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24 July 2014
Morning Sedition

Black Tie Optional

James Bond (Sean Connery) in Black Dinner Jacket

James Bond (Sean Connery) in Black Dinner Jacket

"Black Tie." "Dinner Jacket." Even the — dare we say it? — vernacular "Tuxedo." (The exceedinly vulgar and low-class name "tux" — I cringe as I even think it — will never pass these unsullied lips.) All refer to a short jacket every man needs for formal evening wear. Unlike James Bond, Rick Blaine, or (shudder) Jackie Chan, however, I actually don't own a tuxedo. Never have. Really. I almost, just a hair this side of not quite, bought an incredibly elegant one about fifteen years ago when it was being closed out by a store emptying its stock in a desperate attempt to save off bankruptcy.

Originally priced at almost a thousand dollars, which was real money in those days, it was a perfect fit, both in terms of fabric (wool, not synthetics), tailoring (fit like it was custom made) and eminently attractive closeout pricing ($125). There was one small hitch which prevented me from buying it: I realized I had never, not once in my entire life, had the occasion (or need) to wear a tuxedo and would likely not find one before the fashion changed. So I didn't buy it, and have never lived to regret it. (Not having bought that Italian silk suit the same habadasher had, however, is one of my eternal regrets.) But how is it that a short jacket and pants with a satin stripe became the "must wear" outfit? It is, after all, a trifle, well, silly looking. (Except that I really do like the white version shown below.)

White Dinner Jacket Ensemble

White Dinner Jacket Ensemble

The story goes that the Tuxedo was created by twenty-two year old Griswold Lorillard, who cut the tails off a formal jacket in order to shake up the town of Tuxedo Park, NY. (The town of Tuxedo Park had passed into the hands of the Griswold family in payment of a debt, and Lorillard — of the eponymous cancer-stick fortune — was one of their descendents.) This canard has been repeated so often that many don't realize its lack of veracity:

When we seek the origin of the dinner jacket - or Tuxedo as it is now known - we constantly come across a story about its introduction to this century by Griswold Lorillard at the first Tuxedo Autumn Ball in 1886.

The trouble with this story is that it is based entirely on a quotation from a society journal called Town Topics. According to an October 1886 issue of the journal, young Griswold Lorillard appeared (at the Ball) in a tailless dress coat, and waistcoat of scarlet satin, looking for all the world like a royal footman. There were several others of the abbreviated coats worn, which suggested to the onlookers that the boys ought to have been put in straight-jackets long ago.

Taken literally, this quotation seems quite plausible but, unfortunately, it has been misinterpreted. A tailless dress coat has been taken to mean a dinner jacket and, as a result, we have a story which is hard to believe, Griswold, or Grizzy as his friends called him, may very well have worn a tailless dress coat as a lark but this does not mean that he introduced the dinner jacket. Such an assumption is wrong for several reasons.

First of all, Grizzy’s tailless dress coat was much too short to be a dinner jacket. A dress coat, which is a tailor’s term for an evening tail coat, is cut above the waist, open in front, and tight fitting. A dinner jacket, on the other hand, is cut well below the waist, buttons in front, and fits more loosely. Grizzy’s dress coat - without its tails - was so short that it resembled a mess jacket, and it is no wonder that Town Topics thought he looked for all the world like a royal footman.

Secondly, Grizzy would have been far too young to introduce a new fashion to his elders at the Ball. He was only 22 and the second son of Pierre Lorillard, distinguished founder of Tuxedo Park. His older brother, Pierre Lorillard, Jr., was one of the governors of the Tuxedo Club. The other governors were all prominent New Yorkers, while the members of the Club and their guests were for the most part leading members of New York Society. It is hard to imagine, therefore, a young man introducing a new fashion to such a sophisticated gathering.

Finally, a formal ball would not have been the right occasion to introduce what was then an informal dinner fashion. We should remember that the dinner jacket, when it was first adopted, was worn only at informal dinner parties and it was not considered, as it is now, formal evening dress. If, therefore, Grizzy had been able to introduce the dinner jacket, he probably would have done so at a dinner party and not at a ball.

"Grizzy's Lark and a Legend," Village of Tuxedo Park - Grizzy's Lark And A Legend

Movie Poster for "The Tuxedo" Starring Jackie Chan

Movie Poster for "The Tuxedo" Starring Jackie Chan

Fifty years ago, when I was a senior in college, Grenville Kane, last of the founders of the Tuxedo Club left alive, told me several times the following story.

In the summer of 1886, the year Pierre Lorillard founded Tuxedo Park, James Brown Potter, one of its first residents, and Cora Potter, his beautiful wife from the South, went to England and met the Prince of Wales - later Edward VII - at a court ball. The Prince, who was fond of pretty women, asked the Potters to come to Sandringham for the weekend. The Potters of course accepted, and before going, Mr. Potter asked the Prince what he should bring to wear. The Prince told Mr. Potter that he had adopted a short jacket in the place of a tail coat for dinner in the country, and that if Mr. Potter went to his tailors in London, he could get a similar jacket make. This Mr. Potter did and apparently he and Mrs. Potter had a pleasant weekend while Bertie, as he was called, undoubtedly enjoyed looking across the table at the beautiful Cora.

When the Potters returned to Tuxedo that fall, Pierre Lorillard, Grenville Kane, and other members of the Club were not only impressed by the Potters’ visit to Sandringham, but also found the jacket Mr. Potter brought back more appropriate than tails for informal dinners, and then had it copied. Eventually, after wearing the new jacket for dinner in Tuxedo, some of the early members were bold enough to wear it one evening at a bachelor dinner at Delmonico’s, the only place in New York where gentlemen dined in public at that time. Needless to say, the other diners at Del’s were astonished, and when they asked what it was the men in short coats had on, they were told, Oh that is what they wear for dinner up in Tuxedo. Hearing Tuxedo mentioned, the curious diners quite naturally starting calling the new jacket by that name.

