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A Tale of Tuxedos

| By Ralph DiGennaro | From 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.

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.

The best formal shirts are made of soft, pure cotton voile or fine broadcloth. A cummerbund is strictly a matter of personal choice, but even among those who favor them, cummerbunds are best worn with single-breasted jackets only. Opt for the new brocades or woven silks, some with hints of lurex in the design for a touch of sheen. Current motifs for both cummerbunds and formal waistcoats include faint paisleys, minichecks, raised stripes and tiny, woven geometries. In turn, cuff links need not be showy or expensive, but should be double-sided. Handsome alternatives to gold, silver or onyx cuff links are silk knots, available in such men's stores as Barneys, Paul Stuart, Sulka, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Always an appropriate accent to a tuxedo or dinner jacket is a linen or silk pocket square peeking out from the breast pocket. White is always right, although deep shades of burgundy, emerald or even gold can look festive for the holidays. While braces or suspenders perform a necessary function--hoisting the trousers at the rear so that they fall in a clean line in front--there is no reason not to select a pair as individual as the wearer. Classic patterns include moiré, paisley and foulard or, to add a touch of whimsy, there is a wealth of novelty looks available. Patent leather lace-ups are always correct with any tuxedo or dinner jacket yet decidedly more masculine and stylish are slippers or pumps in either silk faille or velvet. Brooks Brothers' velvet formal slippers with embroidered toe-cap decorations are an American classic.

It is best to pair any formal shoe with silk or lightweight wool hosiery. Formal clocks--a vertical woven pattern that runs up the side of each ankle--makes for an elegant finishing touch, but always in black. For a roguish finish, try a white, fringed, silk-pattern scarf casually tossed around the neck. Adding a boutonniere would do Fred Astaire proud.

It is a telling commentary that young people today often plow through thrift-shop bins and antique-clothing boutiques hoping to unearth a formal fashion remnant that captures a sense of Old World style and elegance. Perhaps the fact that Tuxedo Park is undergoing a renaissance and rejuvenation is equally revealing. Like a valuable antique found in an attic, it is being dusted off and restored to its original luster. Likewise, the classic evening suit that bears its name has never looked better.

Ralph DiGennaro is a free-lancer who writes frequently about style.

The Smoking Jacket

No men's garment defines comfort and elegance like the smoking jacket. And for good reason: this luxurious classic descends from the robe de chambre worn by wealthy men in the mid-19th century.

During the Victorian period, donning a dressing gown when entertaining at home was extremely fashionable. It was considered bad manners, however, to wear anything but a long coat (to cover the buttocks) in the presence of women. No such rules, however, applied when company was made up exclusively of men. Hence, many men had their robes truncated to wear while relaxing at home with a few friends.

It was also during this period that smoking reached new heights of popularity. For enjoying a fine cigar with friends at home, these truncated robes became the thing to wear, along with a brimless little cap with a tassel, which closely resembled a Turkish fez. The smoking caps prevented the smoke, the smell of which was thought to be abhorrent to women, from permeating a man's hair.

The smoking jacket continues to be a classic, and like its Victorian descendants, the best ones are made of luxurious fabrics such as velvet, cashmere, printed flannel or embroidered silk. Most feature designs with shawl collars, occasionally with braided piping along the lapels or a matching fabric belt for wrapping.

For matching the elegance of a Cuban Hoyo De Monterrey double corona, nothing compares to a finely cut smoking jacket. Even without that cute little cap.

-- R.D.