The tuxedo: 150 years of a formal icon

New year will bring new fashions, but there’s one piece of men’s attire that never seems to change, the tuxedo. Alice Wyllie looks at a 150-year-old tradition

THE decorations are coming down, the good crystal is being packed away and the party frocks mothballed for another year, possibly destined to look a little dated come Christmas 2012. However, there’s one old faithful garment which men across the country will keep reaching for throughout the coming year, and in the years beyond, for formal dinners and dances, awards ceremonies and parties; the tuxedo, or the dinner jacket as it’s more commonly known in the UK.

This most classic of garments is a stately 150 years old and shows no sign of going out of fashion. Daniel Craig will, of course, wear one in Skyfall, this year’s Bond film which is released in October, and it will look much the same as the one Sean Connery wore in 1962’s Dr No.

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And whoever picks up the gong for best actor at this year’s Academy Awards in February will likely do so in the same ensemble worn by most of the previous winners in the category.

While there is much debate as to who pioneered the tuxedo and how exactly it came to fruition, since it was introduced in the mid-19th century it has become the formal attire of choice for men across the western world.

Edinburgh tailor Peter Johnston makes made-to-measure evening wear for clients across the globe from his discreet townhouse showrooms on Queen Street.

Where fashion designers concern themselves with the various nuances of trends and fads, Johnston knows that the pieces he creates in 2012 will look much the same as they did last year, and indeed the year before that. The nature of men’s formal attire is such that it has barely changed for years; 150 years to be precise.

There are variations, of course. At Peter Johnston, for example, many clients request that their dinner jackets be made up with tartan trews. However, by and large, the formula is a strict one. Most jackets are single breasted with a single button and either peak lapels or a shawl collar. Trousers have a braid running the length of the outside seam and never feature a turn-up at the hem.

“We would normally create a dinner jacket in a midnight navy,” explains Johnston. “It’s a shade which appears blacker-than-black in the absence of light. You see, black can look flat, and can often appear green-grey. As for the cloth, in Scotland we would usually go for a 12 or 13oz pure new wool. However, if we’re making up a jacket for a warmer climate, we might use a content of mohair which is drier and less warm.”

Johnston charges around £2,000 for a dinner jacket and £770 for trousers. When it comes to donning formal attire himself, he has a strict formula: “I wear clan trews and an evening jacket with a single-button and a shawl collar as well as a cummerbund matched to my bow-tie,” he says.

With the exception of the tartan trews, the ensemble he describes varies very little from the early tuxedo. Where styles of women’s eveningwear have developed from year to year, men’s formalwear has remained resolutely, stubbornly unchanged.

It’s interesting to think that a tuxedo was once considered relatively informal. Indeed in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, set during the First World War, Lord Grantham tells his mother, the formidable Dowager Countess that he “nearly came down in a dinner jacket tonight,” to which she responds: “Really? Well why not a dressing gown? Or better still, pyjamas?”

Legend has it that the tuxedo was pioneered by one Griswold Lorillard, the son of Pierre Lorillard, tobacco magnate and founder of the elite resort Tuxedo Park, in New York State. Lorillard Jr is said to have cut the tails off his jacket before attending a ball at the Tuxedo Club in 1886, causing widespread uproar and starting a new trend. It’s a nice story, but has been discounted as the origins of the tuxedo.

In reality, the jacket appears to have been born much earlier when bespoke Saville Row tailor Henry Poole was commissioned to create a less formal version of the tailcoat for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.

The Prince – who wanted something smarter than a lounge suit but less formal than white tie – wore the jacket to a dinner at Sandringham where James Brown Potter, a Tuxedo Club member, was present. He liked the look so much that he went to Poole for a jacket of his own and brought it home to Tuxedo Park. Later, when he attended a dinner in New York and was asked by shocked fellow diners why he was “out of uniform,” he replied that he was wearing “the latest Tuxedo fashion”.

The look has stuck ever since. Men’s formalwear has always been designed to fade into the background, to allow women to shine, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why it’s changed very little in 150 years.

“I think it has remained relatively unchanged because it’s so understated,” says Johnston. “It’s classic, very formal and has that sense of uniform, which a lot of men like. It simply works well for them. When it’s cut properly, by a good tailor, it suits everyone regardless of body shape. The type of clients we deal with are uninterested in the whims of fashion. They like style, quality and attention to detail.”

Johnston has received requests from women for bespoke formalwear, but prefers, he says, to “stick to what [he’s] good at.” However, women have worn tuxedos for nearly a century. Marlene Dietrich was an early adopter, pairing hers with a top hat and a cigarette, but it was French couturier Yves Saint Laurent who made tuxedos for women mainstream.

He introduced “Le Smoking” jacket in 1966 and the fashion house has carried a version of it ever since. Worn by everyone from Kate Moss to Catherine Deneuve, the classic simplicity of it has made Le Smoking a wardrobe staple of the world’s most fashionable women. Bianca Jagger even married Mick in a white one.

Peter Johnston (who does, incidentally, offer an ecru version for cruises and open-air evening parties) takes around ten weeks to make a dinner jacket, which includes three fittings.

The first fitting will typically see Johnston making the jacket up in a toile. By the second, he has sewn in the linings and by the third the jacket is usually finished bar a few small tweaks.

“The challenge for us – and it’s one we relish – is to make every man look ‘correct’ in his tailoring,” says Johnston, who can artfully trim the waistlines and elongate the torsos of the Edinburgh establishment. “Menswear is quite strict. We tend to have to conform to a uniformity so we don’t stand out.”

The irony of course, is that the tuxedo – or dinner jacket – is such a classic piece of design, that it can’t help but stand out. In a sea of eveningwear, the men will look almost identical, where the women will tend to be bedecked in the latest fashions.

Yet, the timelessness of the tux is just as memorable as a breathtaking gown, so much so that any woman who truly wishes to stand out at a formal event will wear one. And, in another 150 years, when women’s fashions will likely have evolved beyond all recognition, it seems likely that the tuxedo will be standing its very stylish ground.

Famous tux-wearers

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

In the famous opening scenes of the 1972 film, The Godfather, Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, conducts his business from his darkened office wearing an immaculate tuxedo, while his friends and family dance at his daughter’s wedding outside in the sunshine. The single red rose he wears in his buttonhole only serves to make him look even more sinister.

Diane Keaton

When it comes to androgynous dressing, Diane Keaton is a style icon thanks to her role in the 1977 Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, in which she donned loose, masculine tailoring. Life imitated art in 2004, however, when she famously wore a Ralph Lauren tuxedo and bowler hat to the Oscars.

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

The white dinner jacket can be a controversial choice, but no-one has worn one as well as Humphrey Bogart in 1942’s Casablanca. Arguably, the only other man to have pulled off this look is Sean Connery in 1964’s Goldfinger. He wore his ivory dinner jacket with a red carnation in the buttonhole.

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich shocked the world in the 1930 film Morocco in which she wore a tuxedo and a top hat and kissed a woman. She regularly wore a tux to perform throughout her career, and in private was said to have worn evening gowns to seduce men and a tuxedo to tempt women.

James Bond

Ah, the most famous tux of them all. Nobody does the dinner jacket better than Bond. While Ian Fleming’s books don’t reveal the identity of James Bond’s tailor, Daniel Craig {pictured) wore dinner jackets by Brioni in Casino Royale and by Tom Ford in Quantum of Solace. During filming for the latter, he is said to have ruined around 40 bespoke Tom Ford suits.