Earlier this week I wrote about sweatpants, the item of clothing that has come to represent the inescapable reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed natural somehow to turn next to its opposite, a sartorial symbol of an ideal past and future in which we can go out and get dressed up. What better to look at then than the tuxedo?
Firstly, there’s the matter of nomenclature. In Britain this formal mode of dress is known as a dinner jacket, in America it goes by ‘tuxedo’, and on the Continent it’s called a smoking jacket (le smoking to the French or even a Monte Carlo as a nod to Monaco’s high rollers). Either which way, it’s synecdoche, where the name of the jacket also stands for the outfit as a whole.
As to its appearance, at this point I’ll hand over to the éminence grise of classic menswear, Bruce Boyer, who describes the dinner jacket thusly in True Style:
‘The tuxedo consists of matching coat and trousers made of a smooth-finish black fabric […] The coat traditionally aims for stark simplicity with a single-buttoned front — although double-breasted versions having either two, four, or six buttons have been acceptable since the 1930s — with a minimum of decoration and evening dress trousers that are equally austere. The goal is minimalist simplicity.’Bruce Boyer
Further details include a shawl or peaked lapel in silk, velvet, or grosgrain. The sheen of the collar is picked up by a stripe on the trousers that runs the length of the outseam. Given the formality called for, the trousers are never cuffed, nor are the jacket pockets flapped. All of this goes over a white shirt with a wing- or turndown collar worn with a bowtie. You’ll also occasionally spot boutonnières, pleated bosoms, dress waistcoats, and cumberbunds, though missteps here are the stuff of ‘80s proms gone awry.
The dinner suit is a Victorian invention, created as a more comfortable alternative to tails, the only form of dress that’s even dressier than the tux. Having had its more formal cousin’s eponymous feature cut away, the shorter dinner jacket allowed gentlemen to be more comfortable once they’d retired to one another’s company postprandially.
It was adopted by Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, in the late 1800s and was made for him on Saville Row by Henry Poole. In 1886 — and at this point accounts vary — either Pierre Lorillard or James Brown Potter, both of whom were members of New York’s esteemed Tuxedo Park Club, saw the Prince of Wales wearing his short jacket at a dinner party. The gent in question promptly got his own from Henry Poole and, upon returning to the States, wore it to the Tuxedo Club. The rest is etymological history.
The d.j. was also a favourite of the next Prince of Wales, the future Duke of Windsor. Ever the trendsetter, Prince Edward VIII popularised wearing more comfortable dinner suits that were cut from lighter fabrics and dyed midnight blue rather than black. His stamp of approval all but guaranteed the adoption of the tux in favour of tails for formal occasions by the 1920s and ‘30s.
The style and popularity of the tuxedo have variously waxed and waned with the passing decades, but it remains unshaken as the highwater mark of glamour in menswear. Conjuring the bygone sophistication of the earlier decades of the twentieth century, tuxes are today spotted mostly in the coverage of balls, galas, and award ceremonies. We also get to see them in just about every Bond film, and soon at my local Tesco since I plan on wearing one everywhere — even on the grocery run — in celebration of us no longer being confined to our homes.
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