Exhibit Celebrates Tuxedo’s 150th Anniversary (Sort of)

Posted on October 29, 2011

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The London College of Fashion (LCF) has put together a traveling exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the tuxedo.  They date the garment’s origin based on Henry Poole & Co’s claim that in 1860 the famed tailors “made a short evening or smoking jacket for the Prince of Wales to wear at informal dinner parties at Sandringham.”  According to the corresponding (undated) receipt reproduced in Alan Flusser’s a Dressing the Man, the future Edward VII’s order consisted of “a blue silk smoking jacket” and trousers of an apparently matching fabric (I’m not an expert on 19th century sartorial shorthand).  This is hardly what one would consider a traditional dinner suit so perhaps it is more accurate to consider the garment in question as a prototype rather than an original.

The intention of the project – a partnership between the school and Henry Poole and luxury fabric supplier Dormeuil – was to “reinvent the Tuxedo for the 21st century”.   A group of LCF honours tailoring students competed for the best tailor-made tuxedo with the winner receiving an internship with Henry Poole.  The resulting exhibit titled The Little Black Jacket – Celebrating 150 years of the Tuxedo toured in London earlier this year and is now on display at Tuxedo Park, the home of the tuxedo’s American debut.

According to the Tuxedo Park hosts, visitors will have the opportunity “to chart the tuxedo” from its invention to its first being worn in the United States by Tuxedo Club members to “the legendary status that [it] has today as the gentleman’s choice of attire for significant events.”  The eponymous town’s historical society is also displaying vintage formal wear from its own collection as well as diverse objects that chose the word “tuxedo” as a marketing tool.  In addition, they are seeking photos of tuxedo wearers throughout the years for its archive and will be showing many of them in a digital slide show throughout the exhibition.

Although the current exhibit only runs to November 6 the historical society has stated that “We’re also working with LCF for a permanent formal wear exhibit here. This project has taken on a life of its own and the interest has been tremendous. This is a blockbuster show.”

The permanent exhibit is good news because the traveling version will not be seen anywhere else in North America.  Instead it is slated to head to Brazil, Japan and India in 2012.  Equally odd is the fact that this English exhibition of an English invention refers to the garment by its American nickname rather than its proper English title “dinner jacket”.  (I’ve noticed more British online retailers switching over to this terminology and I suspect it is a deliberate effort to target the much coveted American consumer market.)  Strangest of all, the exhibit is premiering in 2011, one year after the the anniversary it celebrates.

Regardless, it’s still a pretty impressive tribute to a garment that started out as a Victorian alternate to the tailcoat and was never intended to be worn outside of a man’s country home or city club.

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Postscript: In early 2012 Henry Poole & Co corrected their stated date of the original jacket’s origin to 1865.  I imagine that must be more than a little embarrassing for the exhibit’s creators as their project is now four years premature.