Elements of Style
The Tale of the Tuxedo
by Andy Stinson

Black Tie. Or Cravat Noire if your host has a playfully cosmopolitan flair. The invitation sparks an intoxicating sense of excitement and anticipation. At the same time, it stirs an uneasy dread and a tinge of fearful apprehension.

And rightly so. Black Tie is, after all, far more than a social invitation. It communicates a sartorial eloquence mastered by few. It is the unspoken but universally understood mandate to arrive properly and appropriately attired—a daunting challenge for both neophytes and those who only occasionally tinker in the ilk of uber-festivities requiring the social gravity and protocol of "Evening Dress."

Black Tie heralds uniquely special affairs, those reserved exclusively for occasions of Old World grandeur, opulent celebration and festive revelry. Little wonder, then, that satisfying the fashion demands of Black Tie should cause an intimidating and dispiriting sense of fashion insecurity even among the most self-confident. It is serious and deliberate dress fashioned by monarchs, governed by royal protocol and dictated by decades, even centuries, of social custom and ceremony. It is pomp and circumstance—and never to be taken lightly.

For most, Black Tie and tuxedo are synonymous. In England, it is called a dinner jacket. In France, where it is worn in private men’s clubs, it is called le smoking. In Scotland, it is paired with a kilt. And in Bermuda, it is worn with knee-length shorts. Like the chic "little black dress," the tuxedo is itself the ultimate expression of sophisticated elegance. And like all icons, its timeless design and refined styling is almost always corrupted and spoiled—and seldom improved—by trendy tinkering. That explains the small tolerance given by purists to fad-of-the-moment designer interpretations. And unless you are the dashing bon vivant socialite Griswold Lorillard, millionaire heir to a tobacco fortune and a widely renowned fashion dandy, an irreverent disdain for appropriate dress will almost certainly mark you a foolish fashion victim. Still, we have the irreverent fashion rebel "Grizzy" Lorillard to thank for the tuxedo of today.

According to society page history, it was a balmy October eve in 1886 when the twentysomething Lorillard temporarily scandalized his family and outraged both bluebloods and haute society by shunning the mandatory tailcoat required for the annual Autumn Ball. Defying protocol, Lorillard strode into the ballroom in a short, tailless "dinner jacket," that his tailor, the legendary Henry Poole, had adapted from a velvet smoking jacket he designed for the soon-to-be-King Edward VII. (It would be Edward’s grandson, the Duke of Windsor, whose own adventurous fashion flirtations with protocol would prove the most dramatic influence on the styling of the modern tuxedo and etiquette of its accessories.)

In any other situation, Lorillard’s peccadillo would have won his immediate expulsion. But the dashing young maverick wisely chose a strategic battlefield to stage his sartorial revolt—it occurred just north of New York City at The Tuxedo Club, which had been founded by his father.

Though society pages across the nation sensationalized the folly of Lorillard’s fashion rebellion, momentarily tarnishing his family’s name, the collaboration between Poole and Lorillard became a sensation. Thus was born the modern and eponymously named tuxedo.

As it turns out, Lorillard’s rebellious breach proved that history does repeat itself. In blazing a new fashion trail, Lorillard was simply following the footsteps of George Bryan Brummel.

Until the early 1800s, men’s formal fashions were influenced by the pre-revolutionary court of Louis XIV of France. Tufted, brocaded and brilliantly colored, even plumed and jeweled, they were far more flamboyant and extravagantly adorned than the most lavish women’s gowns.

Then, in 1820, George "Beau" Brummel, the legendary English dandy and confidant to the Prince of Wales, brashly risked royal wrath by attending a court ball daringly dressed, au contraire to protocol, in a simple and severely austere black-and-white tailcoat. Its minimalist look amplified the high-contrast drama of its stark simplicity, and Brummel’s less-is-more aesthetic created a style that has prevailed ever since.

Legend has it that the tuxedo was designed by a woman as the perfect black backdrop for evening dresses. Although it is far from fact, it turns out that women proved the most ardent champions of Brummel’s revolutionary new style for its palette did indeed proffer the perfect foil to the venturous design flourishes, precious jewel accents and bold coloring of feminine fashion.

Beau Brummel, by the way, did not win his famed sobriquet as a result of his sartorial innovations. His valet’s telltale gossip held that the rakish young aristocrat would change his wardrobe as often as ten times before satisfied, and that he routinely spent hours perfecting the nonchalant elegance of every detail. But, it was Brummel’s angelic features and devilishly attractive form, not his stylish savior faire or impeccably resplendent wardrobe, that inspired the legendary nickname. Translated from French, beau means a "splendidly beautiful or strikingly pretty young man."

After dark, or 6:00 p.m.—whichever arrives first—is the traditional bewitching hour when Black Tie is deemed appropriate fashion. White Tie, or Cravat Blanche, on the other hand, does not mean a white dinner jacket, or even a white bow tie with a black tuxedo jacket, as many fashionistas mistakenly think. Instead, White Tie means "full evening dress." Tailcoat, in other words. Or "tails," as it is known by its most widely recognized moniker. The type of formal attire an affair requires is clearly stated via the color of bow tie—just remember that White Tie means tailcoat and Black Tie means a tuxedo.

Translating appropriate Black Tie fashion is equally simple. Despite the imposing look of its pomp and circumstance, overcoming that initial, intimidating rush of fashion insecurity that accompanies a formal invitation is accomplished via a handful of easy-to-remember guidelines that are more social custom than hard-and-fast rules. But once learned, they are the framework for creatively cobbling together your own personal style. For starters, anyone who wears a suit should not fear a tuxedo. A tuxedo, after all, is little more than a business suit, albeit a more elegant version reserved for evening and adorned with regal detailings. To offset a crowded ballroom’s often stifling heat and offer an added measure of comfort while dancing, tuxedos are typically a lighter weight fabric than business suits. And while "tuxedo" refers to the jacket, it also includes pants and furnishings, along with accessories and footwear.

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