Black and White – All about the Tuxedo

26 Jun

I think I should start this off by saying that this isn’t a fashion and style blog and it ain’t a menswear blog. It’s a history blog. I won’t be covering every single itty-bitty-titty-kitty detail about the do’s, the don’ts and the faux-pas of how to and how not to wear a tux. If that’s what you came here for, then you probably won’t find it.

The tuxedo is the ultimate men’s uniform. You see it at fancy parties, awards ceremonies, Christmas balls, royal gatherings, state dinners, weddings and anniversary celebrations. James Bond would never be seen without one. But it seems like these days, nobody really knows what a tuxedo is. They have a vague idea that it’s black and white and it’s mandatory daily attire for penguins…but that’s about it. What is a tuxedo, what makes up a tuxedo, when do you wear one? Why?…And why the hell is it called a ‘tuxedo’ anyway? That’s what this article is about.

All dressed up and no place to go…

The History of the Tuxedo

The tuxedo was born in the late Victorian era. By the 1870s and 1880s, people looking for a night out in snappy clothes were looking for a snappier alternative to having to wear glitzy, glamorous, over-colourful clothes that made them look like clowns. Stuff like frock-coats, cravats, buckled shoes and coloured waistcoats other articles of clothing, simply did not say “classy night on the town”. They wanted something simple, easy and sharp that would always look good. Black and white. Crisp and elegant. Enter the tuxedo.

The tuxedo was born in England in the 19th century. Elements of it had existed ever since Georgian times, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1800s that the tuxedo really began to emerge in the form that we know it today. To understand how it came about, we need to understand when it was worn.

Victorian high society was all about social connections. Who you were depended on what you did, how you did it, who you did it with and who you knew. Connections and friendships were important. The way to meet people was at big social gatherings, events like garden parties, balls, dinner parties, luncheons, high teas and sporting-events. There was no Twitter, no FaceBook, no MySpace back then. You had to go out and find people to talk to!

Of course, part of being received in upper-class society was knowing what to wear. And you didn’t just wear anything to any occasion. There were amazingly strict wardrobe rules for every single event for every single hour of the day. There was morning dress, daytime dress and evening dress. The tuxedo fell under the umbrella of “Evening Dress”, meaning that you put it on after the sun went down. Typically, this meant changing into your tuxedo after six o’clock in the evening or at sundown (whichever came first). This is also why the black tuxedo jacket is also called a ‘dinner jacket’. The tuxedo was further broken down into “Evening Dress” and “Full Evening Dress”. Here’s where things can get complicated.

Black and White

‘Tuxedo’ is a very loose term. Like I said, people generally have a vague idea of what it is, and that’s all. But it’s rather more complicated than that. Traditional men’s evening dress is divided into two categories. Evening Dress and Full Evening Dress.

‘Evening Dress’ is the classic tuxedo. Also called ‘Black Tie’. A black dinner-jacket, a white dress-shirt with studs and a detatchable collar and french cuffs which had to be held shut with cufflinks and, as the name suggests…a black bowtie. Evening Dress was worn during semiformal social occasions between friends and professional acquaintenaces that took place after sundown, typically dinner, nights at the theatre or when providing private entertainment. Black Tie is what most people are familiar with today as being the classic tuxedo and which tends to end up as the dress-code on most formal social-event invitations.

The pieces of a traditional Black Tie tuxedo included…

Black one or two-button dinner-jacket or ‘Tuxedo’ jacket.
Black Tuxedo trousers.
Black low-cut Tuxedo waistcoat (optional. If you wear this, wear suspenders; ditch the cummerbund)
Black patent-leather shoes.
Black socks.
White dress-shirt with studs and cufflinks.
Black bowtie.
Cummerbund (that goes around the waist) or a pair of black suspenders that go over the shoulder, hidden by the jacket (which is usually kept closed).

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond wearing Black Tie

Less common today is the more formal ‘White Tie’ enssemble, which people tend to confuse. There are very few White Tie events that call for a dress-code like this, so people aren’t always aware of what to wear or what to expect.

German bandleader Max Raabe wearing classic White Tie complete with waistcoat, dress-shirt and studs, white bowtie and detatchable wing-collar

‘White Tie’ is the highest level of formality in male attire. White Tie is the kind of stuff you put on when you’re going to meet the Queen. The components of White Tie traditionally include…

Black tailcoat.
Black tuxedo trousers.
Black patent-leather shoes.
Black socks.
White, collarless dress-shirt, held shut with shirt-studs.
White detatchable wing-collar, held onto the shirt with collar-studs.
White bowtie. As the collar doesn’t fold down to hide the tie, it must be one that the wearer can tie. Not a clip-on.
White, low-cut waistcoat, usually with three or four buttons. For a time, black waistcoats of a similar cut were popular, but white is the most traditional.

