Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
trend of the early '80s saw items
formerly associated with evening wear adapted for everyday
wear. For the new generation,
pairing miniscule wing collars and bow ties with street
clothes no doubt muddied black tie's traditional
protocol and diluted its historic
► The Spencer Jacket
formal spencer jacket
actually traces its roots to the 1700s and was the
inspiration for the early 1930s civilian mess jacket fad.
See Contemporary Alternatives for an overview of its 200-year history.
revival manifested itself in a much less classic manner for
renters than it did for buyers: the most popular formal
outfit for proms and weddings in 1985 and 1986 was the white
The second most popular choice for prom-goers was
the Miami Vice look launched by
After Six in 1986.
The jackets and matching accessories were
available in "fiesta blue", "flamingo", "purple haze" and "white heat".
Updating a Classic
In the early '90s premium shirtmakers
began offering formal shirts with large swept-back tabs in
front and a hem in the back to help hide the bow tie's band.
More TV Tuxedos
In addition to
the Miami Vice line, After Six introduced its
Dynasty line in 1984 based on the popular primetime
soap opera about a wealthy oil family. The line
accounted for over half its total sales that year.
See the impossibly elegant commercial for
the "Adam Carrington" tuxedo on
The Robert Wagner label,
named for the dashing actor who portrayed a playboy detective
in Hart to Hart,
a huge success for Raffinati in 1984. Note the satin finished waistband.
Tom Thumb Weddings
Inspired by the
marriage ceremony of famous little person General Tom Thumb
in 1863, American
schools and churches began to stage
wedding pageants using small children in the roles of the
These continued to be presented fairly regularly until the
1970s, often as fundraisers.
This 1986 formalwear ad appears to be cashing in on
boom by attempting
to revive the tradition.
Yuppie Years (Part 2): Black Tie Redux
to be on the threshold of a period rivaled only by the 1930s for
A better period, in fact, because today there’s more variety and
much more comfort in formal attire.
A Quality Guide to Menswear (1985)
Return to Elegance
The conservative wave that
had begun its approach in the late 1970s hit America’s shores with
full force in the 1980s.
Marriage and formal weddings were once again fashionable, etiquette
books had become bestsellers and Victorian traditions were being
rediscovered by many. At the same time, baby boomers were now young
upwardly mobile professionals with a sense of entitlement to the
better things in life.
By having children at a later age, and taking on significant debt,
they were able to lavish themselves with luxury goods and live the
refined lifestyle they craved.
There could not have been a better confluence of events for
the return of formal elegance.
The classic tuxedo’s
emerging renaissance of the late seventies quickly blossomed into a
mainstream phenomenon thanks in part to a certain old-school
Hollywood actor-cum-president. Elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan
popularized not just conservative politics but also conservative
fashions. “He wears formal wear often and looks good in it,”
observed the president of formalwear manufacturer Lord West in 1985.
“We haven’t had this influence in formal wear since Kennedy”.
Tuxedos were back in black, not just in the pages of men’s fashion
magazines but also on the backs of just about every groomsman in the
country. A corresponding increase in the popularity of black-tie
affairs prompted a Virginia newspaper to observe in 1988 that “what
was confined to a September to May party circuit has now become a
round of year-round social events.”
By 1985 mass-market
formalwear sales and rentals had soared to $600 million, up fifty
per cent from just five years earlier.
For the more affluent gentleman profiting from the economic
orgy that inspired the now-classic 1987 film Wall Street, it was not
unusual to attend over a dozen black-tie occasions per year decked
out in a $2,500 Dimitri dinner suit or $975 Versace silk waistcoat.
Not even the early nineties
recession could halt the formal juggernaut: by 1993 formalwear
specialists were reporting that one in every four tuxedos was being
purchased rather than rented, compared with only one in nine during
the late 1970s.
Early ‘80s Style: New Wave
The New Wave Look
As the seventies drew to a
close black tie began to take on contemporary embellishments that
would eventually become identified with American New Wave fashions.
The omnipresent wing collar shirt tended to have miniscule tabs, the
pre-tied bow tie was usually not much wider than its band and the
jacket lapels and cummerbund were similarly narrow.
Bright red was the color of
choice for these skinny accessories as well as for the newly
rediscovered pocket square.
A trendy alternative for
young men was the spencer jacket.
This tail-less tailcoat was popular for casual wear
throughout the decade and in the mid-eighties made the transition to
formal attire where it was usually constructed of black wool with
satin-faced peak or shawl lapels and was buttoned in front.
The jacket was worn with trousers of matching or different
material and was accessorized with a cummerbund.
Of course not every formal
dresser wanted to look like the quintessential eighties wedding
usher. For more conservative functions discriminating
men could choose from tasteful contemporary flourishes such as
velvet or alpaca dinner jackets, black-on-black patterned tuxedos
and pumps of velvet or suede.
