Tuxedo Origins: English Beginnings

Posted on November 8, 2013


Part two of a series featuring newly discovered first-hand accounts of the tuxedo’s earliest appearances.

1888_dress_lounge_English

Tailor and Cutter, July 1888

Period reports of the very first dinner jackets largely confirm the accounts provided by most fashion histories.   These histories tend to associate the garment’s development with the Prince of Wales (beginning with the Henry Poole blue silk prototype of 1865) and pinpoint its rise to popularity to 1888 when it first appeared in British tailoring publications.* The earliest first-hand references I found in my recent research include an 1884 California paper’s report on the Prince’s early experiments (“It is said that [he] is heartily in favor of abolishing the dress coat and substituting a garment of many colors, such as was worn by our ancestors, and which was cut away gracefully from near the neck.”) and this report from The Huddersfield Chronicle on September 20, 1887 quoting Vanity Fair:

Dinner-jackets have for some years been worn in country houses when the family are en famille; but I hear that the Prince of Wales appeared in one at Homburg at a ball given by an American.  Is this the first move towards the disappearance of the unsightly tail-coat, which has too long been the only acknowledged style of evening dress?”

While this story doesn’t provide a description of the garment, there is one in another British paper that same month that comments on the Prince’s ongoing search for something to replace the “accursed” claw-hammer dress coat. “He introduced an innovation this last summer [i.e. 1886], “ says the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette, “in what are called dinner jackets, short garments coming down to the waist and made on the model of the military men’s jackets.”  This description of a pseudo mess jacket is surprising but paralleled by similar portrayals in newspapers across the pond (which I’ll explore in part four).  

I also found an 1888 account of an alternate inventor in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle that attributes the coat to an unnamed Englishman.  The reporter describes the coat as a more typical dinner jacket and said the owner first wore it to an informal bachelor’s dinner in the summer of 1885 at the Cowes yachting resort so favoured by the Prince.

It is simply a sack coat [i.e. suit jacket] of fine black diagonal cloth, but somewhat fitted into the back.  It is not made to button in front, but has a long silk faced collar rolled back all down the front, like the collar of an ordinary evening coat.  It is worn with the low cut waistcoat and black trousers of the ordinary evening dress and though it is somewhat informal in appearance it is far from being an infringement of the conveniences which require a fixed uniform for all men after dark.  . . . It was cool and comfortable, and saved wear and tear of the daily use upon the dress coat, with the consequences that it took at once.  The following Winter men wore it to bachelor dinners and to their own tables when guests were not present.  It was donned in country houses and up in the Highlands after a hard day in the moors or after the hounds.

This account is very similar to the story related by menswear historian Nicholas Storey and others regarding the  Victorian Lord Dupplin.  Dupplin was invited by his good friend the Prince aboard his yacht (which may very well have been at Cowes) and had tailors Henry Poole construct an early version of the dinner jacket for the occasion.  Apparently he was teased for it but the Prince adopted the style for informal events shortly thereafter.

Alan Flusser’s Clothes and the Man straddles these the contrasting depictions of the early jacket by describing the so-called “Cowes coat” as a “sort of compromise between a mess jacket, a smoking jacket, and a dress coat – invented for or by [the Prince], and worn by him first at dinner aboard his yacht at Cowes and then later at other semi-formal evening gatherings away from London.”**

It is very possible that multiple styles of jacket were competing to become the dress coat’s replacement at this time.  Until we can find illustrations or more eye-witness descriptions of the circa 1886 jackets (I don’t think the US reporter witnessed it first hand) we can’t be sure that the official suit-style dinner jacket first appeared prior to 1888.  That’s the year that the definitive Handbook of English Costume series reports its debut:

Becoming known later as the ‘Dinner Jacket’; a popular innovation of 1888, and worn for dinners and informal evening parties.  Made with a continuous roll collar and lapel turning low to the waist level, faced to the edge with silk or satin.  One or two buttons and holes at the bottom of the turn; side pockets; sleeves as for dress coat.  Like the dress coat it was always worn open.  Materials: cheviot or corkscrew.”

The description is accompanied by the illustration above from The Tailor and Cutter as well as the following from London Tailor and Record of Fashion that same year:

1888_LondonTailor&RecordofFashion_HofEC

Next instalment: early prototypes on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Postscript

November 25, 2013

*The 1885 Henry Poole Prince of Wales Dinner Jacket: I neglected to mention that two reputable books on menswear have  referred to  a particular dinner jacket made in 1885 by Henry Poole & Co.  The Elegant Man says that the first dinner jacket was literally a tailcoat without tails, essentially a spencer jacket.  The book says that this is what Griswold Lorillard wore at Tuxedo Park in 1886 and that the director of Henry Poole has confirmed that his company made this type of dinner jacket for the Prince of Wales in 1885.    In addition,  Well-Dressed Gentlemen’s Pocket Guide states “Deep in the ledgers of Henry Poole . . . there is an entry to the effect that just such a garment as Griswold wore [i.e. the tailless tailcoat] was made for the Prince of Wales in the previous year, 1885.”  These identical claims are at odds with a Henry Poole historian’s recent revelation to me that the Prince had taken his business to another tailor by this time (see following).  However, I have passed on the references to him and asked him to keep me apprised as his research proceeds.

**The Cowes Mess Jacket: By the 1880s the Prince of Wales had taken his tailoring business to Meyer and Mortimer (apparently he didn’t take kindly to being asked to settle up his account with Henry Poole & Co).  Unfortunately their archives were lost to a bomb in World War II but a representative has informed me that members of the Royal Yacht Squadron – an ultra-exclusive yacht club in Cowes – wear a custom mess kit for formal events.  The fact that the Prince of Wales was Commodore of the club during the 1880s further links Cowes, the Prince and the mess jacket.  (Sounds like the title of an English children’s story.)

 

 

Posted in: History