Evening Tailcoat and Trousers (Dress Suit)
Americans refer to simply as a tailcoat is correctly called an
evening tailcoat or
dress coat to
differentiate it from the formal day tailcoat. The coats
differ in that the evening coat is a (pseudo)
double-breasted model with a
sharply cut-away skirt and silk-faced lapels while the
morning coat (or
cutaway in American
English) is a single-breasted model, has a skirt that tapers away
gradually and carries self-faced lapels.
tailcoat is further differentiated in that it must fit the torso snugly
even though it is cut so that it cannot be closed
or buttoned. This can only be accomplished by having it contour to the
wearer’s body perfectly.
Therefore, unless a man has proportions virtually identical to a
pre-made tailcoat, he will need to invest in the considerable
expense of dress suit that is custom made for his physique.
or made-to-measure, a well-fitting tailcoat offers significant
benefits to the wearer. “This
garment can turn any many into an Adonis,” says dress historian
Nicholas Antongiavanni, “be he short or gangly, fat or lanky”
because its cut “accentuates every potential virtue while ruthlessly
suppressing every conceivable vice.”
tailcoat’s design is particularly efficient at adding stature to
shorter men due to its ability to visually elevate the waistline. Like any tailored jacket, the tailcoat’s waistline typically
mirrors the wearer’s natural waistline but unlike other jackets the
coat fronts – and corresponding white waistcoat
– end shortly below
the waistline. And because the dividing line
between the white waistcoat and the black trousers visually breaks
the body into vertical halves, the deliberate raising of this line
gives the impression of longer legs. Diminutive hoofer Fred Astaire
employed an exaggerated waist height to great effect in his flawlessly tailored
full-dress suits and it was also favored by the English in the 1930s
for its dramatic aesthetics.
Like the waistline, other
construction details of the coat’s front can vary according
to changing fashions but the practices described in a 1913
issue of Vanity Fair have been the norm ever since:
effect of the coat is best when well opened, exposing considerable
shirt, the lapels rolling to a little below the top button of the
waistcoat from where the line slants away to the edge which inclines
slightly upward and rounds into the skirt.
As for the rear of the coat,
Manual of Politeness
dictated in 1837 that “Not a crease should be discernible in the
back or tails” and this still holds true. In
addition, the collar of the coat must fit snugly at the neck and
rise just high enough to cover the shirt collar’s rear stud and the
bow tie’s band while still allowing a significant portion of white to remain visible.
famous tailcoats also incorporated the requisite high armholes that
prevented the coat’s sleeves from pulling at the body no matter the
position of his arms, a feature that is just as relevant to
today’s formal dancers.
Similar to the collar, sleeves should be cut short enough to reveal
“a gleaming expanse of white linen at the cuff”, ranging from half
an inch to one inch depending on the wearer’s height. Tailcoat sleeves are also relatively narrow, traditionally
just wide enough to allow the shirt cuff to slip through.
A center vent
that rises up to the waistline divides the coat’s skirt into two
“tails” which originally inspired the nicknames
swallow-tail coat and
claw-hammer tailcoat. The tails generally extend down to the bend of the knee
in a straight line with a gentle curve at the
The peaked lapel
has been standard since the turn of the twentieth century. Not
only is it the most formal style of suit lapel but
its sweeping upward diagonal lines
also create the impression of a powerful V-shaped torso.
vintage formal attire may occasionally stumble across a shawl-collared tailcoat
from the interwar years and wish to adopt the style. If so, they should view it in context of an era when full
dress was worn so frequently that gentlemen naturally sought an
alternative take on the classic. Unless one’s social calendar is chock full of
white-tie events, it is best to leave the shawl collar
sartorial history books.
Some modern designers like to dress the ultra-formal tailcoat
with the business suit's informal notch lapel. The only reason
for choosing this paradox would be to ensure your fellow guests know
that your clothing is rented.
aspects of a coat’s cut are purely aesthetic and therefore subject
to changing fashions.
This includes the amount of drape (fullness over chest and back),
amount of shoulder padding and size and curve of the lapels.
See Style Basics
for guidelines that will help make a suit as timeless as possible.
