Epilogue: Formality's Future (A View from 2011)
There is no question that just as the rise of the tuxedo as standard evening wear pushed the tailcoat into relative obscurity following World War II, the suit's increasing acceptance at formal events will eventually consign the tuxedo to only the most ceremonious of occasions. What’s harder to predict is how long this process will take and whether or not the black-tie dress code will survive it.
A major factor in the speed of the tuxedo’s demise will be the rate of formality’s demise in general. America’s (and Britain’s) post-war promotion of individualism and egalitarianism, while a blow to the rigid hierarchy of old, initially operated on the principle that a rising tide lifts all ships. However, the unprecedented recent tendency of young adults to live in a state of protracted adolescence and of “grassroots” voters to equate education and experience with elitism has reversed the tide. Equality is now being sought in the form of the lowest common denominator and juvenile values such as instant gratification, sexual immaturity and egocentrism are highly evident in the success of vapid and vulgar reality television, the popularity of superficial and vitriolic political discourse and the acceptance of casual mores and lack of deference at the most august of institutions. This is hardly the ideal milieu for traditions centered on maturity and refinement.
A more specific – and uniquely modern – factor in the tuxedo’s life expectancy is its sartorial relevancy. Although the dinner suit's popularity in America has waxed and waned since first being challenged by the regular suit back in the forties, there has always remained a clear distinction between the two. Today, however, prom dates and young fiancés faced with the option of renting a suit-like tuxedo or buying an actual black suit would have little reason for choosing the former. Not only would they receive better value for their money from the more versatile regular suit but they would also benefit from a superior product considering that rental tuxedos are becoming increasingly worn out as dwindling suppliers produce less stock. Therefore, should contemporary tuxedo trends continue, the conventional dinner suit will most likely become limited to an affluent minority who can afford its purchase price and appreciate its uniqueness.
As for the black-tie dress code, whether or not it survives the tuxedo’s demise will depend on the willingness of trendsetters to be limited by the code’s fundamentals. Reinterpreting the code as a black suit, white formal shirt and black formal tie, for example, would respect enough of its principles to keep it relevant but only as long as men agreed to honor the new definition. If men increasingly decide to opt for individualism over uniformity instead then the dress code will cease to have a purpose. Formal dressing – clothing that maintains a “form” or tradition – will have given way to simply dressing up.
Having said all that, history has proven that the tuxedo is remarkably resilient. Despite the impact of world wars, economic downturns and anti-establishment counterculture the dinner jacket is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its arrival in America this year amidst some some encouraging developments. English readers of the Guide report that Britain is experiencing a renewed interest in traditional black tie as typically happens during recessions. In America, a recent GQ formalwear spread featured numerous styles that channeled the classic refinement of Dean Martin and James Bond. And, perhaps most surprisingly, worldwide traffic for The Black Tie Guide has grown to over 40,000 visitors per month. It would appear that even in the twenty first century the resplendent black-and-white elegance of the Victorian dining suit remains without equal.