Informal Formal Wear
One of the most distinctive
traits of New Wave fashion was its collage style of dressing wherein
disparate articles of clothing were layered together to create a
unique look that defied standard categorization.
As part of this fashion, designers and retailers frequently
combined casual clothes with formal attire to create various
mélanges that spanned the range of dressiness.
At the more casual end of
the spectrum everyday clothing was infused with a formal twist by
dressing up a sports jacket and parachute pants with a wing collar
shirt, for example, resulting in a sort of “formal casual” look (see
sidebar). At the other end of the scale was “informal formal”,
a popular term in the pages of GQ during the early eighties.
The mindset behind this dress-down approach seemed to be that
as long as you were wearing a wing collar shirt and a bow tie then
your outfit qualified as formal, even if said shirt sported regular
buttons and colored stripes.
Later Style: Black & White
“Informal formal” aside, the
New Wave formal variations of the early 1980s differed significantly
from the tampering of the previous twenty five years in that they
focused on adapting traditional evening clothes rather than
reinventing or even discarding them. This was indicative
of the continuing influence of the classic renaissance that had
begun in the late seventies, described by GQ in its annual formal
wear review of December 1984:
To be sure, the Thirties
remain the inspiration: double-breasted dinner jackets with peaked
satin or grosgrain lapels; dress waistcoats of cotton piqué or fine
worsted; morning trousers and woven-silk cummerbunds; bib-front
stiff-wing -collared formal shirts. The accessories - from
watch fobs and stickpins to deftly folded, crisp linen pocket square
- also evoke another era.
As the decade progressed
formalwear styling became only more conventional. In its December
1987 annual formal wear review GQ noted that:
Black tie, of late, has
returned to just that, black ties. The red, yellow and paisley
of a few years ago have bowed out, for at least the time being.
With single-breasted dinner jackets, the waistcoat - especially the
odd (nonmatching) waistcoat continues to gain ground on the
cummerbund. This further reflects formal wear's overall
emphasis on its English roots.
A 1993 Cigar Aficionado
article titled "In Praise of Elegance" noted how the eighties homage to the
dinner jacket's golden age had by that point evolved into a virtual
recreation of the era:
If anything, modern tuxedo
designs draw inspiration from those worn by the likes of Humphrey
Bogart, Fred Astaire and William Powell in the '30s: wide, sweeping
satin or grosgrain lapels, often double-breasted with either peaked
or shawl lapels; broad, padded shoulders, a slight suppression to
the waist and amply cut out, deeply pleated trousers for sweep and
Thanks to the proliferation
of black-tie summer affairs, the ivory dinner jacket had also been
resurrected with all its stylish aplomb by the late eighties.
Suspenders were back in vogue too, now that the self-supporting
waistband was declining in popularity.
And the modern style of wing
collar shirt (pleated front, attached collar) had become the status
quo by the end of the seventies; apparently the turndown collar was
too pedestrian for yuppie tastes.
Ironically, the informal
notched lapel which had virtually disappeared from the dinner jacket
in the unconventional 1970s returned to popularity during this
otherwise conservative period.
In fact, in 1988
the revised edition of Dress for Success
reported that it was “the model worn by most executives today.”
White Tie Renaissance
The yuppie craving for
elegance, status and tradition was such that even the long-forgotten
full-dress ensemble emerged from sartorial purgatory.
The December 1980 GQ contained a two-page spread that
featured not one or two, but five models clad in white tie.
Then just one month later newly-elected Ronald Reagan
appeared at his inaugural balls in full-dress splendor, the first
U.S. president to do so in twenty years.
Even the piqué full-dress shirt with detachable collar – the
ne-plus-ultra of formal shirts – had returned to the spotlight
in menswear magazines.
white tie's bright star
of the early eighties would turn out to be
President Reagan’s decision to downgrade to black tie for his
second inaugural ball in 1985 signaled the end of
the brief renaissance and
the ultra-formal dress
code once again returned to
near-obscurity while its components were relegated to bastardized
Yuppie Era Etiquette
Just as in the late
seventies, evening wear’s return to classic styling did not
necessarily coincide with a return to classic etiquette.
Cross-pollinating black-tie attire with white-tie tailcoats or morning-dress trousers and referring to the tailcoat as
a “full dress tuxedo” were just some examples of how GQ and its
upscale advertisers continued the muddying of formal dress codes
that had begun in the previous decade. Far worse was the
rental clothing being marketed
to mainstream baby
boomers that had grown up devoid of a
formal education. To
these clueless customers the formalwear industry promoted highly
unconventional wedding and prom attire such as all-white tailcoat
outfits, Miami Vice pastel dinner jackets and a rainbow of matching bow ties and cummerbunds.
