The Tale of the Tuxedo
by Andy Stinson
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.