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A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO EVENING WEAR ( SECOND EDITION)



 

 

 

 

I. Etiquette Essentials
      What: Black Tie Defined
      When: Evening Elegance
      Who: Age Appropriate
      Where: Invited & Implied
      Why: Dress Code Benefits

II. History Highlights
      19th Century Origins
      20th Century Evolution

III. Style Summary
      Classic Style
      Contemporary Fashion
      Proper Fit



What’s in a Name:
Tuxedo


The dinner jacket had its U.S. debut in the exclusive enclave of Tuxedo Park, New York which is how it earned its American nickname. 

 

Formal Facts:

Tuxedo Rental


1937 Toronto phone book ad.

 

Clothing rental (clothing hire in the UK) made formal wear vastly more accessible to the average person and in the process became a multi-million dollar industry.   

 

Formal Facts:

Evening Weddings

 

Formal evening weddings first began to appear in the US in the 1910s and required full dress for the first few decades since tuxedos were seen as too informal for church.  The faux pas of wearing them at daytime weddings began in the '60s.

 

What’s in a Name?
"Dinner Jacket" Redefined

 

By the early '70s, Americans were refering to the formal suit exclusively as a tuxedo, reserving the previously used term dinner jacket for the non-matching coats that had become popular over the previous two decades. 

II. History Highlights



Unlike Crocs or parachute pants, tuxedos didn’t just show up in stores one day on a designer’s whim.  Men’s formal wear has served a very specific role for two centuries, and a basic knowledge of its past is essential to successfully executing it in the present.

 

19th Century Origins


The roots of modern formal wear can be traced back to the age of Jane Austen.  Prior to that time the attire of upper class men was an ostentatious spectacle.  Then, around the turn of the 19th century, the aristocracy made a radical shift away from this effete image of the royal courtier towards the more masculine concept of the country gentleman.  Thanks to England's dominance in the field of men's tailoring, this more somber and austere aesthetic would define men’s clothing throughout the Western world for the next 150 years. 
 
As always, the gentry reserved their finest apparel for evenings.   While daytime might be spent outdoors or among mixed company, evenings were for socializing indoors with peers at elaborate formal dinners, opera parties, and private balls.  For the English Regency gentleman, the foundation of his new evening wear was a tailcoat and trousers of dark hues that harmonized with his candlelit settings and imbued him with an aura of stature and power.  With this he wore a short waistcoat, soft shirt, and layered cravat.  The pairing of these white linens with the dark suit created both a striking contrast and a minimal color palette, engendering a sort of sartorial chivalry by allowing the men’s formal attire to supplement the ladies’ finery instead of competing with it.
 
As the Regency progressed into the Victorian era, this “full dress” ensemble remained de rigueur after six o’clock among polite society.  It also became increasingly codified as the barons of the industrial revolution adopted it en masse for the air of respectability it offered the wearer.  Shirts fronts and tall wing collars were starched to cardboard-like stiffness, simple bow ties replaced elaborate cravats, and the overall color palette was reduced to a strict black and white minimalism.  If you’ve seen the men of Downton Abbey dressed for dinner you’ll know the look precisely. 
 

Not surprisingly, the practice of dressing like an orchestra conductor every evening began to chafe on many men.  A more comfortable option arrived in the 1880s in the form of the casual short suit jacket dressed up with the silk lapels and black shade of the tailcoat that it was replacing.  Because of its informal nature, the new coat’s appropriateness was strictly limited to family dinners, private men’s clubs, and hot summer nights. 

 

 

20th Century Evolution


Social standards loosened considerably during the First World War and by the roaring Jazz Age of the 1920s the youthful dinner jacket had supplanted the patrician tailcoat as de facto evening attire at speakeasies and night clubs everywhere. By the 1930s it was worn exclusively with the black bow tie and black waistcoat, leaving the white versions solely for full dress and giving rise to the Black Tie and White Tie dress codes still employed today. 

At the same time, the outfit was bequeathed a number of informal alternatives for hot-weather occasions: the white jacket absorbed less heat, the double-breasted jacket did away with the need for a waist covering, and the soft-front shirt with turndown collar wore more comfortably.  The most novel option was to replace one’s waistcoat with the cooler cummerbund adapted by British military officers from the tropical sashes worn in colonial India.   

Topping off the swank Depression-era developments, midnight-blue became an acceptable substitute for black thanks to its tendency to appear darker and richer under electric light.  This was arguably the golden age of the tuxedo, immortalized on the silver screen by icons such as Fred Astaire, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.
 
After World War II, social standards eased once again and the tuxedo took on a more democratic role.  Instead of being mandatory evening attire for the well-to-do it was now a special-occasion kit for men of all classes, thanks in no small part to the increasing popularity of rentals and ready-to-wear clothing.  In addition, the pre-war summer variations became acceptable year round.  (The white jacket was the sole exception: wearing one beyond the confines of a summer resort would still mark the owner as a waiter or hired musician.)   This led to the relaxed refinement we now associate with the Rat Pack, and the fictional Mad Men
 
Then the Sixties came along and as the first post-war generation came of age they wanted nothing to do with their parents’ traditions.   Consequently, formal conventions were either rejected or blithely reinvented in their hippie image.  The outcome for formal wear ranged from lapel-less Nehru jackets popularized by the Beatles to theatrical neo-Edwardian fashions parodied in the Austen Powers movies.  Later on, the disco era ushered in pastel colored suits, extravagantly ruffled shirts, and titanic bow ties.   In the 1980s GenXers laughed at their own parents’ outlandish inventions only to embrace tiny wing collars and miniature colored bow ties with matching cummerbunds.  The 1990s then gave us the New Wave-look of “creative black tie” and the new millennium reduced the tuxedo to a black business suit and tie. 

Notably though, traditonal tuxedo style remained an alternative throughout this time, its popularity rising and falling in accordance with the social mood but never disappearing entirely.   


History: Further Reading

  • History of Evening Wear: A richly illustrated review of the origin of men's evening wear and its fascinating evolution over the past two centuries.
  • Vintage Evening Wear: An in-depth supplement to the History section that examines each garment's development individually.

 

 

Next: Style Summary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new style of evening wear circa 1815.

 


1843 English evening dress suits with pantaloons and breeches.

 


1898 British dinner jackets showing the original shawl collar on the right and the "new" peaked lapel on the left.

 

 

The 1930s introduced softer shirts, white jackets, double-breasted jackets and midnight blue as less formal summer alternatives.

 

 

The late 1950s and early 1960s youthful look popularized by the Rat Pack.

 

 

The infamous pastel-coloured tuxedos of the 1970s were strictly for the rental market.

 

    

  

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