Vintage Warm-Weather Black Tie
“Evening dress is the proper attire, winter or
summer, on all occasions after candlelight,” said American etiquette
manual The Complete Bachelor in 1896. Pretty much the only
allowance for hot weather was the substitution of the dinner jacket
for the tailcoat, a practice that became progressively more common
during the early years of the 20th century. (Little wonder
considering that the tailcoat was expected to be worn with an
overcoat year round.) There was also some experimentation with
all-white dinner suits at the turn of the century but this was short
Turn-of-the-century warm-weather formal wear from
Sartorial Arts Journal.
In the United States the warm-weather tuxedo rule was not
always followed. In particular, a common kit for Saturday night
summer parties at country clubs in the 1920s was a blue jacket,
white flannel trousers, white shirt, long tie and spectator shoes.
A 1931 Men’s Wear article encouraged retailers and tailors
to promote the use of the dinner suit instead, a trend more often
seen in the eastern parts of the country. The trade magazine
called this ensemble “the criterion of summer evening wear” because
although “in the winter-time the dinner jacket outfit is modified by
the adjective ‘informal’ . . . during the summer months, it
stands as both “formal” and informal.”
dinner suit offered some benefits over the less formal alternative
in that dress pumps were lighter than spectator shoes and bow ties
more minimal than four-in-hand ties, it still didn’t compare with
the comfort allowed women by their cool and colorful evening
dresses. This may not have been much of an issue in the
temperate UK but it certainly was during
hot summers in the US which is likely why most warm-weather alternatives
The Double Breasted Jacket (and Soft Shirt)
The concurrent appearance of the
double-breasted dinner jacket and the soft, attached-collar shirt in
the US in the 1920s was the first stab at more comfortable summer
evening wear. The jacket was not only constructed of
lightweight material (as were the trousers) but also featured a
narrow overlap of the fronts which allowed for a larger opening
above the buttons and less layered material below them. Initially worn with a waistcoat and favored only by
young trendsetters, by Christmas 1931 Apparel Arts was reporting
that “The double-breasted dinner coat, because of its elimination of
a vest, replacing it with the all-comfortable Kummerbund, has
become a practical, permanent necessity in all southern wardrobes.”
The waist covering was soon dispensed with altogether allowing the
jacket’s practicality to win over its relative informality and
making it popular for summer yachting or winter resorts.
Apparel Arts announced that smart socialites summering at
exclusive Palm Beach and Rhode Island resorts had taken to the
lightweight midnight-blue double-breasted dinner jacket with shiny
black satin lapels, reflecting the vogue for dark blue evening wear
in general. "With it is worn a semi-stiff pleated bosom dress shirt,
white starched fold collar, black semi-butterfly dress tie, silk
hose and patent leather pumps.” The double-breasted model would remain popular until
the war when fabric rations temporarily brought a halt to its
construction. Although it returned to popularity after the war, it
was no longer exclusive to warm-weather occasions.
1919 unlined “dinner coat suit” of
lightweight worsted with narrow jacket overlap to
expose more shirt.
||1931 double-breasted jacket for southern
resorts worn with a cummerbund.
||Midnight-blue double-breasted dinner suit
as seen at the exclusive Colony Club in Palm Beach in 1935.
The Mess Jacket
In May of 1931 just as Men’s Wear was proclaiming the
necessity of the double-breasted summer jacket it also provided
what might be the first depiction of a much more radical summer kit:
dress, unprescribed, that may be used aboard ship on warm nights.
The short jacket, on eton lines, and the waistcoat are made of white
duck [canvas]. With this the regular evening shirt, collar, tie,
black trousers and patent leather pumps are used, with modest studs
and cuff links of enamel, perhaps centered with small pearls.
The eton reference was to a tail-less tailcoat worn by junior students
at Eton college that had become popular dress-up clothes for boys
around the world. Five months later the same magazine presented a
variation of the new jacket as seen in Cannes but referred to it
more appropriately as a “mess jacket”, reflecting the garment’s
origins in tropical evening wear worn by British naval officers.
