03 April 2012

Casual Black Tie, Again

Lately I've been taking a bit of a stab at the nitpickers, and a reader told me to cut it out. Point taken. So even though this post yet again deals with our notions of the meaning and practice of arcane sartorial law, I will do my best to refrain from attacks on the overly uptight. Instead, lets take a step back and see whether these actually were as relevant to the storied and glorious past as we like to think the were.
Recently, this bit of formal wear joined the ranks of the Affordable Wardrobe. Look closely and you'll find a lot of the big rules have been thrown under the bus here. For one, there's the lapels. Though the may be faced in grosgrain silk, they are notch cut, a style commonly held to be anathema to evening dress. Furthermore, the pockets have flaps. Again, anathema. But all that aside, it's a well made tuxedo in the classic American soft shouldered, undarted cut.
It's a beautifully constructed garment. The lapel facing really is something, that old fashioned thickly corded grosgrain silk. The stripe down the side of the trousers is the same. The bulk of the suit is of a mid weight true black hopsack material, perfect for Summer formal when you don't want a white jacket.
Four button surgeon cuffs, the Dracula red lining is a bonus. And just look at the hand work on the button holes, lining, all of it. And yet, the buttons are not covered in satin or silk. Hmmm?

The overall quality is no real surprise, given its provenance at the Holy Church of the Andover Shop. What is in a way surprising, besides its flagrant disregard for so many of the rules of formal dress, is it's age.

This tux was made in 1961, in the very heyday of the cocktail party and formal wear scene, in the very meat of this monolithic Ivy League past we let intimidate us. It hails not only from a time used as the very reference point for all of this, but from a small shop known as one of the hot spots of the real thing. The Andover Shop in its day not only outfitted the Ivy League elite, but also the best of jazz musicians. One and all they were men who knew their way around evening clothes. How then can such an "abomination" as a notch lapel, flap pocket tuxedo have come from such a place, and at such a time?

The answer to me is simple. Clearly, the "rules" were not as stiffly enforced back then as we like to think they were. True, people may generally have carried themselves with an overall greater deal of comportment back then, but can it be that they were actually comfortable enough about it not to care too much about the minutia? Lest we forget, back then they even tried to sell us the button down collar formal shirt.

Then theres the lost of art of the truly "semi formal". The man who owned this tux likely wore dinner clothes frequently. He likely had more than one set of dinner clothes. He might have worn "formal" white tie to the opera,and he may have had a more proper peak lapelled tux for more serious occasions, but I bet he wore this to "semi formal" house parties on the weekend where both black tie and casual nonchalance were required.  Other guys at the same party likely wore madras jackets with satin faced shawl collars, and still others wore dark suits with neckties. I've written about casual black tie before, and I still believe we need to bring it back. Very Playboy Club, you know?

This suit is in my size, and I'm keeping it. At $29.99 in a thrift store, it's price sits well above my normal outlay, especially for clothing as truly un-neccesary as this. But you have to love the idea of being formal and laid back all at once, without resorting to a long tie or weird black shirt like some Hollywood slob. There's nothing like being the most formal guy in the room and the most comfortable all at once, is there? A suit like this, worn with a plain black bow, plain white shirt with French cuffs (no pleats), no cummerbund and black lace up shoes would do the trick nicely. Have me over for drinks some Sunday at 7:00 p.m. so I can prove it to you.

p.s. the Shop is more stocked than ever, especially if you have a shoe fetish or happen to be a 46 regular. Check it out.


Yankee-Whisky-Papa said...

It was in the Andover Shop that I was so personally and directly insulted by a clerk, I vowed to never return.

I actually like notch lapels on some evening wear. It takes the seriousness out of it when needed.

Roger v.d. Velde said...

I love this post. Despite what 'a reader' said, it's simply necessary to have a series of posts dismantling the dubious "rules" that have taken a firm grip all over the internet menswear sphere.

It's really tiring to see people passing themselves off as style-gurus by unloading a cartload of rules with suspicious provenance. They mislead dozens of young people going to sites like Style Forum, cocksure in their cliquey groups.
The facts of the matter, as we've seen time and again, show another story.

randall said...

Ahh. The age old debate over the spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law.

You make a strong case for the spirit.

David V said...

I like Casual Black Tie. It is the time to twist the rules a bit (but only a bit.) I've a nice shawl in a 1 x 6 DB, rather than 2 x 6, which I consider my Casual Black Tie.
Now where are those formal, semi-formal and casual formal events?

Oh! As an aside, covered buttons are a more recent addition to formal wear. The "real" classic look would be horn buttons.

Young Fogey said...

Since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, we have been told to question authority, to challenge the status quo, to make things up for ourselves.

This may be the most subversive movements in history, one that goes directly against all human traditions everywhere and throughout time: the honoring of our elders.

Which is a high-falutin' way of saying that when we violate inherited rules, sartorial or otherwise, we do so at our own peril. Our ancestors worked these things out so that we don't have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

Now clearly, what we wear is of lesser importance than how we govern ourselves, but, as the recent kerfuffle involving hoodies shows, clothing does have symbolic value. It makes sense for us to learn from our ancestors and apply what they knew first, and then, once we have mastered the forms, to experiment.

Which is exactly what I think happened with this particular dinner jacket. G's hypothesis of how it came into being sounds spot-on. It's a beautiful piece of clothing, but I wouldn't want it for my only tuxedo. (Being a traditionalist, I might not want it at all, but I wouldn't look down my nose at someone wearing it appropriately, as G has suggested.)

Great post. I look forward to the ensuing discussion.

Daniel said...

I have actually loved your series of posts, it's a nice way to contrast with the content of certain other websites (and their commenters).

I would agree with you when you say this would make a good semi-casual coat. True black tie, for me, means looking different from my ordinary wear, and notch lapels simply do not afford me that. I don't think that it's ever been a true rule in the vein of "don't button your bottom button, you BUFFOON" (though I think many people push it that way).

Philip said...

About time to start the next trend of wearing the casual tux. If anyone could pull it off you could, Giuseppe. Last month I paired a slightly more traditional tux with a regular BB French cuff (with a pocket no less) and managed to pull it off.

Dave said...

Did you knock-off a guy who was a size 46 jacket and size 9 shoe?

Thomas said...

Have my Grandfather's dinnerjackets dated December 1940- absolute pristine and I wear the hell out of them- One is a single button with ottoman lapels the other is double breasted which could be dangerous in the wrong hands easily crossing over into bandleader territory a'la Xavier Cugat-Check out the Gorsuch website for a swingin' plaid dinner jacket somewhere just south of $7000.00-

Giselle said...

It's a great piece, no doubt, but I also wouldn't have it as my only dinner suit. Having no pocket flaps and shawl or peak does help differentiate a dinner suit from a business suit. Personally, I also believe it looks a little more debonair or distinguished. Above all though, it's most important to have a single button in front and tasteful accessories.

The lack of covered buttons has been known to me for a while. That doesn't bother me. Actually, a number of double breasted dinner jackets are still made with horn buttons due to their more relaxed, smoking jacket-like stance.

I think what many fellow sartorialists are afraid of is a downward slide. That is, if it's okay to have notch lapels and pocket flaps, people will also think multiple buttons, vents, long ties, etc. are all okay too. A little irrational to be sure, but understandable to a degree.