And so due to the Prince of Wales’ interest in the beautiful Mrs. Potter, the dinner jacket was brought to this country by Mr. Potter and, when first seen in public, was called a Tuxedo."

"The Prince and the Potter" Village of Tuxedo Park - The History of the Tuxedo

Cora Potter

Cora Potter

She first came to England in the summer of 1886 in the company of her husband and was introduced to the Prince of Wales (Edward VII to be) at a court ball. Taken with her beauty, the Prince invited the Brown-Potters to Sandringham for the weekend and they duly obliged. When James asked the prince what he should bring to wear, the Prince referred him to his tailors recommending a short jacket that he himself preferred to a full tailcoat for informal dinners. James followed the Prince's advice, and when he returned to the USA he wore the jacket at his club in Tuxedo, where other members admired the practicality and began to copy it. A little while later some members of the caused quite a stir in New York wearing the jacket to dinner at Delmonico's. Other diners were informed that this was what was worn to dinner in Tuxedo these days. The fashion caught on as did the name and that, as the story goes, is how the American Tuxedo was born.

Cora Urquhart Brown Potter

Now, if you didn't believe that the relationship was purely platonic — prices and kings usually restrict themselves to dalliances with married women, since any offspring would be considered to be the result of congress with the husband and thus not eligable for the throne or able to cause embarrassment — Ms. Potter remained in Britain when her husband returned to the states. (She became an actress. Simply scandalous!) Anyway, that's how the jacket ended up being a fashion statement in America.

The color of the duke's jacket, by the way, was midnight blue, not black. The reason is that under the artificial light of the day — probably limelight — blue appears black while black appears greenish. (This is why graphic designers often overlay a dead black with a deep midnight blue to get an extra richness. Ooops. Day job. Not gonna talk about that here.) The lapels on the original were never notched; that mutilation was perpetrated by suit manufacturers wishing to use the same patterns used for ordinary suits. A true tuxedo — excuse me, dinner jacket — uses a smooth shawl collar.

Welsh Dragon Cummerbund

Welsh Dragon Cummerbund

Welsh Dragon Bowtie

Welsh Dragon Bowtie

Typically being a solid black, the jacket is worn either with a colored vest or a waistband called a "cummerbund," usually with a matching bowtie — how cute is that? — to add a bit of color. (The word cummerbund comes to us from the Hindi word "kamarband," adopted into English in 1616. Kamarband is, in turn, composed of two persion words, "kamar" from "waist" and "band" meaning "tie or encircling fabric sash." It was actually a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist several times and tied; Indian men still wear it for dressy occasions, and Sikhs wear it every day.)

Cummerbund Montage

Cummerbund Montage

Cummerbunds come in all sorts of colors and patterns, even Scottish clan colors:

Cummerbund With Scottish Clan Pattern

Cummerbund With Scottish Clan Pattern

But some take this opportunity to be a sartorial showoff just a smidgen too far. For example, consider the Hawaiian vest below, complete with tropical foliage and parrots or the above Welsh dragon design. Both are just a wee bit too bold — ok, tacky! — for me.

Vest With Hawaiian Pattern

Vest With Hawaiian Pattern

But speaking of too bold, some people take their dinner jackets places they were never meant to go. Like this one, worthy of a dinner party held by, oh, say, Poseidon:

Green Dinner Jacket

This is a rich, elegant and fancy 1972 vintage formal tuxedo or dinner jacket with a brocade design of filigree leaves black on deep emerald green. Fabric on this is a satiny blend of either rayon or rayon and silk, it has notched lapels and button trimmed tab front pockets at each. "— Smokydiva's Vintage Clothing"

Oh, and the name tuxedo as in "Tuxedo Park"? It is supposedly derived from an Algonquian word "tuksit" or "p'tuksit" used to refer to the Wolf tribe in the area. It means "round foot" because the Wolf tribe tended to fall over and surrender easily. But who knows how true any of this is.

Party Invitation With Formal Wear

Party Invitation Featuring Tuxedo and Formal Gown

There are even special cummerbunds appropriate for troops serving in Iraq:

Bulletproof Cummerbund

Hard Plate Carrier with Cummerbund

Not only will it accept armor inserts, both hard and soft, but it comes in a variety of evening-wear colors: smoke green, woodland, desert tan, coyote brown, and the ever-versatile body-bag black. It's what the well-dressed cannon fodder is wearing this year.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) from Casablanca

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) from Casablanca, in white dinner jacket and black tie

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Grizzy's Lark and a Legend," Village of Tuxedo Park - Grizzy's Lark And A Legend
  2. "The Prince and the Potter" Village of Tuxedo Park - The History of the Tuxedo
  3. Cora Urquhart Brown Potter
  4. CitizenArcane on the Origin of the Blazer
  5. CitizenArcane on the Origin of Seersucker

Clean shirt, new shoes
And I don't know where I am goin' to.
Silk suit, black tie,
I don't need a reason why.
They come runnin' just as fast as they can
Coz every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man.

Gold watch, diamond ring,
I ain't missin' a single thing.
And cufflinks, stick pin,
When I step out I'm gonna do you in.
They come runnin' just as fast as they can
Coz every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man.

Top coat, top hat,
I don't worry coz my wallet's fat.
Black shades, white gloves,
Lookin' sharp and lookin' for love.
They come runnin' just as fast as they can
Coz every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man.

"Sharp Dressed Man," ZZ Top, Eliminator, 1983

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