Actress Margot Robbie looked radiant in a cream silk Gucci gown embroidered with crystal and emerald with a plunging neckline and high slit. Orlando Bloom matched a bowtie with his tux.
—The Hollywood Reporter, on the 2014 Golden Globes
Red-carpet reviewers love to offer up breathlessly detailed descriptions of starlets’ resplendent gowns, shoes, and accessories. Male attire, by contrast, is typically treated as a footnote. This bias is partly the result of the tuxedo’s intentional deference to the finery of the fairer sex. But it is also reflective of commentators’ ignorance of what defines a good tuxedo. With the granddaddy of red-carpet ceremonies just around the corner, here’s your own expert guide to separating the James Bonds from the Justin Biebers.
The first step to becoming an expert tux watcher is placing the garment in historical context. Unlike Uggs or parachute pants, tuxedos didn’t just show up in stores one day on a designer’s whim. Men’s formalwear has served a very specific role for two centuries, and a basic knowledge of its past is essential to assessing its successful execution in the present.
The roots of modern formalwear can be traced back to the age of Jane Austen. Prior to that time the attire of upper-class men was an ostentatious spectacle replete with brightly colored and heavily ornamented coats, lacey shirts, tight breeches, and silk stockings. Then, around the turn of the 19th century, the aristocracy made a radical shift away from this effete image of the royal courtier and toward the more masculine concept of the country gentleman. This more somber and austere aesthetic would define men’s clothing for the next 150 years.
As always, the gentry reserved their finest apparel for evenings. While daytime might be spent outdoors or among mixed company, evenings were for socializing with peers at elaborate formal dinners, opera parties, and private balls. For the English Regency gentleman, the foundation of his new evening wear was a tailcoat and trousers of dark hues that harmonized with his candlelit settings and imbued him with an aura of stature and power. With this he wore a short waistcoat, soft shirt, and layered cravat. The pairing of these white linens with the dark suit created both a striking contrast and a minimal color palette, engendering a sort of sartorial chivalry by allowing the men’s formal attire to supplement the ladies’ finery instead of competing with it.
As the Regency progressed into the Victorian era this “full dress” ensemble remained de rigueur after 6 o’clock among polite society. It also became increasingly codified as the barons of the industrial revolution adopted it en masse for the air of respectability it offered the wearer. Shirts fronts and tall wing collars were starched to cardboardlike stiffness, neat bow ties replaced elaborate cravats, and the overall color palette was reduced to a strict black and white minimalism. If you’ve seen the men of Downton Abbey dressed for dinner you’ll know the look precisely.
Not surprisingly, the practice of dressing like an orchestra conductor every evening eventually began to chafe on many men, and a search began for a more comfortable alternative for informal nights. The solution arrived in the 1880s in the form of the casual short suit jacket dressed up with the silk lapels and black shade of the tailcoat. Apparently in Victorian times this was considered letting your hair down. As such, its appropriateness was strictly limited to at-home dinners, private men’s clubs, and hot summer nights.
Of course, social standards have loosened somewhat since Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire. By the roaring Jazz Age of the 1920s the youthful dinner jacket had supplanted the patrician tailcoat as de facto evening attire at speakeasies and night clubs everywhere. By the 1930s it was worn exclusively with the black bow tie and black waistcoat, leaving the white versions solely for full dress and giving rise to the Black Tie and White Tie dress codes we still employ today.
The outfit was also bequeathed a number of informal alternatives for hot-weather occasions. The white jacket absorbed less heat, the double-breasted jacket did away with the need for a waist covering, and the soft-front shirt with turndown collar wore more comfortably. The most novel option was to replace one’s waistcoat with the cooler cummerbund adapted by British military officers from the tropical sashes worn in colonial India. Topping off the swank Depression-era developments, midnight-blue became an acceptable substitute for black thanks to its tendency to appear darker and richer under electric light. This was arguably the golden age of the tuxedo, immortalized on the silver screen by icons such as Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart.
After World War II, social standards eased once again and the tuxedo took on a more democratic role. Instead of being mandatory evening attire for the well-to-do it was now a special-occasion kit for men of all classes, thanks in no small part to the increasing popularity of rentals and ready-to-wear clothing. In addition, the pre-war summer variations became acceptable year round. (The white jacket was the sole exception: Wearing one beyond the confines of a summer resort would still mark the owner as a waiter or hired musician.) This led to the relaxed refinement we now associate with Cary Grant, the Rat Pack, and the fictional Mad Men.
Then the ’60s came along and everything went to pot. (Literally.) As the first post-war generation came of age they wanted nothing to do with their parents’ traditions. Consequently, formal conventions were either rejected or blithely reinvented in their hippie image. The outcome for formalwear ranged from lapel-less Nehru jackets popularized by the Beatles to the theatrical neo-Edwardian fashions parodied in the Austin Powers movies. Later on, the disco era ushered in pastel-colored suits, extravagantly ruffled shirts, and titanic bow ties. In the 1980s Gen X-ers laughed at their own parents’ outlandish inventions only to embrace tiny wing collars and miniature colored bow ties with matching cummerbunds. The 1990s then gave us the New Wave look of “creative black tie” and the new millennium reduced the tuxedo to a black business suit and tie.
Which brings us to the present day. Using our newfound understanding of the tuxedo’s historical purpose and long evolution, we are now ready to separate today’s winning interpretations from the supporting players.
The Ultimate Ensemble
At the apex of the formalwear hierarchy is the outfit favored by men of distinction who understand the benefits of timeless style. It exudes the refined minimalism developed by some of the 20th century’s best dressers and often carries the Tom Ford label.
This rare ensemble is distinguished by a jacket closing with only one button so as to reveal a deep “V” of white shirt-front. The jacket’s lapels are peaked or shawl style. The first shape draws the eye upward in a sweeping motion suggesting athletically wide shoulders and a trim waist. The shawl collar is more low-key but equally debonair thanks to its exclusive association with formal apparel. These lapels are faced in satin or the more understated grosgrain texture so favored by the Brits. The same facing is also used to trim pockets, buttons, and trouser outseams. The pockets are devoid of flaps so as to minimize clutter on the coat and emphasize clean lines. For similar reasons, the jacket is devoid of vents. The suit’s wool is either black or midnight blue. Cream or ivory jackets are also acceptable provided the locale is considered at least subtropical.
Just as important as a tuxedo’s features is its fit, a fact overlooked by many novice dressers. In this regard it must meet the same standards as any other good suit: It should not be so large as to hang off the wearer’s frame nor so small as to squeeze it like a sausage casing. The sleeves and should be just short enough to display a generous portion of smart white shirt cuff and the legs just long enough to touch the top of the shoe rather than pooling at the ankle. The trousers must sit up at the waist to give the impression of long legs and a statuesque physique when the jacket is open. (This is done by means of suspenders or, for those with Daniel Craig’s abs, just the trousers’ side tabs.) The tuxedo’s cut, though, is irrelevant. Wide versus narrow lapels and baggy versus fitted styles come and go with the times but don’t affect the overall look, provided the accessories share similar proportions.