A Tale of Two Collars: Wing vs. Turndown

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Post-war and pre-war takes on classic black tie.  The detachable collar shirt on the right is still available from Brooks Brothers in the US.

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.

The original standard for Black Tie shirts.

The original standard for black-tie shirts.

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.

The modern wing collar (or what’s left 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.

The West Wing: My introduction to presidential black tie.  The turndown collars give the air of a senior statesman while the attached wing collars suggest a junior prom-goer.

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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.

5 Comments

  1. Farragut Jones

    Understanding that your criticism is leveled at the modern take on the wing collar, would you still agree that a detachable wing collar paired with black tie and a white waistcoat is sophisticated enough for events that used to be considered white-tie appropriate (e.g. certain on-the-town New Year’s Eve activities)?

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Definitely. My partner wears that combination frequently and it looks stunning.

      Reply
  2. Tim

    I wouldn’t be too confident of depending on “The West Wing” as a source of sartorial authority based on the photo that you provided at the top of the page. The oxymoronic combination of a black-tie dinner jacket with notched lapels seems to be ubiquitous at American formal events these days. There’s no point bemoaning the introduction of the hybrid collar if you’re willing to overlook the absence of notched lapels. Even worse, take a look at the length of Romney’s white waistcoat at the 2012 Alfred Smith dinner; the ‘elite’ Americans can’t even get the white-tie events right!

    Kind Regards,
    Tim

    Reply
  3. Tim

    Of course should have read “absence of peaked lapels”.

    Regards,

    Reply
  4. Peter D Smith

    After a cruise on a Famous Ship with my Wife I looked at my fellow Brits and our so called brothers from over there ,and said can any one educate these middle of the road turkeys that the wings on wing collar shirts must be above the BOW and also Please keep the one button of the Dinner jacket Fastened at all times ,Except when you get your cloak or any ticket from the pleats of
    your Cummerbund (if you are wearing one)
    The wing was put on the stiff collar so as to tuck your Serviette in to your neck then over the wing to hang down the front of the shirt to keep any thing you dropped ,Soup perhaps off the front of your kit.
    Please with all your pretensions of greatness that you have lots of money in your pockets fellow travellers, Start to learn a few etiquette before you leave the planet for Hell.

    Reply

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