls, and business
dinners but contemporary Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt guides
suggested that evening wear was being used far less often. In fact, conventional black-tie occasions such as opera
performances, public dinners and transatlantic crossings were no
longer even mentioned in the 1978 Vanderbilt publication.
On the brighter side, the Post book noted that tuxedos were once
again being worn in some locales to America’s newly re-popularized
proms. And while formal
transatlantic crossings had been reduced to a single ship (Cunard’s
Queen Elizabeth 2) due to the economy and convenience of jet travel,
pleasure cruises were steadily increasing in popularity making
“formal night” a tradition for ever more travelers.
When it came to black tie by invitation, Mrs. Post finally conceded
that in a post-modern world it was not realistic to rely on the
genteel precept that formal invitations implied formal attire.
Consequently, she accepted the
practice of specifying “black tie” on such invitations
– an allowance that Mrs.
Vanderbilt had first made back in 1963. Ironically, just as these
traditional authorities were updating their advice in order to
eliminate dress code confusion, American hosts found a new way to
confound their guests: Black Tie Optional had now been added to the
In 1973 the authors of Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s
Fashions had proclaimed that "formal evening wear has ceased to be a
status symbol. It is simply the kind of clothing a man likes
to put on when he wants to look and feel his handsomest." Like
the title of the book, their proclamation turned out to be somewhat
premature. Far more accurate was the observation made five
years later in Dressing Right: "Formalwear customs vary according to
geographic regions and - let's be honest - social strata."
While it was true that for
mainstream America the tuxedo had come to be regarded largely as
cheaply-made rental attire, the country’s elite had continued to
invest in premium quality, conventionally styled ensembles
throughout the counterculture revolution, in effect preserving the
dinner suit’s exclusive status.
Consequently, when the yuppie phenomenon emerged in the late
seventies the advertising industry was quick to adopt the
conventional tuxedo as the ideal representation of the luxury
lifestyle craved by the demographic.
By the end of the decade black tie had survived its darkest
years and was ready for a bright new chapter in its ongoing history.
As hippies matured into yuppies
they epitomized the materialism
they had previously rejected.
classic wing collar shirt, black & white
color scheme and
modern version of the renascent waistcoat by
designer Piero Dimitri.
Ritzy hotels were popular locations for
photographing conventionally styled formal wear.
back from the past was the
traditional white jacket for
style of this 1978 Lord West ad alludes to the
similarities between the featured dinner suit and
the classic models of the 1930s.
In 1979 black tie began to
take on iconic '80s
the very narrow colored bow tie and the small wing
The '70s saw a return to
traditional formal events such as proms (even
if younger dressers stuck to their trendy fashions).
In the winter
'78 issue of
alone there were six ads
for premium goods
featuring the classic