The illustration showed that the French had taken warm-weather
comfort a couple of steps further by ditching the waistcoat and
replacing the stiff shirt with a softer turndown collar version.
They also added their own fashion flair with a link button jacket
front that kept the wearer’s waist covered and trousers of a
matching white canvas.
At the end of the year Apparel Arts jumped
on board with their own depiction of the mess jacket which was
virtually identical to the first one seen in Men’s Wear. “By its
adoption by well-dressed Americans for wear aboard their yachts and
at smart Palm Beach evening functions,” said the magazine, “it is
accepted as being correct.” The jacket was constructed of either
gabardine, duck, or a washable material such as linen with a
waistcoat of the same fabric. Trousers were high-waisted black or
midnight-blue formal trousers with no back pockets due to the fact
that the seat was completely exposed by the short jacket. They were
often tropical weight making them lighter and therefore cooler
than regular dress trousers. Other accoutrements were the same as
for the tuxedo: the shirt was a stiff-front wing collar, the bow tie
was black silk, and shoes were black patent-leather pumps or
The first mess jackets had peaked lapels and were
worn with a white waistcoat and wing-collar stiff
||A variety of early warm-weather formal
wear as seen at Cannes in 1931.
||English playwright, director, actor and
singer Noël Coward starring in his short play "We Were
The look was an immediate hit in the US and
by 1933 a new more
“informal” jacket model had appeared, sporting a shawl collar without the
buttons or breast pocket featured on the peaked lapel
version. The outfit's comfort was improved even more when both jacket
styles became available in breathable Palm Beach fabric, the pleated
soft-front turndown-collar shirt replaced the boiled shirt, and the
newly popular cummerbund replaced the white waistcoat (much like the
French had done earlier). The resulting popularity was summed up by
Apparel Arts in the summer of that year:
A man needn’t feel, in
wearing it, that he runs any danger of being mistaken for a
wandering mariner, because this turnout has definitely graduated
from the stage of being a "cruise fashion" only. This summer, the
best dressed men of almost every community will be blossoming out in
Robert Montgomery wearing the new informal interpretation
of the mess jacket in 1932.
||1933 mess jacket accessories; the
cummerbund and soft shirt would soon replace the formal
waistcoat and boiled shirt.
||Illustration of both styles of mess
jacket showing the pointed back and the high waisted
Then, as quickly as it had shot to fame, the mess jacket
plunged from favor. In 1934 Apparel Arts noted that
the garment was a victim of its own popularity having become a
uniform for bell-hops and orchestra members. Additionally, to look
its best it required the wearer to possess “the figure of an
Adonis”, a trait not common to many men. The following year the magazine reported that the
jacket was “now completely out of fashion” while Esquire
advised its own readers to "forget about them, unless you’re in the
navy . . . or unless you’re a banjo player or a sax blower and
wearing a mess jacket is part of your job." Nonetheless, the
traditional mold for summer formal attire had now been smashed and
the door had been opened to other novel innovations.
Actual New York store display featuring
a mess jacket and white dinner jacket made of
Palm Beach material.
||This 1934 ad depicting “cocktail hour at
the Waldorf” shows the mess jacket's popularity as a
hospitality industry uniform.
||The mess jacket would continue to appear
occasionally in etiquette books and menswear magazines
until the late 1950s.
The White Dinner Jacket
Although early Edwardian tailors had tinkered with
the idea of white dinner jackets for hot weather, the concept did
not catch on until the same year as the white mess jacket first
appeared. In October 1931 Men’s Wear reported on a white shawl-collar dinner jacket with black trousers worn to an
upscale Long Island
black-and-white costume ball and stated that “these white evening
jackets are growing in popularity among wealthy men at summer
resorts.” The same issue also illustrated single- and
double-breasted peak lapel versions of the jacket as seen at
Cannes. Both were made of cream or white tropical worsted.
white coat then migrated from the New York summer resort towns of
Newport and Southampton to the winter resorts of Palm Beach and
other southern colonies. In the summer of 1933 Men’s Wear
that “Though not as well established as the mess jacket, it is
rapidly gaining acceptance.” By this time it was typically made of
white linen or Palm Beach material with self-faced lapels and the
single-breasted shawl collar model was the most popular style. The
accompanying shirts and waist coverings were same as for mess
jackets (soft pleated-bosom shirt with turndown collar, black silk
cummerbund) while bow ties and shoes were as per standard black
tie. Trousers were usually black or midnight blue in tropical
weight worsted although they were also acceptable in the same white
material as the jacket up until 1934. More trendy options included
silk shirts or monk-front dress shoes, the latter favored by
Englishmen in the West Indies.
