Dinner Jackets and Dress Shorts


In the spirit of summer’s arrival, here’s a novel approach to warm-weather black tie from the Life archives: dinner jackets and dress shorts.

The photo above is from an August 1953 article about maverick American men seeking summer relief in the form of knee-length shorts. According to the story, “Properly worn with knee-length wool socks, which somewhat cancels the cooling effect, Bermuda shorts take on formality as a jacket or tie is added, [but] still look best in the country.” Examples of knee-length incursions into trouser territory include this group of “pioneering eastern college men” at a formal country club dance in Chicago’s tony northern suburbs wearing “dinner shorts, white jackets and black tie”. The men also sport white wool socks that look very much like the heavy dress kilt hose worn with Scottish formal attire, along with loafers or formal pumps (as seen here). The choice of the latter footwear is likely an attempt to counterbalance the informality of the short pants but the contrast of the delicate black shoes with the thick white socks only looks ridiculous.


The following year, another Life article featured male spoofs of traditional débutante parties that were held that summer. In these photos young men – once again from Chicago’s North Shore – hold a “beautillion” in a back yard. The boys all wear white dinner jackets, black bow ties, shorts made from black-died cut-off khakis, knee-length black dress socks and standard black dress shoes. No reason is given for the decision to wear short pants in place of formal trousers.

As quaint as these outfits may appear, The Black Tie Guide does not recommend them for men beyond the age of graduation. Not even if they are bona fide Bermudians.


Thanks to reader Tim Halket for inspiring this post.


  1. Jovan

    Just proves that not everything was done better in or should be emulated from “the good old days”.

  2. wdwright77

    Jovan’s comment is right on! I would add that about twenty years ago, someone at the Tuxedo Store where I purchased (not rented!) my suits, tried to talk me into purchasing a set of so-called ‘Formal Shorts.” Yes, they were black and yes, they did have a stripe on them in the usual suspect spot and yes, I did have a white dinner jacket. The thought was pleasing for all of about two minutes. But while I was willing to break the wallet out of my tux trousers for everything from a new dress shirt to a new design in studs and cuff links, not to mention a new bow tie, the thought of wearing a totally casual piece of clothing with my most formal dress suits basically made me want to step away. While it would be nice for escaping the heat, it isn’t the right look for the hot season and formal wear. I have never regretted turning down that idea and some time after that shopping trip, my sales lady told me the sales of those shorts did not quite meet up with their idea of how well it should have gone over. In short, a white Dinner Jacket paired with Black Tuxedo pants looks far and away better even in summer heat, than would a set of black shorts masquerading as tuxedo trousers paired with all the rest of the tuxedo. Jodi was not surprised that I hadn’t jumped all over that idea; in fact she said I was her smartest customer regarding that idea. Which proves again, that if you know how you’re supposed to look and if you know what to wear for a Black Tie Summer event, you will impress all you come in contact with. By The Way, any time I am wearing the tux but especially in the summer, the bow tie is tied tightly and once it’s on, it doesn’t come off until I’m back home; sometimes if it’s early enough in the evening, the whole suit stays on until I’m headed for the rack, as I think it should be that way, despite how others think that home is all about casualness and not about being dressy.

    1. Jovan

      Agreed. I seemed to be the only one at my prom who kept his bow tie on all night (and partly it’s because I couldn’t stand the sight of a pre-tied bow dangling from my attached wing collar — both things I knew were wrong but couldn’t be helped by renting). I also keep my tie on all day at work and on the way home if I’m stopping by somewhere. I feel it shows the appropriate amount of respect for the people around you to stay fully dressed. I get some fight back on that sometimes though — I don’t feel like changing out of my work clothes and the s/o already has into jeans and a t-shirt. I know when to pick my battles. 🙂

      Anyways, it’s a much better solution to just go for tropical weave white wool DJs and mohair blend trousers (which are presumably part of a full black/midnight tuxedo) for the summer months. The extra heat on your legs is worth looking appropriate. Also worth noting that women suffer more to look good for these events in heels and so forth. The least we can do is be fully dressed to respect their sacrifices. (Though personally I’ve never ‘gotten’ heels — I think a nice pair of flats look just as sexy.)

      1. wdwright77

        I also left my bow tie on all night (and it wasn’t pre-tied!) I also was the only one who wore a proper tuxedo and tuxedo shirt-which back in the mid-70’s still retired a starch job to look their best. I seem to also be the only guy from my class of characters who decided early enough a tuxedo was well worth owning rather than renting and I think I was right. As far as the s/o question, as I’ve never been married I have somewhat navigated around those arguments, but I have always said that if I were to get married this late, the s/o would say get dressed up and stay that way! Yes, I do think we have it much easier than they do, no I would not care for heels and yes, I would say that if I am working again soon where I must dress up (oh please find me a gig where I can, I’m saying as I write) I will maintain the look after work. I have noticed when job hunting, that the respect sent out to you goes up significantly when you dress up.
        As to the fabric content of my summer formal look, I’d say that my Super 120 or 150 trousers do indeed feel acceptable and look smashing in relation to those around me. And even though I haven’t had a s/o, I would say that we men are not exactly absent bachelor or not. We all have (or had) mothers and I noticed early on that mothers are very much a beacon of dress scope as they can tell in an instant where we’re off. It’s because they practiced on our fathers. I sort of remember that when the time came that I wanted to buy my tuxedo, mom was not all that gung ho on it, and pop was not exactly against it either. The end result was I bought my tuxedo and about five years later, Dad followed suit (aww!) and bought one as well. My brother never wound up wearing one outside of two or three proms he went to. Not even for friends’ weddings did he break down. So this guy has led the pack in his family and quite honestly., I’m glad I did it. Of course, one who’s in the arts and involved that way has a numb roy occasions in a month when he has to wear a tux and the rental fees can add up and not pay off in a look worth doing all the time. So, whether summer or winter, always strive to look your best and you won’t go wrong. Just leave the shorts for those times during the summer when casual clothing merits a use.

  3. Hilton

    Has there ever been any precedent for off color trousers? As in, essentially, a reversed warm weather kit? Maintaining a black/midnight jacket, tie, and waist, but substituting the trousers for ivory/white?

    I dont imagine it could look entirely too terrible, but i wouldn’t dare to even attempt such a thing without the knowledge of if its appropriate or even doable.

    I ask mostly because i just received this beautiful vintage jacket, made in the late 30’s/early 40’s, but it didn’t come with slacks, and i doubt ill ever find a pair to match.

    I have plenty of separate jackets of plaid, deep blue velveteen, a deep red vintage smoking, and of course a creame, all of which pair fine with a standard pair of black dinner trousers. But to match this black jacket with my black trousers, with a somewhat noticeable difference of fabric texture, it looked off. So, should i just deal with the difference in fabric, or is their hope for separate pairing?

    Thanks! Love the blog.

    1. Peter Marshall (Post author)

      No, there is no precedent for white trousers with a black jacket.


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