Men Tuxedos, Wool Tuxedos,
A Tuxedo Always Brings Out the Best in a Man
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 mens
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.
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
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
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.
By: Ralph DiGennaro [free-lancer who writes frequently about
The Smoking Jacket
No mens 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.
The Turn of the Millennium is No Time to Ignore
Your Formal Wear Needs
Your computer is Y2K compliant.
You've squirreled away water, batteries, cash and firewood in case
of a general meltdown. You've secured an invite to the best parties
and the cases of Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët are chilling.
Everything seems to be in place and under control for what will
ultimately be the party of the century. But have you forgotten
A date of this magnitude requires classic attire and now is the time
to start planning. Buy early. Dan McCampbell, vice president and
men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says time is of the
essence. Not only since there could easily be a run on tuxedos in
the millennium formal push for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion, but
also because--like any good suit--there needs to be time for
tailoring. "Buy your tux immediately; don't wait until the last
minute," he says. "We will tailor in two days, but the closer we get
to Christmas, the more we might have to stretch that time. Earlier,
like say in October, it won't be a big issue. But don't wait until
the last minute." Is his point clear?
The passage from one century to the next demands the utmost in
evening wear. Suitable attire, so to speak, will speak volumes about
a man, and suitably so. Role models to carry with you mentally are
Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. And options include tails, top hats and
tuxedos. Whatever formal millennium New Year's Eve event you attend,
you want to make sure you don't come off looking like the maitre d',
the waiter, or worse.
Professionals advise the purchase of a tux, opposed to a rental.
You're not just making a purchase, you're making an investment in
yourself. Designer Alan Flusser waxes philosophical: "A
tuxedo is one of the items in a man's wardrobe that, as you get
more upscale, you need more often. You should invest in it," he
stresses, and recommends that you determine the quality you can
afford and then start trying on different styles. Buying a tuxedo
whose style is "fashion" isn't always advisable, either--you should
transcend fashion. Another point: make sure you don't put on weight
in the next five years.
Testing the waters early will give you the opportunity to shop with
comfort and impunity, sort of like looking for a luxury car. And the
price isn't that far off: some tuxedos and dinner suits, such as
those from Kiton, can set you back $5,000. With that in mind you'll
want to ensure that the style is classic and will drive your formal
events for years. If the first trick is to think ahead, the second
is to ask for help. "Most guys never ask directions when they're
lost. It's the same with clothes," chides designer Joseph Abboud.
Ask which route to take. Then try on tuxes. For classic evening
apparel, Flusser suggests looking for a tux in the midweight range
of 10 to 10 1/2 ounces. That will allow you to wear it indoors
comfortably enough to dance in it. Then, consider single-breasted or
double breasted silhouettes with either peak lapel or shawl
collar variations. Double-breasted versions are elegant and very
buttoned-up options; in fact, they are meant to be only worn
buttoned up; as such, they do not require a vest or cummerbund to
hide the waistband. Single-breasted variations (really, only the
one- or two-button model will do) necessitate searching for one of
those two accoutrements. Although the cummerbund was once used as a
virtual waist-wrapped crumb-catcher (please wear the pleats with
their pockets facing up), today gentlemen often wear them to add
personality to their ensemble. Novelty silk cummerbunds and vests
with their cute patterns and wide palettes make a man feel he is
more than just a stiff in a penguin suit.
Certainly an occasion such as this allows for much creativity. "This
is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wear something that's really
an heirloom or pass-along piece," drawls Neiman-Marcus's fashion
guru Derrill Osborn. "Black tie comprises many things. Supper suits
are special suits.
They could be a beautiful midnight blue with a peak lapel and soft
covered buttons. There's a great desire to get dressed up for this
New Year's. People are doing magnificent things, like renting
helicopters to be in the air for the countdown, or renting out the
oldest hotel in Havana." Your dress will want to mirror your
Be as adventurous as the event you will be attending, but start with
a good black tux, or at least a good black jacket, perhaps in silk
broadcloth, wool crepe, velvet (maroon and dark green are
alternatives), cashmere, even pashmina. Flusser indicates that the
"key element is always the jacket. People look 'not dressed' if they
don't have the jacket." Add an interesting dinner shirt--with
pleated or plain pique front and French cuffs--to take it away from
the ordinary. As "traditional twist, you could make a fancy pair of
trousers, in a paisley or leopard print or something insane," quips
Flusser. "And if you're speaking non-tie altogether, wear a black
silk bandless or banded collar
dinner shirt." Otherwise, the shirt, in white, should have a
pleated front or pique bib and a wingtip or point collar.
