The shawl collar is normally associated with the informal smoking jacket or semi-formal dinner jacket so it’s surprising to learn that it has occasionally been featured on full-dress tailcoats dating back to the Victorian era.
In 1866 The Gazette of Fashion noted that the “rolling collar” had become the most stylish type of lapel on dress coats in England and was typically cut very long and faced with silk. The trade journal went on to feature the trend occasionally until the early 1870s at which point it disappeared from the magazine’s pages.
According to Handbook of English Costume of the 19th Century the style was then reintroduced in 1882 by the dandies of the day known as mashers and became usual for evening tailcoats by 1886. Fashion and lifestyle periodicals continued to highlight it sporadically up until the eve of the First World War when some authorities such as Vanity Fair began to specifically discourage it.
With the notable exception of early editions of Emily Post’s authoritative book, the tailcoat shawl collar seems to have remained out of favour until a second renaissance in the 1930s. This time around it was of standard length as depicted on the silver screen in films such as Top Hat (1935) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). In 1939 Esquire presented its own example stating that “this is the first time it has been shown for full evening dress since before the War.” In 1940 the same magazine added that the variation was inspired by military mess jackets.
The fad faded for the final time in the early 1940s. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s etiquette maven Amy Vanderbilt explicitly disallowed such collars on tailcoats despite some fashion authorities’ attempts to revive the practice during the flamboyant Peacock Revolution.
Looking back, shawl-collared tailcoats certainly had their usefulness as stylish alternatives when men donned evening dress virtually every day of the week. Today, however, unless a man wears a tailcoat on a weekly basis he would be wise to stick to the assured refinement of the classic peak lapel.