Vintage Warm-Weather Black Tie

(Apparel Arts)

Outside the Casino Theatre in Newport, Rhode Island, 1935.

After writing all week I have finally finished a new page dedicated to Vintage Warm-Weather Black Tie just in time for the start of the summer season in Canada and the US.

Some of the more interesting tidbits I (re)discovered during the process:

  • full-dress summer events had disappeared from the US by the 1920s and the “informal” dinner jacket became considered both “formal” and “informal” for summer evenings
  • unlined, lightweight worsted was being recommended for summer evening dinner suits at least as far back at 1919
  • in the 1920s a dark blue blazer and white flannel plants were common for Saturday evening dances at country clubs; the tuxedo was recommended as being cooler partly because opera pumps were lighter than spectator shoes and bow ties covered less of the chest than long four-in-hands
  • matching white trousers were allowed during the first few years of the white dinner jacket’s appearance in the 1930s
  • the double-breasted dinner jacket was the first solution for warm-weather comfort not because it eliminated the need for a waistcoat but because it was originally designed with a narrow overlap that covered less of the chest and reduced the amount of layered fabric at the waist
  • waistcoats then cummerbunds were often worn with double-breasted dinner jackets for summer wear up until the mid 1930s; I can only presume this was for the sake of propriety when a gentleman opened his jacket to sit down
  • in addition to straw boaters, coconut straw hats and Panama hats were also acceptable as formal warm-weather headwear
  • the civilian mess jacket originated as yachting and cruising attire which is appropriate considering it was modeled on the jacket worn by British naval officers in the tropics

Speaking of the mess jacket, I have at long last been able to track down actual photographs of the garment.

English playwright, director, actor, and singer Noël Coward starring in his short play “We Were Dancing” (1936)

Here Noël Coward demonstrates the original and most formal interpretation of the mess jacket outfit with peaked-lapel jacket, white waistcoat, and stiff-front wing-collared shirt.

American actor Robert Montgomery  in 1932

This photo shows Robert Montgomery in an early version of the more informal shawl-collar jacket without buttons or breast pocket.  A silk cummerbund replaced the white waistcoat with both jacket styles by 1933, the same time that the soft-front turndown-collar shirt also became popular.

Introduced in 1931, the mess jacket quickly became a huge hit then almost as quickly fell out of favour.  This was partly due to its less than flattering appearance on men with less than flattering physiques, and to its popularity with service industry staff and orchestra musicians.  In 1935 Apparel Arts 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 and have a right to wear them, or unless you’re a banjo player or a sax blower and wearing a mess jacket is part of your job.”

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If you’re new to The Black Tie Guide, be sure to also check out the 1930s History page for more great images of warm-weather black tie.

17 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Two comments:
    First the updates page is not update.
    two, no one of the arrows of vintage section located in the bellow part of each page link to this awesome topic.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks for the heads up about the incorrect navigation links at the bottom of the pages. I forgot to update them when I reordered the Vintage section. (As for the Updates page, I updated it earlier.)

      Reply
  2. Minnesotaboy2

    Another great post (and update). What’s your opinion of color in the shirts, as with the light blue worn by the gentleman in the center-right foreground? I like the look (and Ben
    Silver sells a similar shirt today), but not all agree.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      I actually discuss coloured shirts on the Contemporary Alternatives page: “Pastel-colored formal shirts appear from time to time but they are unsuitable for even the most informal of black-tie occasions. Unlike accessories, shirts display color in multiple locations (bosom, collar and cuffs) which completely throws off the black-and-white palette.”

      Reply
  3. Joe Zasada

    A mess jacket with the high rise trousers is a very masculine form of attire… second only to the swallowtail coat used in proper white-tie.

    No wonder military and paramilitary organizations still use them today…

    Reply
  4. David V

    I wonder if that shirt is actually blue or in partial shadow. Note the color change mid way down. See the man in back, wearing the navy jacket and light colored pants. One leg off white and the other light blue (in shadow.)