With the decline of the mess
jacket’s popularity in 1934 the white and double-breasted jackets
were the style of choice for comfortable evenings aboard ship, at
summer dances in the country and winter retreats in the tropics.
For town, black or midnight-blue single-breasted jackets remained
de rigueur, regardless of the season.
Colored Jackets & Accessories
Color exploded into warm-weather formal wear around
1933 mirroring a consecutive trend in summer attire in general.
Said Apparel Arts in the summer of that year:
It is only in the
last century that man has relinquished to woman the right to
colorful attire. The new emphasis upon the fashionable importance
of summer clothes is beginning, at last, to break up this
traditional drabness and now, for the first time in almost a
century, men of taste are showing a willingness to accept brilliant
color and vivid pattern.
Dark red was the first color to be
employed and its original canvases were the cummerbund, carnation
boutonniere, and hosiery (either just the clocks or the entire
sock). Eventually the color also appeared in the form of maroon,
wine and crimson silk waistcoats (a trend imported from “the
exclusive London clubs”), dress jewelry, pocket squares, and straw
hat bands. This made warm-weather attire distinctly more colorful
than its conservative year-round cousin that typically featured only
red boutonnieres and sometimes waistcoats.
Blue was the second
most popular color of the period, appearing in the same accessories
including cornflower boutonnieres. Dark green was a distant third.
In 1935 summer evening color cautiously graduated from the dinner
jacket’s accessories to the jacket itself in a tan hue called
“Burma”. Along with occasional appearances of an equally
understated grey tone or off-white silks, this remained the
primarily alternative to white throughout the 1930s and ‘40s.
1934 Apparel Arts pictorial showing a wide
range of dark red accessories for summer formal wear.
||Blue accessories depicted in Esquire
in 1935 including an artificial cornflower made of feathers.
||Wide box pleat shirt (typical for warm-weather wear), madras cummerbund,
and monk-front formal shoes from 1937.
Recommendations for formal evening wear in 1935 from
Apparel Arts' "Illustrated Chart of Winter
Resort Fashions for the South".
Depression-era flair in menswear was scaled back after World War
II and colored evening accessories became almost exclusively
limited to red and midnight blue. Notably though, the list of
accessories expanded to include the bow tie beginning during the
war. Although limited to the white dinner jacket, this unorthodox
trend was a harbinger of a much greater challenge to evening wear’s
traditional black-and-white palette. The arrival of the pastel
summer jacket in the late 1940s signaled the beginning of an
explosion of color and pattern in formal wear that would last for
the next thirty years.
Warm-weather jacket colors remained conservative
through the 1940s.
||Red bow tie worn with white jacket in 1948.
||Esquire featured a "French blue"
mohair blend dinner jacket with plaid bow tie in
hats were considered acceptable with summer formal wear since the
First World War.
These were known variously as sennit,
sailor and boater hats and would typically have a
plain black band or a two-toned club band. In the
late 1930s coconut straw hats (aka cocoanut or coconut palm hats)
also became allowable as did Panama hats in the late 1940s.
On cool summer evenings the correct coat of choice was a camel hair
hat with club hatband.
||Coconut straw hats
come in fedora or porkpie styles.
||Panama hats can have
rounded or dimpled crowns.
Esquire typically depicted coconut hats with a
white linen puggree (pleated fabric band).
Apparel Arts suggested attire for southern resorts:
polo coat and sennit hat with a club band.
recommended similar attire for Florida, the Caribbean and