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A Tale of Tuxedos

Ralph DiGennaro
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

For many, the word tuxedo conjures images of Cole Porter, hair parted and slick, plinking out a poetic little ditty on the ivories. To others, the image evokes Noel Coward lounging in an overstuffed chair with brandy snifter in hand, trading insults with Dorothy Parker. Then again, the first thing some may think of upon hearing the word tuxedo is their favorite waiter.

To others, it's Marlene Dietrich. Who could forget that memorable scene in the 30's movie classic, Morocco, when she slithered across the screen in a tailored tux, stiff front shirt, bow tie and studs, sacrificing none of her sultry appeal in the process?

Sixty years ago, people may well have been shocked by Dietrich's androgynous fashion daring--she was, after all, one of the first of Hollywood's "glamour girls" to don men's suits-with shirt and tie no less. Yet considering that the origin of the tuxedo and its popularity are owed to equally outrageous circumstances, it is somehow fitting that the stylish Dietrich appear in the mind's eye whenever the topic turns to tuxedos.

Whatever the image, there is no denying that donning black tie does things for a man that no other garment can. And penguin references be damned, a man could not look more handsome, more elegant than when he is decked out in properly fitted formal wear. Perhaps that explains why the classic tuxedo or dinner jacket is so timeless. Even in the '90s with the "power suit" now an established part of fashion's vocabulary, traditional black tie is virtually unchanged.

If anything, modern tuxedo designs draw inspiration from those worn by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire and William Powell in the '30s: wide, sweeping satin or grosgrain lapels, often double-breasted with either peaked or shawl lapels; broad, padded shoulders, a slight suppression to the waist and amply cut out, deeply pleated trousers for sweep and swagger.

There's little doubt, judging from a recent review of tuxedo collections from Polo by Ralph Lauren, Joseph Abboud, Giorgio Armani, Brioni, Gieves & Hawkes and Donna Karan, along with such bastions of men's style as Barneys New York, Paul Stuart and Bergdorf Goodman Men, that a certain rummaging of the past has been going on. Then again, maybe we're putting on the past as a way of putting off the present.

The tuxedo, and formal clothes in general, has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts for more than a decade. Fashion pundits often credit the Reagans with ushering in a new era of elegance with their penchant for black-tie dinners and socials.

But apart from the Reagans' sartorial proclivities, there is ample evidence that people enjoy dressing up again. According to Bernie Toll, chairman of the Black Tie Bureau, a trade association representing tuxedo manufacturers worldwide, sales of formal wear in 1992 increased 25 percent from 1991. This year, more than $600 million in sales and rentals of formal wear are projected. Moreover, the statistics show that one in every four tuxedos is bought rather than rented, compared with one in nine during the late 1970s. "The tuxedo industry is thriving in the United States," says Toll. "Our surveys are showing that younger men are interested in wearing tuxedos for a variety of social occasions because they say they feel more attractive and sophisticated."

Maybe they are just picking up on the outrageous history of how this most formal of men's wear became a de rigueur element of a grand night out on the town.

In the beginning, it was just the opposite: a rather outlandish departure for its day from the standard, formal tails. Its name and innovative fashion history were launched by Tuxedo Park, a wealthy enclave in upstate New York, built in 1886 by tobacco mogul Pierre Lorillard as an exclusive summer resort colony. Other Tuxedo habitués included William Waldorf Astor, Grenville Kane, director of the Erie Railroad; and Allen T. Rice, editor of the North American Review and James Brown Potter. Potter had brought back a new semiformal dinner jacket from England that he had first seen on the Prince of Wales, who wore it to a formal dinner at the royal family's 11,000-acre country estate in Norfolk.

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