Ten years ago I assumed, like pretty much every other North American under 60, that proper tuxedos had always been black. It was only when I began researching my first tuxedo purchase that I discovered there had once been an alternative called midnight blue which was considered the ultimate in formal elegance.
Like the term “navy blue”, “midnight blue” is a somewhat arbitrary designation that can vary from one fabric manufacturer to another. When it comes to formal wear the point is that it should be so dark that it best described as nearly black instead of obviously blue. If you’ve ever seen dress socks labelled “blue” that you could swear were black until you held them up to actual black fabric, you’ll know what I mean.
The colour first appeared in fashion-forward evening wear in the 1920s then exploded in popularity in the 1930s, particularly for summer semi-formal wear. By the end of the decade tailors were selling as many midnight-blue tuxedos and tailcoats as they were black ones. The swank hue remained fashionable throughout the 1940s and 1950s then faded away with the rise of coloured dinner jackets and tuxedos in the sixties and seventies.
The conservative renaissance of the 1980s restored much of black tie’s traditional styling but midnight blue remained a thing of the past, receiving only lip service in 1990s books on etiquette and classic men’s style. Today midnight-blue tuxedos are still unavailable from mainstream retailers but they appear to be making a comeback in upscale designer lines and men’s fashion magazines. And with good reason.
In its heyday the colour was frequently described as “blacker than black” but it would be more accurate to say it’s darker and richer than black. While black material absorbs the candlelight that illuminated nineteenth century evening functions it tends to reflect a greenish or greyish cast under artificial light. A very dark blue, on the other hand, reflects a much more lush hue.
It also has the added advantage of looking attractive in the daylight when a man is on his way to an evening function whereas black looks drab and lifeless in such light (thus its association with funeral attire).
Although there is a historical precedent for midnight-blue lapel facings and bow ties, these tuxedos are more commonly enhanced with black trim and accessories (bow tie, waist covering). This is likely due to the impracticality of finding silk of exactly the same hue as the suit material. Socks, however, always match the trousers. (Jacket buttons should also be blue.)
So if you find yourself in the fortunate position of ordering a custom tailored dinner suit you should seriously consider the midnight blue option. It is a perfect method for imparting individual panache without compromising the understated refinement essential for truly elegant formal wear.
Tip: Before judging the merits of midnight-blue tuxedo be sure to see the material in person. Its actual hue is difficult to capture on film because the camera flash makes it look bluer than it would to the naked eye under dim evening light conditions. This distortion is exaggerated even further in photos viewed on a bright computer screen. The picture shown above is a rare example of a properly exposed depiction – click on it to see more examples.