The Most Decadent Decades of Dinner Dress

The Rake unravels the extraordinary story of black tie eveningwear, beginning with a whistle-stop tour of the dress code’s outré origins and evolution.

It’s rather a cliché to say so, but there is something undeniably sexy about Black Tie when it’s done well. No other dress code brings with it such cachet, nor imbues in the wearer such a palpable sense of self-confidence and glamour. And gentlemen, let's not pretend that the reason we inevitably end up untying our bow ties and un-studding our shirts to the navel come half past nine of an evening, isn’t because we feel more virile in our formal finery than a breeding bull. It is then, the perfect formal dress code to explore in the midst of this month’s editorial theme of sex and sybaritism. Permit us to revisit this most timeless of subjects as we re-examine its most decadent decades, its aesthetic evolution and just why those of a rakish disposition still can’t quite resist the allure of a dickie bow today.

Slipping Standards

The contentious origins of black tie are of course well known; a great debate rages between the stalwarts of Savile Row and American high society as to whether it was a New York socialite or a former British monarch that invented the dress code. Perhaps the most diplomatic answer is that it was a combination of both. On the English side of be fence, the story goes that in 1865 His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward VII) had an informal ‘celestial blue’ evening coat cut for relaxed dinners at Balmoral, so say the order ledgers of the Prince’s tailor, Henry Poole at any rate. The coat was intended to be a hybrid between formal evening tails and smoking jacket, which removed the need for His Royal Highness to change after dinner. Cut as a short ventless jacket, lacking in the tails of a frock coat for comfort, yet retaining formal faced lapels and buttons, the Edwardian predecessor of the dinner suit was born.

It was moreover, an invention born of supreme laziness and whimsy; a thoroughly unconventional and arguably improper garment, created and worn with reckless abandon by the renegade prince. Had it not been for His Royal Highnesses’ magisterial blood, the chances of the dress code taking off would most likely have been minimal. Not a bad pedigree for a garment that was to become synonymous with excess and revelry in years to come.

In 1886, some years after the Prince’s maverick sartorial brainwave, one Mr James Brown Potter, a wealthy American aesthete and member of New York's legendary Tuxedo Club, met with the Prince of Wales and was subsequently invited to dine at Sandringham. The two shared Henry Poole as their tailor and at a loss as to what to wear, Potter consulted Mr Poole for some style advice. He replied confidently, that a short, midnight blue evening coat was just the thing. Unsurprisingly, it went down a storm at the royal residence, so much so that Potter took to wearing his new coat out to dinner at the Tuxedo Club. It was embraced by the club’s members with almost reckless abandon and soon New York society at large was embracing it as the fashionable thing to wear to wild parties; this being a trend which was to continue well into the twentieth century.

Puttin On The Ritz

Having been jettisoned into the public glare by the combined reach of New York's high society and a rather improper Prince, it wasn’t long before the bright young things of the Jazz Age, both in Europe and America, had caught the dinner dress bug. Fashion plates and catalogues dating to the early 1920s demonstrate a steadily growing demand for contemporary dinner dress, as the social optimism, increased freedom and inevitable excesses of the period popularised an increasingly less formal mode of socialising. Even so, the dinner suit was considered subversively informal for much of the period, with the establishment scoffing in shock in their White Tie and tails whenever a penguin suit entered the room.

Ten years on, the 1930s were at once a little more relaxed, but also more divisive thanks to the extraordinary fallout of the great depression. It was a decade of continued excess and bravura on the part of the wealthy, who continued to laud it at the top of the social tree in their utterly gauche ‘after-six’ wardrobes. In 1935 a writer for the New York Herald Tribune calculated that a “well-attired” New York gentleman’s evening dress could be worth as much as $4,975 including additional furnishings like his evening coat, cufflinks, scarf and gloves – a frightful sum, easily enough to afford a sports car at the time.

As such, the dinner suit lost much of it subtlety, becoming a brash and aggressive social statement. The peak lapel was in (the bigger the better) as was the roped shoulder, full-cut pleated trouser and loud evening waistcoats. It was an ostentatious and far from tasteful expression of power and prestige, which goes some way to explaining why one associates the dinner suit of the 1930s primarily with gangsters, as evinced by modern televisual hits like Boardwalk Empire. Even the rather pessimistic seminal novels of the time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for example, place black tie firmly in the court of the dissolute and decadent criminal classes.

Golden Oldies

Even so, this rather unsavoury association drew a good deal of attention, and moreover was just what Hollywood needed to fire the public’s imagination. Within a few years, bestride the shoulders of stars like Cary Grant, Clarke Gable and Gary Cooper, the dinner suit was reborn the very pinnacle of heart-throbbing, masculine elegance. The ‘golden age’ of Hollywood presents its stars with an unashamedly masculine aesthetic, subtly sexy in it’s own way; with rugged, strong jawed men sporting suits with statement-making architectural shoulders and generous, full-cut chests. As popular culture, rather than the social elite began to influence what the man in the street wore, cinematic icons like Bogart’s shady Rick in Casablanca also popularised the doubled-breasted dinner suit, which particularly in its generous low-buttoning variety, is considerably more louche than the formal, pumped-up three-piece suits common to the glitterati of the 1930s. By the mid-40s, soft spread collar shirts, often with covered plackets and pleats also lent the dress code a slightly softer, more nonchalant aesthetic.


April 2016


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