Like most North American Gen X’ers I grew up thinking that the wing collar shirt was as essential with a tuxedo as a clip-on bow tie. So I was quite surprised to notice on The West Wing one evening that most of the presidential aides attending a black-tie event were sporting turndown collars. Moreover, despite this collar’s common dress-shirt pedigree, it somehow elevated the overall outfit beyond any prom or wedding tuxedo I had ever seen. Rather than resembling awkward frat boys wearing borrowed clothing these men exuded an air of success and power.
My subsequent research into the history of evening wear revealed that this shirt was not a television novelty but the true black-tie shirt. The tuxedo jacket had originated simply as an informal replacement for the tailcoat and was consequently worn with the tailcoat’s usual accompaniments at first: a white bow tie, white waistcoat and a stiffly starched shirt with a high standing detachable wing collar. Only with time did the jacket take on its own unique accompaniments. By World Word I it had become associated with black versions of the tailcoat’s bow tie and waistcoat. Then in the interwar period it gained a number of unique variations that better suited its role as “semi-formal” evening wear. This included a shirt with a softer front, flashier French cuffs and a more laid-back turndown collar.
Originally intended for only the most informal occasions, after the Second World War the new shirt became the black-tie norm. It was perceived as more modern than the Victorian stiff wing collar as well as more practical for laundering. Some people also found it more attractive as it hid the contrasting black band of the bow tie, a consideration that did not apply to the white bow tie worn with the tailcoat. Thus by the 1950s wing collars had become virtually exclusive to White Tie.
This black and white division of collar types worked just fine until the arrival of a 1970s hybrid that greyed the boundaries. The new shirt had all the features of the black-tie garment except for the collar which was an attached version of the wing collar. At first it was a reasonable facsimile of the aristocratic original’s stiff, tall stature and broad, bold wings but by the 1980s it had shrunk to plebeian portions. British men would have nothing to do with the shrunken and flaccid substitute but for some odd reason American men couldn’t get enough of it.
Well, mainstream American men. The country’s political and social elite continued to prefer the understated turndown collar (and self-tied bow tie) and this distinction remains today. Therefore when you plan your next black-tie outfit you would be wise to consider which look you prefer: the governing class or the class of ’85.
Formal Fact: “Wing tips” are for shoes, not shirts. If you encounter a formalwear retailer using the term “wing tip collar” leave the store. Quickly.