Tuxedo Origins: The “Tailless Dress Coat” Puzzle

Posted on November 10, 2013

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

"Sacramento Daily Union", December 1888

Sacramento Daily Union, December 1888

“The tailless dress coat so much discussed was started by the tailors,” sniffed the Arizona Sentinel in November 1886.  “Whatever popularity it gained last summer will soon be forgotten [because] it is not adapted to winter use.”  The term “tailless dress coat” appeared often in US publications from 1886 to 1892, including within the description of Tuxedo Park scion Griswold Lorillard’s (in)famous attire seen at the country club’s October 1886 autumn ball:

News brief from a Philadelphia paper, October 1886. The story was originally reported in detail by scandal sheet Town Topics that indicated the outfit was also sported by Griswold’s young friends.

News brief from a Philadelphia paper, October 1886. The story was originally reported in detail by scandal sheet Town Topics that indicated the outfit was also sported by Griswold’s young friends.

This terminology presents a sartorial dilemma: it is a very different thing to modify a tailcoat (aka dress coat) into a “tailless dress coat” than to modify a sack coat into a “dress sack”.  One method significantly alters an existing garment’s cut but leaves its finishes untouched, while the other leaves the cut untouched but modifies its finishes.

1888 British illustration shows that the new “dress jacket” is notably longer than a tailcoat would be without its tails

This 1888 British illustration shows how the new dress coat substitute was notably longer than a tailcoat would be if it was cut off at the tails.

I have previously endorsed the theory offered by a Tuxedo Park chronicler that a tailless dress coat would naturally resemble a mess jacket because of its open front, waist-length cut and snug fit.  Numerous period descriptions uncovered in my recent research bolster this theory.  Take this example from the 1888 book Etiquette of Men’s Dress:

THE DRESS SACK.  This “tailless dress coat” is in fact nothing more or less than the East India tea coat, which has been worn in Calcutta and all the Oriental capitals for probably a quarter of a century.  It was designed to meet the requirements of an informal dress garment for use in a warm country, where such extraneous nuisances as tails or anything that added to the weight or density of a garment were undesirable.  It is not improbable indeed that the nobby [chic] dress jacket of the Eton school boy suggested this convenient and stylish garment to the English officials, who first devised it for their use in the East to define by the dress the social gatherings like general receptions, high teas and the like, as less formal than the exceptional state occasions, where full dress with all regalia is worn.

This passage along with other period descriptions of the tailless dress coat (particularly a detailed eyewitness account of a Tuxedo Park dandy wearing it one month prior to the famous autumn ball) reference numerous traits that link it to the mess jacket:

  • importation from British India
  • frequent pairing with a waist sash i.e. cummerbund as was done with the mess jacket in British India
  • association with “shell jacket”, a close-fitting waist-length military jacket worn in the tropics that is often used interchangeably with “mess jacket” (although the latter usually don’t close in front)
  • comparisons to the Eton jacket, the inspiration for the military mess jacket (e.g. the Tuxedo Park report states “The coat came to an end above the waist – like an Eton jacket”)
Royal Artillery shell jacket circa 1870s (left) and Eton dress from 1882 (right). (Wikipedia | Record of Fashion)

L to R: Royal Artillery shell jacket circa 1870s (Wikipedia), Eton dress, 1882 (Record of Fashion), British India mess jacket, 1865 (W.R. Harvey & Co.)

So it’s obviously a mess jacket, right?

Not necessarily.

There is also a wealth of evidence that clearly suggests that the so-called tailless dress coat was in fact a dressy sack coat.  Most convincing of all are the following illustrations from the very sources that verbally imply the garment was a mess jacket:

Illustration from aforementioned Etiquette of Men’s Dress that uses “tailless dress coat” and “dress sack” interchangeably

Illustration from Etiquette of Men’s Dress that uses “tailless dress coat” and “dress sack” interchangeably in its text.

from 1888 Cincinnati Enquirer article titled “Tailless Dress Coat” but that also uses the term “Tuxedo coat”; article excerpted from Clothier and Furnisher report which does not in fact use the “tailless” term

From 1888 Cincinnati Enquirer article titled “Tailless Dress Coat”  that also uses the term “Tuxedo coat”.  Excerpted from a Clothier and Furnisher report that does not use the “tailless” term.

From an article appearing in at least five different September 1890 periodicals which reports on the garment known as “the shell jacket or tailless dress coat”

From a widely circulated September 1890 article reporting on the garment known as “the shell jacket or tailless dress coat”.

