Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dinner Jacket or Monkey Suite—It’s All Tuxedo to Me

This is how all men think we look in a tuxedo.

Mopes like me get to put on rented evening wear two, maybe three times in our lives.  At a prom, if we can find a date and when someone gets married.  The process of rental is expensive and time consuming.  And most of the time the fit isn’t all that great, upon closer examination the suit has gone out more often than the easiest girl in school, and the patent leather shoes pinch.
But standing in front of the mirror in the shop you could, if you squinted, imagine yourself as debonair as Cary Grant, as hip and swinging as a Rat Packer in Vegas, or as cool as James Bond at the baccarat table in Monaco. 
But in high school, I came of age when the lapels grew as wide as the shoulders, shirts got frilly, and instead of sophisticated black, designers thought at pastel shades—mine was baby blue—with lots of satin ribbon trim was the way to go.  Kinda destroyed the illusion.
I got one more chance.  My prom date, the lovely Ida Fidritch, asked me to be her escort at the Germania Club Ball in Chicago.  The Germania club was maybe the city’s swankiest ethnic club, set in an elegant building just off of Clark in Old Town.  The ball was a big deal and Ida was officially coming out there.  That’s right.  I know you don’t believe it, but I was officially dating a debutant.  She, tall and elegant, looked lovely in a shimmering strapless gown. 
Unfortunately, I had blown all my money renting the prom suit.  So I borrowed a cream colored evening jacket that my Dad had bought when he was in the Wyoming state cabinet and had to attend formal functions.  It was a western cut with arrow head pockets and a yolk on the back.  And set off with patent leather cowboy boots three sized too long form me but also too narrow.
The Germans, being old school and proper, all showed up in classic black jackets.  Maybe one or two in white.  Needless to say, no one else was dressed like Gene Autry at a wedding.  Ida’s embarrassment was deep.  I solaced myself with the discovery that I could be served at the bar.  Tragically, it was our last date, although I did glimpse her that summer when she was elected Queen of the Skokie Ox Roast.  She was later a first runner up to Miss Illinois.  Clearly my sartorial choice pegged me as not even close to her league.
I skipped formal wear at my wedding—got married in a brown hand-me-down suit also obtained from my father and pearl snap western shirt embroidered with brown roses.  But I did have to get dressed for my daughter Heather’s wedding.  And if I do say so myself, I cut quite a figure at the American Legion Hall where we danced the night away for her reception.
All of this is prolog to the topic of the day—the introduction of the tuxedo at a posh New York country club on October 10, 1886.  On that date a leading society toff and tobacco heir, Peter Lorillard IV was said to have shown up at the first annual Autumn Ball of the Tuxedo Club, a posh country club retreat for the Big Apple elite, wearing a tail-less black formal suit.  He created a sensation and a tradition.  Other members aped his style and the new jacket became a trademark of club membership.  When some began to wear it to dinner in the city, instead of at an “informal” country club, the style began to catch on.
The suit style, quickly dubbed for the club of its debut, caught on as, ironically, informal wear.  The black tail coat suit, white waistcoat, starched bib shirt front, wing collar and white tie worn with spats on the dancing pumps and a silk high hat remained the full dress formal wear for a night out.  As anyone who watches old movies will attest, that style still ruled into the 1930’s and is still, on rare occasions, trotted out by the very swellest of swells at the toniest of charity balls or opera openings.
The tuxedo was more typically reserved for dinner, summer wear (they tended to be made from lighter material than tails), or, increasingly, for formal occasions away from Broadway.  Because they were worn at dinner, they quickly became the uniform of waiters in eateries high brow to beer hall and earned the derisive name, monkey suites.  This “low class” adoption probably contributed to the continued use of tailcoats among the very top members of the societal pecking order.
Despite earning their name and spreading in popularity from the American country club, the suit style did not originate there.
The Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s son the future King Edward VII is the usual suspect.  Stories claim that as early as 1860 he asked his tailors, Henry Poole & Co. of Seville Row for a blue silk smoking jacket for use in “informal” dining at country estates away from formality of Court and London.  He liked the comfort, but the smoking jacket was considered lounging wear and may have shocked his guests and/or hosts, if such people could afford to be shocked by the eccentricities of the heir apparent.
By the 1880’s Edward had refined his idea, based on the tailless short mess jackets of Army officers of the period.  In 1885 he can be confirmed as ordering from Poole’s a “tailless diner jacket” made of the same black cloth as formal tail coats.
The next year, Edward is said to have shown the style to visiting New York millionaire James Potter, another early member of the Tuxedo Club who may have shared his discovery with Lorillard.  Or perhaps giving the daring new style the stamp of royal approval simply gave it that extra aura of respectability.
We do know that Edward was wearing the style and it spread in the drawing rooms of the Great Houses by the turn of the century.
The classic Tuxedo style was one button with un-notched satin lapels that recalled the earlier smoking jackets.  It was more closely fit and tailored than a standard men’s business suit.  A satin ribbon stripe often ran on the outside trouser seam.  If worn with a waistcoat—the vest was black—or daringly a contrasting bright color—the boiled bib was worn.  By the ‘20’s a starched and pleated formal shirt with studs was generally worn with a cummerbund.  They were worn outside with informal hats—a bowler in winter, a straw skimmer in summer.  Eventually, those gave way to soft black felt hats, either homburgs or fedoras.  By the mid ‘60’s the hat was generally disposed of entirely.
Styles did change.  Lapels became peaked or notched, wider and narrower as fashion dictated.  Two and three button versions and double breasted styles were introduced.  By the ‘30’s white was becoming fashionable for summer wear, although this style reverted the British name of dinner jacket.
Still, most of us picture the simple elegance of the tux as it was worn in the early ‘60’s by various cultural icons.  Then the aforementioned late ‘60’s early ‘70’s kitsch took over resulting in various abominations including plaid and denim suits.
These days most rental tuxes follow style on display at the previous year’s Academy Awards.  Currently that means black coats tailored looser and more like business suites, usually without the satin adornment on the notched lapels.  Shirts are softer dress shirts worn with cufflinks but often disposing of studs in favor of buttons.  Currently long ties, previously taboo in evening wear, are becoming fashionable. The overall effect is more like a funeral director than a waiter.
Of course, I may never have to worry about picking out a tux again.  Unless I get that call from the Pulitzer Committee for my richly deserved Poetry Prize.  Then stand back and watch me rock the duds.  Hmmm, I wonder, will I have to get a black cowboy hat to go with the suite?

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