What’s in a Name:
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
The late 1950s and early 1960s youthful look popularized by the
The infamous pastel-coloured tuxedos of the 1970s were strictly
for the rental market.