In a tuxedo, I’m a star. In regular clothes, I’m a nobody.
Tuxedo, dinner jacket, black tie – there are many names for it. No garment is probably more associated with the gentleman than the tuxedo today. While its predecessors, such as the coat and jacket, were relegated to a few occasions, the tuxedo has remained relevant since its invention in 1865.
The fascinating history of the tuxedo takes it from the smoking room to royal casual, to accidentally breaking into the US and ending up in its current place as the gentleman’s number one party wear. Join us on a journey through more than 100 years of the tuxedo. For inspiration, don’t miss our guides to dress code black tie (or as we say in Sweden, dress code tuxedo) and the tuxedo shirt.
Tuxedo, dinner jacket, tuxedo – a little about the terms
To avoid confusing the story, let’s start by addressing the concepts. What in Sweden and many other European countries we call smoking is not the ‘right’ name. Tuxedo is a simplification of smoking suit and, as we will soon explain, is related to the history of the garment.
In the UK, the country of origin, it is instead dinner suit that applies. To make matters worse, the same thing is called tuxedo in the United States. The dress code black tie is the same everywhere, so it means that men are expected to wear a tuxedo, dinner suit or tuxedo.
Henry Poole creates the tuxedo
The tuxedo was born in 1865. The reason we know it so well is that in that year Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, commissioned an dinner suit from Henry Poole on Saville Row. The tuxedo jacket was single-breasted with a shawl collar and made from midnight blue silk, with a pair of trousers in matching material. The 24-year-old Crown Prince does this for the simple reason that he wants something casual to wear to dinners with friends at Sandringham House. The order remains in Henry Poole’s archive and that’s why we know this for sure.
For the men of the 2020s, this order may not sound so revolutionary. But the Victorian era was characterized by a very conservative approach to clothing. Every gentleman was expected to wear dress coat – a coat, simply, with all its accessories – after dinner, whether you were expecting guests or not. In the daytime, you wore a normal morning coat (jackett), frock coat (long-jacket or bonjour) or novelty, lounge suit (a kind of early 3-piece suit), best suited for informal settings such as walking.
The only debauchery took place in the smoking room. Smoking tobacco had become popular in England after the Crimean War. After dinner, it was customary for men to take a cigar or pipe. To protect their fine clothes from ashes, they wore smoking jackets , smoking coats. They had evolved from long silk coats, robe to a shorter jacket in velvet or wool. Here the gentleman could still excel with exciting colors and patterns, preferably with a matching hat.
Gentleman’s magazine, 1850
It was probably a smoking jacket , but formally sewn, which was the starting point for Albert Edwards’ dinner jacket . Instead of putting on a tuxedo jacket for smoking and then taking it off for dinner, the young man ordered a jacket that could be worn for both smoking and dining.
There are myths that the tuxedo was created by simply cutting off the crop of a coat to make it more comfortable. This can easily be dismissed by trying on a tuxedo – the result is a waistcoat rather than a tuxedo jacket.
Tuxedo Park and Black Tie
The next step in the history of the tuxedo came in 1886, when coffee millionaire James Brown Potter and his wife Cora visited England and met the Prince at a ball. The Crown Prince, always with an eye for beautiful ladies, invited Potter and his wife to dinner. When Potter asked what he should wear, the Prince advised him to go to Henry Poole to make a dinner suit. Potter took his dinner suit to America and set up Tuxedo Park, a country club outside New York.
There are many stories about how the tuxedo spread further. Maybe it was when the sons of the Tuxedo Park gentlemen attended the traditional fall ball in 1886 in their English dinner suits, or when the Tuxedo Park gentlemen went to New York for dinner one day?
The other diners at Dell’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”.
Utdrag ur Tuxedo Parks arkiv
From being an informal garment – something for a dinner among friends – the tuxedo now spread as a replacement for the coat. In fashion illustrations from the Victorian era (1837-1901), it is clear how dominant the coat still was as an evening wear for men. When you then move to the Edwardian era (1901-1910), you can see how the tuxedo starts to become more common. Somewhere along the way, the white bow tie was replaced by a black one, perhaps to mark the difference between a coat and a tuxedo, white tie och black tie .
The classic tuxedo takes shape
The early 20th century until the Second World War was the height of the tuxedo. From being a garment you could only be seen in at home, it became the standard for well-dressed evenings. The coat was relegated to balls, formal dinners and the opera, where it remains today.
To a man who can not afford to get two suits of evening clothes, the Tuxedo is of greater importance. It is worn every evening and nearly everywhere, whereas the tailcoat is necessary only at balls, formal dinners, and in a box at the opera.
Emily Post’s Etiquette, 1922
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the completion of the tuxedo as we formally wear it today.
Tuxedo jacket or tuxedo jacket is black or midnight blue in brushed wool. It originally has a shawl collar and is single-breasted, but inspiration from suit fashion meant that tuxedo jackets with pointed lapels became popular early on. The lapels or shawl collar are lined with satin or grosgrain. The tuxedo jacket has no lapels and has welt pockets.
Tuxedo trousers are made of the same material as the jacket and have one or more silk ribbons (reveres) on the sides. They are worn high with braces and have no lapels.
Vests , low-cut and in the same material as the tuxedo, is used to cover the waist. The brat , cummerbund was an option inspired by a garment worn by Indian soldiers.
Shirt is white and has a starched shirt chest, either pleated (folded) or pique. It has no sewn-on buttons – instead it has breast buttons ( studs) and cufflinks. The classic collar is turned up – known as a notched collar – but a classic shirt collar is also acceptable for less formal occasions.
Flight to matches the material of the tuxedo collar or lapels, and is tied by hand.
The shoes are black and shiny, to match the other parts of the tuxedo, and are worn with black long socks. The model was originally pumps , shoes without lacing and fitted with buckles or bows. In the early 20th century, the patent leather oxford shoe became increasingly popular.
Bland the accessories there is the obligatory white handkerchief and a discreet pocket watch or wristwatch. The dandy wears a flower, the boutonnière, in the buttonhole – a tradition with much older roots than the tuxedo.
Over the last 100 years, the formal version of the tuxedo has not changed much. But in popular culture and fashion, it has undergone countless variations.
As the tuxedo spread from cold England to warmer climes, the need for a cooler alternative arose. In the 1930s, experimentation began with light-colored versions of dinner jackets made from thin wool or linen. The starched shirt was replaced by a regular suit shirt with a turned-down collar. The waistcoat was swapped for a cooler silk cummerbund, or double-breasted. This variant was made popular by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
Once color-tabut was released, it moved quickly. During the post-war period and the rebellious 60s and 70s, all old conventions were questioned. Pastels, metallics, patterns and collared shirts were just a few of the variations that made the cut.
But despite all these attempts to redefine the tuxedo, it is still going strong. Designers like Tom Ford and style icons like James Bond have brought the tuxedo into the 21st century with great respect for its heritage.