Spotlight: The Tartan Dinner Jacket

Posted on June 21, 2012

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Ralph Lauren Black Watch dinner jacket.

Tartan dinner jackets hit the spotlight in 1949 when Tailor and Cutter, the bible of London’s menswear industry, blasted Americans for starting the “deplorable” fad.  “Not even Scots would dare to follow this trend” it proclaimed.  Imagine the editors’ mortification when it was reported the following year that King George VI owned two of the new models.  The magazine reacted with traditional British aplomb, stated the New York Times in February 1950, declaring that “It is very tasteful,” and noting that the King had worn his jackets with black trousers only at informal parties.  “His Majesty will bring dignity to this garment.”

A few months later in April Life magazine published a feature titled “Men in Plaid: Americans Boom the Trade in Tartans.”  The article provided some insight into the rise of the tartan trend in general and the etiquette of the plaid dinner jacket in particular:

Original caption: “Billy Talbert, the tennis star, wears a clan MacPherson tartan dinner jacket. Its pattern is similar to King George’s Royal Stuart dress tartan coat.” (“Life”)

Tartans have been worn for some time by a few individualists, mainly in the east and mainly customers of a New York tailor called Chipp (who made the jacket above).  This winter the Florida resort season established them as a real fashion.  Now the big department stores are about to break out with plaid dinner jackets for what is expected to be a wide market.  They are worn only by a host, never by a guest.

Original caption: “Military mess jacket, like those of Scottish officers, is worn by New York Lawyer William O’Hearn Jr. with black evening trousers. It costs $65.” (“Life”)

(“Life”)

The colour photo above is one of a series on the topic also published by Life which is available on the Black Watch blog.  (Note that although the blog posts these images in conjunction with a 1957 article about plaid, the photos may actually be from 1950 as that is the date ascribed to at least one of the pictures on the web site of copyright holder Getty Images.) In August of 1950 Esquire jumped on the plaid bandwagon with its own pictorial, calling the tartan dinner jacket “one of the most original and daring designs in years”.

1950 Black Watch tartan jacket with grosgrain lapels and midnight-blue bow tie and trousers to set off the jacket. (“Esquire”)

“Esquire” described this black-and-white plaid madras jacket as “more unusual but really just as formal” as the white dinner jacket. (1964)

The fad was still going strong when it appeared on the pages of the newly launched GQ in the late 1950s.  It carried through to the mid 1960s in the US and European countries such as Germany.  Nearly all of the illustrations from this period depicted the jacket in a warm-weather setting, an acknowledgment of its informal status.  These jet-age jackets were often made of madras and almost always featured shawl collars faced in black silk.

Ralph Lauren tartan dinner jacket with self lapels, circa 2010.

Plaid dinner jackets then occasionally popped up in menswear magazines throughout the remainder of the century featuring a wider variety of lapel styles that were sometimes self-faced.  In the new millennium Black Watch and Royal Stewart are pretty much the only tartan options found on dinner jackets and their availability has become limited to classic menswear stalwarts Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers and Jos. A. Bank.

What has remained consistent throughout the alternative jacket’s history is that it is to be paired with the standard formal accompaniments used for warm-weather black tie: black or midnight blue trousers, bow tie and cummerbund and a turndown-collar shirt.  Style authorities also continue to concur that these informal substitutes are appropriate only for private dinners at home or the club.

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Tartans 101:  According to the comprehensive guide “Kilts and Tartans Made Easy”, tartan and plaid mean the same thing, it’s just that the former term is preferred by Scots and the other by Americans.  Also, a tartan is defined by its pattern, not necessarily by its colours.  This is because many tartans come in hunting and dress versions in addition to the default version, all of which use different colours in the same pattern.  As if that wasn’t confusing enough, each version can also have a modern, ancient, or weathered variation which features different hues of the versions’ colours.  (Modern is the default interpretation with colours that are bold and bright while the other two are more subdued, earthy tones.)  This explains why Black Watch dinner jackets, for example, can differ so much between makers.