• The Tuxedo: Social History of a Suit

The Tuxedo: Social History of a Suit

An article for Delta Sky magazine

It is the most enduring garment of the modern age: the classic black and white, the civilian man’s version of the full dress uniform. It’s the original power suit. And it is what a man wears when he wants to look and feel his personal best. As Dean Martin said, “In a tuxedo, I’m a star.”

The tuxedo is the sartorial masterstroke of Griswold P. Lorillard, habitue’ of the Tuxedo Park Country Club, of Tuxedo Park, NY. In 1886 he adapted a style of smoking jacket worn by the Prince of Wales for what he considered semiformal attire. What resulted was a tailcoat with no tails, shorter and evenly cut, like a suit jacket. But Lorillard’s brainchild was almost stillborn. The departure from formality was so shocking, in those oh-so-shockable days, that some members called for his ouster from the club.

Better judges of the male countenance (one assumes they were female) prevailed. By the turn of the century, tuxes were being produced in numbers about equal to those of tailcoats. It was on the Titanic that it gained recognition as the official uniform of the nation’s power structure. As the ship went down, Benjamin Guggenheim retreated to his stateroom and, reappearing in the black and white, refused a life jacket, saying, “I am now prepared to go down like a gentleman.” By the end of World War I, when the first off-the-rack tuxes began to appear, tails had been relegated to grand operas and inaugurations. And today, according to the International Formalwear Association, the tux is appropriate attire even for coronations.

It is also appropriate attire for women. They can be made specifically for women, often with high band collars on silk blouses and worn with pearls rather than ties. Or a man’s tuxedo can be easily tailored to an individual woman. Man or woman, the tux accentuates all the right places. Author Fran Lebowitz prefers it to short skirts, calling it “The most flattering garment ever designed. Even waiters look good in it.” The tuxedo is the Golden Mean of apparel. The perfect balance of line, color and contrast, it endures so well that a 19th century photograph of Lorillard in his creation would be instantly recognizable as a man in the noble tux.

These days there is a range of colors available for tuxes, mostly pastels. And of course the white dinner jacket has been around at least since Humphrey Bogart made it famous in the movie Casablanca. But most professionals esteem such chromatic variants poorly. “Stick with the basics, the classic,” says Billy Braggman of the San Francisco on-line haberdashery www.billyblue.com. “A notched or peaked lapel, single breasted with one or two buttons, will never go out of style. And get it in a year round weight. Anyplace you might wear your tux will be climate controlled, so there’s no need for a cooler or warmer version. Worsted wool is the traditional material, but I like crepe. It travels well, and the wrinkles will fall out if you just hang it in a steamy bathroom for a while. A good tux will last you a lifetime. For the jacket and trousers of a decent garment, entry level is $500 – $600. Nobody really knows where it tops out.” Billy Braggman notwithstanding, a white jacket in Summer is appropriate.

As to accessories, the most important is your shoes. Most men will wear pumps, but they are not necessary. A simple dress shoe with clean lines and a high gloss finish is okay. But no ornamentation. Your tie should be black and should NOT be the clip-on variety. Get a real one and learn to tie it. There is just no substitute. The wing collar is on the wane these days, most men preferring the standard, or Manhattan, collar. The shirt may be worn with or without studs, but always cufflinks.

The cummerbund is still appropriate, but currently a man wearing one can be mistaken for a waiter in some circumstances. Braces, or even a black dress belt with a gold buckle are acceptable. You might also opt for a vest. It should be silk, and this is one area where you can incorporate a little color into your composition. Any hue is fine, but the tone should be subdued. The tux itself is a statement; you simply have no need to make any other. And remember that there is a secondary function to this garment: to provide a background for an elegantly dressed lady. You, sir, are the canvass and frame. She is the painting.

Should you wear a hat? “Definitely!” says Willie Brown, former Mayor of San Francisco. “A gentleman should wear a Bowler with his tuxedo.” If you’re going to be outdoors on a chilly evening, especially if you wear an overcoat, a Bowler or a Homburg are not only appropriate, they can look stunning.

There is one other accessory to consider. According to Brooke Wheeler, Associate Editor of Macworld magazine, “Only one cocktail can measure up  to the elegance of the tuxedo: the noble Martini (gin and vermouth, olive, straight up). A staple in Madison Avenue lunch boxes and the preferred prop at James Bond orgies. If it is your drink, commit to it. Don’t just wear something handsome and sophisticated, become handsome and sophisticated. Exude tuxedo. If you drink the Martini’s sibling, the Gibson (gin and vermouth, cocktail onion) change from black onyx to mother-of-pearl cufflinks and studs.”

Who should wear a tux? You! You don’t have to be the President and CEO. You can be an entry level accountant or a mechanic. The tuxedo is a great equalizer. It allows any man of any station to look, and feel, like a million bucks and a VIP. At any black tie affair it’s easy to advance the argument that God didn’t make men equal, Lorillard did.

“The black and white is very sexy.” –Fashion Designer Barbara De Vries.

“For me, a tuxedo is a way of life.” –Frank Sinatra

Where should youwear it? There are the obvious: gastly expensive restaurants, opening of the opera or theater, the Black and White Ball, etc. But wear it also for the opening of a museum exhibit, or a classic car show. Las Vegas. Almost any place where you can dance a Waltz, and definitely any place where you can dance a Tango. And there are so many restaurants and cabarets where the arrival of a tuxedo, however unexpected, lights up the room. Women sparkle when they speak to you, and the waiter tells you, “You’re the best looking couple here tonight. The drinks are on us.” Or are you single? The tuxedo procliams, “I’m safe, stylish and solvent.” So you want to leave the party with some one new? Then don the black-and-white. And always remember, there are five sure ocassions throughout any year when a man can take out the grosgrain and look his best: New Year’s Eve, St. Valentine’s Day dinner, wife’s or sweetheart’s birthday, your anniversary, and any Saturday night.