When I first wore my first three-piece tuxedo a while ago, I took every opportunity to unbutton my jacket and proudly display the sartorial elegance of my classic evening waistcoat. Returning from the event, I reviewed the evening’s photos only to realize that this practice made the overall outfit look less sophisticated, not more so.
Historical fashion illustrations show that the earliest dinner jackets were designed to mimic their tailed progenitor as closely as possible. This included having the fronts cut to expose much of the waistcoat and shirt bosom when the jacket was worn open. In fact, it was physically impossible to close most of the original models as they were constructed without a button or buttonhole.
By the 1910s, the gap between the fronts of unbuttoned jackets was becoming narrower and buttoned fronts were more common, often in the link front style. The closed-jacket option grew increasingly popular until it finally became the norm in the 1930s. Around this time etiquette books, which had originally not delved into this level of eveningwear detail, began to specifically advise that jackets be buttoned. For example, the 1922 and 1937 editions of Emily Post’s Etiquette compared the dinner jacket to the tailcoat by stating that the former is “held closed in front by one button“. Similarly, 1937’s The New Etiquette dictated that “unlike the formal evening coat, which hangs open, the dinner coat is buttoned at the waistline.”
Personally, I have always preferred to button my regular suit jackets not as a matter of protocol but of aesthetics. Tom Ford once referred to the practical benefits when he advised:
Always keep your [suit] jacket buttoned. If I have one rule for men, it’s that. It instantly makes your silhouette. It’ll take pounds off you, just in terms of your shape. Especially if you are being photographed, you really should have your jacket buttoned.
The benefits alluded to are an outcome of the most fundamental aspects of a suit’s design. First off, jackets are cut based on the premise that they will be worn buttoned which means they will always fit best in that mode. Secondly, a suit deliberately covers a man’s legs and torso with identical fabric so as to blend one into the other and thereby emphasize verticality and stature. Breaking up the uniform appearance with a patch of tie or shirt at the waistline creates a more disjointed look, much like wearing a sports jacket and dress pants.
And when it comes to a tuxedo, there is an additional factor at play: a buttoned-up appearance simply looks more formal. It says that the wearer took the time to look his best for the occasion whereas as jacket left hanging open suggest the wearer couldn’t be bothered to go the full mile. It’s the same principle at play in military dress jackets: models that button all the way up to the neck have a noticeably more formal air than mess jackets constructed to hang open and reveal the garments beneath.
This principle remains true even when wearing the most formal of waistcoats beneath the jacket. The unique use of lapels and silk facings on a black-tie waistcoat may initially suggest that it is to be treated as a decorative accessory and therefore merit more prominent display than a regular suit vest. However, both its name and its design are clear reminders that its primary role is simply to cover one’s waist. Its special low-cut opening is not intended to increase its visibility but, rather, to keep it largely hidden beneath the front of a closed jacket. In this sense it acts much like an undergarment and a gentleman doesn’t go about parading such apparel at formal events.
Now, it can be argued that because a formal waistcoat’s opening mimics the opening of a buttoned tuxedo jacket – and its material mimics the jacket’s material – it’s justifiable to display the waistcoat. However, the close proximity of the garment’s decorative features (buttons, satin revers and trimmed pockets) still makes for a much busier waist than does a closed dinner jacket. In an outfit intended to emanate refined simplicity, I don’t view that as a good thing.
No doubt many people will contend that an open jacket can be just as formal and just as flattering as a closed one. And I’ll be the first to admit the difference can be quite subtle when the suit is properly fitted as evidenced by the comparison photos above. However, I’ve decided to limit my waistcoat’s future appearances to brief glimpses whenever I am transitioning between standing and sitting. It will still look as elegant as ever, it’s just that said elegance will be visible to fewer onlookers.