Black has been the norm for evening wear since the 1850s and
midnight blue has been a correct and striking alternative since the
1920s. The most common fabric since the late Victorian era has been
worsted wool with an understated finish such as barathea which is
preferred by Britons. Mohair and wool blends have been an
acceptable alternative since the late 1950s, favored for their
ability to add a tastefully dull sheen to the suit.
characteristics of midnight blue and worsted wool are discussed in
detail in the description of
Classic Dinner Suits.
The best lapel facings are made of pure silk while less expensive ones
contain a synthetic component. The silk can take the form of
smooth satin or the dulled ribbed texture of grosgrain.
Although the former is much more common in North America its shiny,
somewhat theatrical finish is not as popular in Britain where the
understated look of grosgrain is often preferred.
The left lapel should have a working buttonhole for a boutonniere (known
in Britain, ironically, as a
Quality formal coats will
also include a stem holder on the reverse side of the lapel.
This is typically a very small cord that keeps the stem in place so
that the flower does not fall out of one's lapel over the course of
an evening of dancing and dining.
double-breasted evening tailcoat has not been designed to close
since the 1820s, the two rows of front buttons have become purely
decorative. There are
three buttons in each diagonal row and their spacing is a matter of
style. Sleeves buttons
are also ornamental: there should be four of them spaced closely
together beginning about half an inch from the end of the sleeve. Unique to the tailcoat are the two buttons found at the back
of the waistline, a vestige of a time when the coat’s tails were
folded up and buttoned to the back for convenience when riding on
All buttons are usually covered in the same facing as the coat’s
lapels although black bone buttons were acceptable up
until the 1950s.
“In company, as
little as possible should be borne in pockets of the coat ; indeed,
a full-dress coat should be made without pockets”. The
reasoning behind this salient advice from an 1837 etiquette
that the weight and bulge of loaded-down pockets will obstruct the
graceful lines of the contoured dress suit. Thus, hip
pockets are never seen on a tailcoat and a breast pocket (introduced
in the Edwardian era) is left empty by more fastidious dressers.
This lack of pockets
presented a dilemma for nineteenth century gentlemen who were
expected to remove their otherwise mandatory dress gloves when dining. In typical English fashion, Regency dandy Beau Brummell had
his tailor hide pockets in the inside folds of the coat’s tails and
this remains a feature of better tailcoats to this day.
trousers are constructed of the same fabric as the tailcoat. Because it is essential that
they sit just above the bottom of the coat's fronts they
must be cut with a high rise (waistline). And because it is
equally essential that they remain there throughout an evening of
spirited ballroom dancing they must be cut for, and held up with, suspenders (braces in the
They can be constructed with flat fronts as they were prior to
the 1920s or with pleats as has been popular since the advent of
baggier fashions following the First World War.
characteristic of formal clothing is the concealment of its workings
and fastenings. This can
be seen in the aforementioned silk-covered coat buttons, the
decorative studs in a formal shirt and the trim that covers the
outer seams of formal trousers.
This silk trim is either satin or grosgrain to match the
coat’s lapels and consists of either one wide stripe or two narrow
stripes to differentiate it from tuxedo trousers. (Apparently
this is derived from the military practice of using double stripes
to indicate higher rank.) In the past,
braid was also used for this purpose but today the term is often
used generically when referring to trouser trim in general.
evening suit’s refined minimalism is further aided by the placement
of the side pockets on the trouser’s side seam rendering them
Finally, formal trouser
legs are always plain as cuffs (turn-ups in UK) are too casual (they
originated as a mudguard) and would interfere with the side braid.
The tailcoat's waist is much more fitted than for suit-style jackets.
This contemporary take on full dress features a
lower waistline than the classically cut tailcoat.
Original image on left has been altered to show
impact of correct tail length and better trouser fit, as well as
proper waistcoat length relative to coat front.
Back of a vintage tailcoat.
Lapel length and
width may vary by
maker but the peaked style is mandatory.
Example of barathea wool (with grosgrain trimmed
Lapel finished with grosgrain facing and
buttonhole. Note also the unique embroidered buttons on
this vintage coat.
Grosgrain covered sleeve buttons on vintage
Inside-out tailcoat showing interior tail pocket
Trouser trim comes in a wide variety of styles.
This modern style is a double-wide satin stripe.