As for the traditional
etiquette experts, just when the extraordinary formalwear revival
made their guidance more essential than ever, the 1980 Amy
Vanderbilt and 1984 Emily Post editions radically scaled back their
black-tie advice. To the former book’s credit,
allowances for unconventional colors and flourishes at summer
ceremonies had now been replaced with advice to stick to the
traditional white dinner jacket. The latter author, on the
other hand, continued to make exceptions for colored and patterned
jackets at other less formal occasions, especially in summer.
Into this void of black-tie
sartorial counsel stepped two paragons of masculine style.
In 1985 menswear designer Alan Flusser published Clothes and
the Man, the same year that G. Bruce Boyer, men’s fashion editor for
Town & Country, issued Elegance: A Quality Guide to Menswear.
By drawing on principles established in the golden age of
male attire, both writers provided readers with more detail about
proper formal wear than anything published since that era.
Thus, at a time when most fashion authorities were simply reporting
on what was currently acceptable, Flusser and Boyer dared to dictate
what was traditionally correct.
While the vast spectrum of
attire that had recently been considered acceptable for black-tie
affairs had narrowed significantly by the eighties, the general
concept of a sliding scale approach to formality had become firmly
entrenched in modern etiquette.
“In the face of bent, if not
broken, fashion dictates," advised GQ in December 1982, "let the
event determine the liberties suited for veering away from evening
clothes’ classic rigidity.” Consequently,
the arrival of Black Tie Optional and Black Tie Requested dress
codes in the late seventies and early eighties was likely as much an
attempt to help guests situate a formal occasion on this sliding
scale it was a (misguided) effort to avoid alienating more casually
The Creative Black Tie
would not be far behind considering the formal attire featured in a
1983 GQ pictorial that included a traditional dinner jacket and
formal shirt paired with distinctly unconventional jeans, cowboy
boots and a black ten-gallon hat.
"The answer to the summons of
'black tie' is no longer obvious,” said the writers.
“Formal elegance is, more than ever, a personal decision,
notwithstanding, of course, the requisite nod, if not bow, to the
nature of the occasion.”
Regardless of how it was
worded, the Black Tie code was appearing on more invitations than
ever thus "ushering formal dressing into a twelve month affair"
according to GQ. The increased popularity of dressy weddings
and proms in particular helped generate one of the formalwear
industry's best seasons ever in 1985. ''10 years ago we
were lucky if 50 percent of first-time grooms wore one,'' said the
president of Lord West in a 1986 New York Times interview.
“Today,” the article continued, “85 percent of first-time
grooms wear tuxedos, as do the 6.5 ushers in the average wedding
charity galas were also experiencing tremendous growth as private
fund-raising dinners stepped in to compensate for the Reagan-era
cutbacks on social spending.
Just as significantly, black
tie’s rising popularity also included occasions considered formal
solely by tradition. “Used to be that you had to wait for a
prom, a wedding, or some other occasion at which you wished you were
dead,” remarked the authors of Esquire Etiquette in 1987, “but
that’s all changed now. It’s perfectly acceptable these days
to don a tuxedo for the theater, the opera, the ballet or even
dinner at a nice restaurant.”
A case in point was the early nineties advent of hugely
popular “smokers”, tony soirées
centered around cocktails and cigars
that often featured a black-tie dress code to complement the evening’s elegance.
The Tuxedo’s Centennial
The black-tie boom of the
1980s was a fitting tribute to the 100th anniversary of the popular
introduction of the dinner jacket.
It had certainly been quite a century for
the unassuming tuxedo. Its usage had graduated from the aristocracy’s
alternative to their standard evening
attire then became special-occasion clothing for mainstream society. Its components had
concurrently evolved from heavy wool suits with cardboard
stiff shirts to lightweight jackets with soft chemises, devolved into pasteled and ruffled aberrations then were reborn in all their
Amazingly, black tie had
somehow managed to survive the adversity
of post-war informality,
counterculture rebellion and
as the new millennium drew near, the dress code
was set to face its
next great challenge: GenX adulteration.
President Ronald Reagan's penchant for formal
wear helped return it to popularity.
Designer tuxedoes like this Calvin Klein model typified yuppie taste for
elegance and opulence.
Early new wave: tiny wing collar, bow tie
and cummerbund. Note the incorrect use of the
Formal spencer jackets were an eighties
An example of
the black-on-black patterns that began appearing in tuxedos
in the eighties.
Very classic stylings offered by Canali in 1983.
In the late '80s bow ties returned to
black and colors were limited to waistcoats and cummerbunds.
Formal separates such as this tartan
dinner jacket were popular during the early eighties.
White tie returned briefly to the pages
of GQ but the tailcoats were usually mass-market brands.
6-button double-breasted jackets became popular in the
latter part of the eighties.
tie (and the ubiquitous wing collar) continued going strong during the
The avant garde formal styles seen at late '80s
red carpet ceremonies were a precursor for "creative black tie" in
Cocktail parties and "smokers" were popular for
young urbanites in the early early nineties.
in 1986, one hundred years after its American debut.