Of note is how much the finishes of these jackets resemble those of the dress coat (especially compared to the dress sack depicted in the previous installment) and how the length of the latter two fall somewhere between mess-jacket and sack coat standards.

Many verbal descriptions from this period also support the premise that the so-called tailless tail coat was in fact a modified sack coat and not a cropped tailcoat.  A primary example is the interchangeable use of “tailless dress coat” with other terms that clearly refer to a sack coat as noted in my descriptions of the above illustrations.  Another significant example is the numerous references to its similarity to a sack coat:

  • Clothier and Furnisher says unequivocally “the length and cut was similar to the ordinary sack coat”
  • a first-hand account in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of a summer 1886 sighting says “it is simply a sack coat of fine black diagonal cloth, but somewhat fitted into the back.”  (Notably, this source uses the term “tailless evening coat” and “tailless coat”, not “tailless dress coat”.)
  • another paper says it is “a trifle shorter than the sack coat”
  • one source says the term applies to “a tailless dress sack coat”
  • an 1891 Ottawa paper refers to “the dress suit with its tails cut off” but goes on to explain that “the upper part of it [presumably referring to the coat versus the trousers] is called by tailors a dress sack.  It is perhaps a little longer than the ordinary sack.”  The journal further states that it is known as a Tuxedo as well as a “tea coat”.

So was I wrong to support the faux mess jacket theory?   Maybe.

It seems certain that the mess-style dinner jacket did exist in England in the mid 1880s,  alongside various other dress coat alternatives. While British period sources don’t use the term “tailless dress coat” some of them provide descriptions of what is clearly a type of mess jacket.    As mentioned in a previous installment, the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette said in July 1886 that dinner jackets were “short garments coming down to the waist and made on the model of the military men’s jackets”.  In 1890 the Court Journal stated “at the part [of the swallowtail] where the tails commence the coat ceases.”  Furthermore, the aforementioned explicit depiction of the September 1886 Tuxedo Park encounter makes it equally likely that some versions of this jacket emigrated to America along with the more conventional style.

Beyond that, the existence of multiple illustrations and descriptions of sack-length coats – many associated with terms that would otherwise imply a waist-length coat – and the complete absence of illustrations of mess-length coats lead me to believe that verbal descriptions implying a waist-length jacket are simply exaggeration. (Unearthing illustrations that bridge the gap between the 1886 hybrid dress coat and the 1888 conventional dinner jacket would sure help confirm this theory!)

Furthermore, it seems likely that the term “tailless dress coat” was intended primarily as a reference to the dress coat traits of the new coat, not to the tailless condition of the traditional one.  This, after all, was a very significant distinction from earlier “dress sacks”, so much so that it is actually remarked upon by some reports.  For example, a British periodical states: “The upper front of the coat is cut in just the same shape as the swallowtail, so as to show the utmost expanse of snowy shirt bosom” (emphasis is mine). And an 1889 Galveston paper remarks that: “Sitting at his own table, a gentleman looked exactly as if he had on a stylish clawhammer, the vest, shirt front, collar, necktie and other requisites of full evening dress being all correctly maintained.”

As for Griswold’s outfit in particular, the timing of its appearance makes it very difficult to make a call:  The description of sack-like versions of the “tailless dress coat” debuting in the summer of 1886 are in direct conflict with the only clear-cut depiction of a mess-like version premiering just one month prior to, and in the exact same location as, the famed Autumn Ball.  The jury is still out on that one.*

Next installment: America gives the cold shoulder to the new jacket.

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Postscript

November 25, 2013

*Since writing this post I have found more contradictory descriptions of the Griswold coat. Supporting the conventional jacket idea is a newspaper summary of an Emily Post column in the September 1930 issue of Harper’s Bazaar that says: “It was here [Tuxedo Park], according to Mrs. Post, that the short jacket for dinner wear now known as the tuxedo jacket, was first introduced by Lorillard Griswold.”  Mrs. Post is an extremely credible source considering that her family was one of the charter residents of Tuxedo Park.  She would have been 14 at the time of the famous ball which is certainly old enough to remember such a legendary incident. One the opposing side, I remembered passages from two reputable menswear books I reviewed in the past that make very clear links between Griswold’s jacket and the mess jacket cut.  Details are noted in the postscript for part two of this series.

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