In searching YouTube for those hideous “modern fashion-and-style guide” videos, I came across one that said that the only difference between Black and White Tie is that you change the jacket from black to white…WRONG! Black Tie is Black Tie, White Tie is White Tie. They are not interchangable and they are not synonymous. Show up for a White Tie event wearing a Black Tie enssemble and you’ll probably be kicked out.

Traditionally, studs and cufflinks would be white or mother-of-pearl. During funerals or wakes, especially during Victorian times, it was acceptable to wear black studs and links, as they were part of acceptable Victorian mourning-jewellery (jewellery that was jet black, in order to reflect the solemnity of the occasion). A thin and discreet dress-watch is one of the acceptable choices of timepiece for Black or White Tie. The best option is a gold chain and pocketwatch or no watch at all (wearing a watch suggests that you need to keep an eye on the time because you have somewhere else to be. And if you’re busy on the night that you’re attending a Black or White Tie event, then you really shouldn’t be there anyway!)

When to Wear Black or White?

Although both are only ever worn after six o’clock in the evening, as I said above, Black Tie and White Tie are not interchangable and one does not stand in for the other. So when do you wear what?

Black Tie is usually worn for events such as going out to dinner with friends, going to a friend’s house for a party, going to the theatre, attending a dance or a party and attending institutional functions, such as those held by schools or universities. You wear Black Tie when you go out for a classical concert or an evening at Carnegie Hall.

White Tie is worn for only the most exclusive of social functions. State dinners, meeting heads of state, attending the Opening Night of a theatre-production and attending evening weddings. White Tie is for those events where you need to know people in order to get one of those handwritten, security-watermarked invitations to get past the security guys wearing sunglasses and black T-shirts to enter the glitzy ballroom filled with celebrities.

The Tuxedo Through the Times

The modern Black and White Tie enssembles started showing up in the late Victorian-era as an alternative to the more colorful and flashy clothes that were typically worn by men of the period. Black Tie and White Tie were on the rise during the 1880s and through to the 20th century, reaching a peak around the 1920s-1950s, when it was popular to go out nightclubbing or fancy restaurants to see famous jazz-orchestras putting on a show or seeing great West End or Broadway Shows, which boomed during this interwar and immediate postwar era. Starting in the 1930s, the white dinner-jacket began to replace the traditional black or midnight blue one (as seen below) when a more comfortable alternative was needed when wearing Black Tie in a warm or tropical climate. Black absorbs heat so wearing full traditional Black Tie in a place like Florida or Singapore would be far too uncomfortable. White, which doesn’t absorb heat, was the natural and acceptable alternative.

During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, some swing-jazz big-bands would give live performances dressed in Black or White Tie. Occasionally, their version of Black or White Tie would be slightly altered so that party-guests wouldn’t mistake the musicians for other guests or staff working at the performance venue.

In the above photo, you can see Benny Goodman (front, with clarinet) and His Orchestra performing; ca. 1938. Bandmembers are wearing Black Tie, but with a more informal white jacket instead of the more traditional black, possibly to differentiate themselves from the audience. Sometimes, bandmembers would wear Black Tie while the bandleader would wear White Tie in order to make him stand out to the audience, such as in this photograph of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra taken in 1921:

Whiteman may be seen wearing White Tie (second from right, standing next to the pianist) while the other bandmembers wear Black Tie

Where did ‘Tuxedo’ Come From?

They’ve always been called ‘Black Tie’ or ‘White Tie’, differentiated by the colour of the bowtie and the presence or lack of a white waistcoat, but why do we also call them ‘Tuxedos’? Where did this term come from?

To be clear, the ‘Tuxedo’ is not the full getup. Traditionally, the ‘tuxedo’ was the black dinner-jacket. It wasn’t until later that the word ‘Tuxedo’ referred to the jacket and the black trousers as well. The word ‘Tuxedo’ comes from the town of Tuxedo Park in New York State in the United States of America.

Black Tie and White Tie Today

White Tie isn’t as common today as it used to be, unless you’re a filthy rich billionaire going to a charity fundraising dinner-party or something, at least. Black Tie still remains fairly common though, although it seems that there will always be a number of people who don’t know what it is or how to wear it…President Barack Obama for one…

…If you haven’t figured out what’s wrong here, Obama’s missing the wing-collar which goes under the bowtie and he’s missing the white waistcoat as well. Obama is supposedly famous for his high-fashion faux-pas…

Looking for more information? Then check out the Black Tie Guide, the definitive internet authority on Black and White Tie, what it is, how to wear it, where it came from and what makes it up.

1 Comment

Posted by on June 26, 2011 in History of Clothing


One response to “Black and White – All about the Tuxedo

  1. Shastri

    January 23, 2013 at 2:10 AM

    It’s all news to me, but fascinating nonetheless. When I read the word cummerbund I realised it came from the Persian word kamarband. In Iran it’s a legacy of Zoroastrianism as well as a useful piece of clothing. Just thought I’d mention it.


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