All the Trimmings

Posted on June 18, 2012

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Most people are familiar with the use of lapel facings to add flair to a tuxedo but likely few are aware that the jacket’s collar and cuffs can be used for this purpose as well.

1830 “dress coat” with sleeve cuffs. (The Whole Art of Dress)

The history of formalwear trimmings can be traced back to the first evening tailcoats produced during the English Regency.  They did not feature faced lapels as is standard today but they did commonly sport velvet collars and sleeve cuffs.   The cuffs were known as French cuffs or “French riding cuffs” according to Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century, characterized by a “side slit with 2 or 3 buttons and a stitched-down cuff or line of stitching imitating one.”

1871 English dress coats with velvet collars and unfaced lapels. (West-End Gazette)

Velvet remained a popular facing for the tailcoat collar in the early Victorian period but became increasingly rare on the cuffs.  In the 1860s a new decorative option appeared: silk lapel facing.  Unlike today the facing extended only as far as the multiple buttonholes located near the outer edges of both lapels. The collars on these coats were usually self faced, likely to avoid gilding the lily.

1893 British evening wear featuring partially-faced peak lapels  (centre), fully-faced shawl collars (left and right) and sleeve cuffs (all figures).

A vogue for shawl collars in the 1880s introduced the first lapels (technically collars) faced completely in silk or satin.  By the Edwardian era, peaked lapels had also adopted this full coverage, coinciding with the elimination of multiple buttonholes and the disappearance of faced collars.  (Notably, some sartorial etiquette authorities continued to allow the partially faced lapel as an alternative right up until the early 1930s.)

When the dinner jacket made its public debut in the 1880s it carried the unfaced cuffs and faced shawl collars that were popular on tailcoats at the time.  Cuffs then became less common in the early 20th century although silk- or velvet-faced ones occasionally popped up in fashion magazines of the 1920s, usually in the context of (in)formal summer evenings.

Circa 1940 Brooks Brothers tailcoat.
(Ruby Lane | Noble Savage Vintage)

In the sartorial heydays  of the 1930s sleeve cuffs were once again a trendy option on tailcoats, this time as undecorated “false cuffs” which weren’t actually folded back cuffs, just a stitched line to suggest as much.  Notably, this embellishment was not applied to dinner jackets of the time.

“Continental Look” tuxedos circa 1960
(Corbis | Playboy)

Sean Connery as James Bond in a publicity still from 1963′s “From Russia with Love” (MGM)

After Six satin-faced shawl collar and cuffs with “corded scroll design” from 1965. (GQ)

During the war cuffed sleeves pretty much disappeared from evening wear until the mid 1950s when the tuxedo was infused with jet-age modernism.  On both sides of the Atlantic cuffs were sometimes faced in velvet (occasionally to match a velvet collar) but by far most were covered in satin to match the facing on the jacket’s narrow lapels.  Evening suits became increasingly dandified in the peacock revolution of the early ‘60s as shawl collars were utilized to highlight increasingly ornate facings.  In addition to patterned, embroidered and braided silk there was also the option of a thin trim or piping around the edges of the lapels, the cuffs (whether actual or faux cuffs) and even the waistcoat lapels.

The practice of using lapel facings and sleeve cuffs to impart panache came to an end in the early 1970s as tuxedos (at least the upscale versions) returned to more traditional styling and remained virtually unknown during the yuppie era of 1980s and 1990s.

Hugh Laurie at the Golden Globes in 2006. (Zimbio | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment)

Daniel Craig wearing Tom Ford at the 2009 Oscars (JustJared.com)

The new millennium has witnessed occasional sightings of these enhancements of yesteryear.  Hugh Laurie brought trimmed lapels back into the spotlight when he appeared in them at the 2006 Golden Globe awards.  Mainstream retailers and renters have also been offering them as an alternative lapel decoration either self-faced with silk trim or silk-faced with self trim, the latter harkening back to the lapels of Victorian tailcoats.   There are also occasional sightings of cuffed sleeves, either plain or satin-faced, on high-end dinner suits worn by the likes of Daniel Craig at the 2009 Oscars, Tom Ford at the 2010 Oscars and Princes Charles and Edward at the wedding reception of Prince William in 2011.

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To be completely thorough I should mention that there is one other variation in formal facings:  In the late 1960s and ’70s, some mainstream formalwear makers liked to contrast black or other dark-coloured trim against white or light-coloured jackets for a highly dramatic effect.   However,  I’ve chosen to spare my readers the gaudy details.