Back in 2006 when I began researching original materials regarding the history of formal wear my options were limited to library collections. It has been astonishing to note since then how many vintage publications have become available online. To this day it still awes me that I can peruse the scanned pages of Victorian-era tailoring periodicals and English Regency etiquette manuals from the comfort of my own home. I can think of few better examples of the Web’s potential to change the world for the better (as opposed to, say, banal Facebook updates and corporate marketing tweets).
A perfect illustration of just such a publication is The Blue Book of Men’s Tailoring (aka Grand Edition of Supreme System) issued in the U.S. in 1907. It’s one of those priceless vintage books that provides both written descriptions of formal etiquette and illustrated examples of formal fashion (and, in this case, tailoring patterns to boot). Yet much to my dismay it is usually impractical to include lengthy excerpts from such treasures in the pages of The Black Tie Guide. Therefore I thought I would use this opportunity to offer an in-depth look into the type of background material that forms the basis of the Guide and at the same time take readers on a journey back in time to Edwardian America.
We begin with a description of the apex of the sartorial food chain: White Tie or, as it’s called in this book, “Full Evening Dress”.
Custom decrees that when formal evening dress is required, the long-tailed coat which has earned the name of evening coat should be worn.
It is necessary that there should be uniformity in formal dress and for this reason well-dressed men are a unit in deciding the use and the usage for evening dress.
To deviate even slightly from established custom in formal dress is to make one unduly conspicuous, and no gentleman likes to render himself an object of remark.
The formal evening coat is worn after 6 o’clock in the afternoon at any formal occasion, such as weddings, receptions, balls, the opera and theater, whenever ladies are present. No other costume can be held by any excuse to be correct.
The garments should be of black material, although a slight tendency toward gray is sometimes allowable. The trousers are braided on the outside seam. The waistcoat is white, of duck or silk, single or double breasted, either plain or corded.
With the full dress coat a plain white shirt, with two or three pearl studs, is worn. The collar is either straight front or poke; the tie is a white lawn bow with broad ends; the shoes patent leather with button tops, or patent leather pumps for dancing; the gloves white kid, and hat, silk or opera. This fashion is subject to slight variations from season to season, but in its general effect will doubtless be unchanged for many years.
The advice provided here is very much in line with what other authorities of the time were recommending as described in the Guide’s Edwardian Era summary. The only variation of note is the illustration’s reference to dress coats “without strap and lapel seams.” This pertains to tailcoats cut from a from a single piece of cloth (versus the top and skirt being separate pieces), a novelty of the period according to a later section of the book. (For explanations of other vintage formalwear terminology see the Guide’s illustrated glossary.)
I should also mention the distinctive attire of the fellow on the book’s cover. This image is taken from an interior illustration that, although uncaptioned, clearly depicts the triumvirate of men’s evening wear in Britain: informal tuxedo, formal full dress and ceremonial court dress. Why such Anglo-centric apparel is featured so prominently in an American publication, I have no idea.
Next installment: The Tuxedo
A complete PDF of this book can be found at openlibrary.org along with its 1917 successor New Supreme System for Production of Men’s Garments. This site is one of the best resources for online vintage books along with Archive.org and Google Books. Just note that you can only search for publications by title because the sites don’t categorize their materials the way that traditional libraries do.