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      I’m quite sure it’s a shadow. I don’t believe that coloured shirts appeared until the late 1960s.

      Reply
  5. A. R.

    I quite like Coward’s interpretation, I might have to find something similar.

    Reply
  6. Rory Lowings

    Another fantastic bit of research, Mr. Marshall. Although, I think the photos show the mess jacket’s limitations as much as its advantages. First, you can see a great deal of creasing in the arms and body of the jackets and that’s out of sync with the stiff-fronted shirts.
    In addition, I’m uncomfortable looking at the gap between Coward’s hanging coat-front and his waistcoat. You see the same thing on a lot of ready-to-wear tailcoats. Montgomery’s jacket seems to fit somewhat better but it’s more obviously a posed shot. I wonder how many of these were bought ‘off the peg’? As a seasonal fashion it seems a bit of a splash for civilians to get them made bespoke, and there’s a P.G. Wodehouse story where Wooster arrives home with a mess jacket he apparently ‘picked up’ in Cannes.
    I’m sure the mess jacket can be done very well, but the incongruity of these photos with the flawless colour plates in Esquire goes a long way to explaining why these garments were supplanted by the white dinner jacket. You can pick up a decent lounge jacket ready-to-wear almost anywhere, but when was the last time you saw a decent tailcoat at the shops?

    Reply
  7. Hal

    Jeeves was, of course, unimpressed by the white mess jacket, though Wooster claimed that he had caught the eye of some of the women on the Cote d’Azur. In the television version, Stephen Fry’s Jeeves suggests, ‘Perhaps she thought you were a waiter, sir.’

    On a different note, was the white trousers blue blazer look confined to the US as an alternative to black tie? Blazers and light flannels were popular in Britain, but I’m not sure were ever seen as being sufficiently formal to be an alternative to evening wear (as shown in your illustration).

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      I was wondering how long it would be until someone brought up Jeeves’ disapproval of the mess jacket! I have to say that I would disagree with his normally wise counsel in this case – providing I could pull it off as well as Robert Montgomery above.

      As for the white trouser, blue blazer look the only references I have to this are American. I would agree that it’s unlikely this look would have been acceptable for formal evenings in Britain as their standards were always a notch higher and their climate more moderate.

      Reply
      1. Adam Williamson

        Bit late on this one, but in case anyone’s still checking comments, Post (1922) has this in her section on country wear:

        “If some semi-formal occasion comes up, such as a country tea, the time-worn conservative blue coat with white flannel trousers is perennially good.”

        Reply
  8. Hal

    Jeeves, of course, generally disapproves of most innovations in men’s wear. I always thought that the mess jacket look could be quite swanky – but I fear one might just end up looking silly.

    Thanks for answering my question about the white trouser, blue jacket combination. I think it looks rather smart. It would certainly be good for garden party wear.

    Reply
  9. jovantheun1337

    Just goes to prove there were fashions that came and went just as quickly even in the “Golden Age” of menswear.

    Ricardo Montalban is seen wearing one in some movie or another, but I think it was quite dated by that point.

    Reply
  10. HKer

    I have a query… I have been invited to a wedding in Sri Lanka, where the dress code is Black Tie without jackets – i.e. Red Sea Rig. I understand a cummberband is acceptable and traditional, however would it be considered gauche to wear an evening waistcoat (i prefer single breasted, and am interested in a full back, straight bottomed version) instead?

    Reply
    1. Hal

      I don’t know what our learned and esteemed host would say, but isn’t the point of Red Sea rig that it is worn when it is simply too hot to wear anything else? Presumably the reason why a cummerbund is specified is that it is significantly cooler than a waistcoat – particularly a full backed one. So, maybe not gauche but possibly a trifle odd and self-defeating to wear one.

      That said, I’ve never been to any event where that is the dress code.

      If a cummerbund isn’t for you, what about a full sash? India produces some beautiful textiles. I’m sure Sri Lanka must have plenty on offer and one of their longer scarfs/sashes could be pressed into action.

      Reply
      1. Peter Marshall

        What Hal said.

        Reply

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