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A Tale of Tuxedos

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

(continued from page 1)

A guest there one weekend, Potter confessed his ignorance to the prince as to appropriate dress for dinner at royal country houses. The prince in turn revealed his own indifference to "proper" dinner clothes in the country. As it turned out, His Royal Highness had begun wearing a short, black jacket with satin lapels in place of the formal tailcoat, preferring the ease a blazer style provided. He directed Potter to his Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole & Co., where the American businessman promptly had the prince's jacket copied for himself.

Originally the prince's jacket was an adaptation of the short white jackets worn by members of the Royal Yacht Club at the annual Cowes Regatta ball. This type of jacket, which resembled today's blazer, was already being worn in the late 19th century as the upper component of a "lounge suit" (now considered the classic business suit) or in a sturdier fabric for active sports. In possession of a keen eye for style, HRH deemed that for dinner, his own version should be black, which he considered more dignified for royalty. Not unlike his other sartorial innovations (he introduced the trouser crease and started the custom of leaving the bottom button of a vest unbuttoned), the Prince of Wales' evening "lounge," or dinner jacket, would become comme il faut for country evening wear.

Meanwhile, back in Tuxedo Park, Potter's tailless formal jacket became such a hit with his neighbors that they all quickly had their tailors copy the style for themselves. They began to wear it virtually everywhere they went for dinner, even in town. While dining at such elegant men's haunts as Delmonico's in Manhattan, the group from Tuxedo Park regularly drew stares and whispers from fellow diners. Upon inquiring about this new style of cropped tailcoat, the diners were told: "This is what they're wearing to dinner in Tuxedo." Before long, the new dinner jacket had its name. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the residents of Tuxedo Park never called their informal dinner jackets tuxedos and never would.

Yet despite the notoriety these new jackets garnered in town, particularly New York City, the tuxedo's true fashion infamy was born instead on an October evening in 1886, when the Tuxedo Park elders held the first of what would become their famous annual Autumn balls. Pierre Lorillard's youngest son Griswold and his rambunctious, young cohorts came upon the idea of lampooning the new English-style dinner jacket that so enamored his father and his cronies.

The Autumn Ball required formal tailcoats (the only formal dress deemed appropriate in the company of women), however, Griswold and company lopped off the tails of their formal dress coats, and, sporting scarlet waistcoats underneath, waltzed into the Tuxedo Park ballroom to the astonishment of everyone present, particularly the ladies. In one fell fashion swoop, the youthful coterie, all to the manner born, had committed social blasphemy, even though the truncated tailcoats were meant in fun.

Griswold's prank made newspaper headlines all over New York the next day, prompting one society editor to write, "At the Tuxedo Club Ball, the young Griswold Lorillard appeared in a tailless dress and waistcoat of scarlet satin, looking for all the world like a royal footman. There were several other abbreviated coats worn, which suggested to the onlookers that the boys ought to have been put in straitjackets long ago." While the tailless coats the boys wore were hardly the short dinner jackets of their fathers, there is little doubt that the prank at the ball served to put tuxedos on the style map. In short, a fashion legend was born.

Like much of what is classic, the tuxedo has suffered its share of aberrations over the years. Rental outlets in cities everywhere continue to assault good taste with tuxedos in every shade of a prom queen's corsage. Ditto for those ruffled front shirts with pastel piping--a remnant of the Edwardian look of the '60s. As for floppy, crushed-velvet, ready-made bow ties, the less said, the better.

Suffice it to say that the only proper tuxedos are either in black or midnight blue, the latter a color first worn by the Prince of Wales, who considered it "blacker than black." Dinner jackets afford greater leeway with color, although ivory or cream remain the only advisable alternatives, along with a Black Watch tartan, preferably subdued.

For both tuxedos and dinner jackets, in either single or double-breasted silhouettes, the lapels may be peak or shawl style, which is experiencing a growth in popularity this season. Avoid the notched-lapel shape when considering a tuxedo; to style purists, it represents a bastardization of the classic form (notched lapels, found on most business suits, reflect too casual a style).

With the return of classic elegance in men's fashion, traditional formal clothes have also witnessed a rebirth. Nowhere has this trend been more pronounced than in accessories and furnishings. The formal shirt, an integral part of black tie, should be at once stylish and comfortable. The bat-wing collar, a fashion legacy of George Bryan "Beau" Brummell, continues to be a good choice, particularly with a cotton-pique bib front.


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