Other designers echo the importance of the formal suit, although
discrepancies arise if the destination is tropical, such as a
millennium holiday in Havana or in Tahiti. Choices include white
dinner jackets--which are usually ivory, often in tropical wool or,
for warm-weather environs, linen--and Sulka's reintroduction of the
Nehru jacket. Trousers can then be gray flannel, navy linen, or
tartan or black watch plaid.
Abboud insists that "evening wear is one way for a man to step
outside his regimen. This millennium New Year's Eve is probably the
one night that everyone is going to go out and be dressed very
This season, many designers and formal wear manufacturers have added
special millennium collections to their existing evening options.
Brioni's silk "celebration"
vests sport the Roman numerals for 2000 interwoven among
Champagne glasses. Dormeuil's one-of-a-kind silk jacquard vests are
made in Paris by Madame Danou Jacquard. Ermenegildo Zegna is
producing "Millennium" suits (priced at $6,000 for the finest
quality fabric, allowing for only 100 of them to be produced), which
will be accompanied by an ownership certificate and "life
insurance," a seasonal post purchase check-up that lasts for three
years. Kiton is creating cashmere dinner jackets that inscribe this
coming New Year's Eve inside the pocket. Cerruti's label's will list
the year and the place of celebration. Corneliani's jackets have
special Bemberg linings jacquarded with "Millennium 2000" and
carrying registration numbers.
Most of the flash, pomp and circumstance of formal fashions fit for
all this millennium's bashes stem from the past. Take the term
tuxedo itself. The
dress shirt is known throughout the rest of the world as evening
wear, formal wear or the "smoking." It was society prankster
Griswold Lorillard, scion of the tobacco company of the same name,
who first broke American tradition and social rules to sport a
shortened black tail coat with red vest (instead of the traditional
coat with tails) to a formal ball in Tuxedo Park, New York,
in 1886. The fashion effrontery, though scandalous, caught on and
the garment was soon named after its place of notoriety. If cheeky
Grissy created a flap, you can bet the style-setting Duke of Windsor
was not met with much derision when he later introduced the midnight
blue tuxedo, feeling it looked less green and, in fact, more black
black tux in artificial light.
While most formal accoutrements have origins rooted in history, that
doesn't mean you need to be a slave to tradition. Abboud notes that
cutaway coats and those with tails, popular at the last turn of the
century, are required for fewer and fewer events today. "They're
more of a uniform than anything, worn with morning stripe pants and
white tie. We don't sell or make those unless it's truly for
blue-blood situations. It's very rare you get an invitation for
white tie. It's wonderful to have the history of it, but it borders
Accessories are a big part of the historical formal quotient. With
dinner clothes you're talking about form, and the best way to
achieve that is through traditional routes. Wear a pocket square,
most notably in the form of a hand-rolled white linen handkerchief.
Cuff links, studs and
shoes should add to the elegant attitude of evening wear. Look
for jewelry in mother-of-pearl, rubies, even sapphires, recommends
Muffie Potter Aston, executive vice president of Van Cleef & Arpels,
US Group. "Men need studs, cuff links, a good watch. Buying studs
and cuff links is an investment, and the man who goes to black-tie
events is buying more than one set. He appreciates the finer things
in life--the artistry, craftsmanship and quality of accessories."
Shoes can range from the elegant velvet slip-on to patent leather
"pumps," as they're called. Warren Edwards, the shoe designer based
in New York, says what style "depends on what you're doing that
night. You can wear velvet slippers, patent leather shoes, black
satin lace-ups with toe caps and thick soles. We also create
custom-made shoes, for those men with extreme lasts. We've made
black pony boots and loafers, black patent sneakers, patent leather
animal prints. There's a lot of variety for men. You don't have to
go the traditional route."
The most traditional--and according to nearly all designers--most
important accessory, is the bow tie. Although only 2 percent of the
male population knows how to tie one, it truly is as easy to tie as
your shoe lace. Just ask your wife. Keep the tie simple, say most.
This millennium business is no excuse to exploit bad taste. Keep
that in mind when bending the rules for creative black tie. A few
years ago Ralph Lauren, as the story goes, wore a tux jacket with
blue jeans and cowboy boots to a black-tie event, and met with some
criticism. Although not everyone agrees upon how much bending can be
done, the rules of creativity when it comes to black tie depend
predominantly on the location of the party. Are you ending up at
Madonna's home or the White House? Make sure to dress accordingly.
You may think about more than just your outer ensemble, too. Flusser
admits that he would "want to be wearing silk underwear, silk hose,
something custom made, something that feels like the best." You can
enhance your enjoyment of the big night by getting a massage or
splurging for a manicure.
Until modern medicine proves us wrong, this will be the only turn of
the century we will witness. Ensure once-in-a-lifetime good spirits,
good times and a damn good look for yourself.
By: Kimberly Cihlar, [freelance writer living in New York, writes
frequently on fashion.]