Tuxedo Origins: American Backlash

Posted on November 12, 2013

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

"The Olean Democrat", December 1888

The Olean Democrat, December 1888

My latest research confirmed copious previous evidence that the new jacket was appropriate only for the most informal evening occasions, quaintly summarized by one source as “the club, stag parties, the dinner at home, card parties and private billiard bouts”.  Period descriptions commonly categorized the garment as a form of “negligee” and frequently implored readers to wear it only with black bow ties as they were regarded as less formal than the white option.

What I was not previously aware of, though, was the contrasting reactions to the new jacket on either side of the Atlantic.  Surprisingly it was the traditionally-inclined British that wholeheartedly embraced it for its comfort while a more informal United States despised it for its inappropriateness.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle describes the American response to the English jacket’s arrival on its shores in the summer of 1886:

At first the older men, who are always shy of such innovations, would none of it.  The small boys, ever ready for a novelty, seized upon it with delight, and proud of their innovation wore it to formal dinner parties and dances with the addition of a colored sash around their waists in place of a waistcoat, and they got themselves promptly sat upon for their pains.  As they wore it it was a costume which no Englishman would have been seen in outside of the billiard or smoking room.  After their severe snubbing by the older men and the matrons the small boys meekly laid their tailless coats away, and reposed in camphor.

It was only when the older men later visited England and discovered the jacket’s comfort and popularity – and discretionary use – that they began to embrace it in its proper context. By 1888 it had gained widespread acceptance as the headline above attests.  “It is the connecting link between elegant neglige and elegant evening dress,” proclaimed an article reprinted in US newspapers from coast to coast in January 1889, “but it can be worn for full dress no more appropriately than boxing gloves can be worn at a wedding.”

Next installment: A “tuxedo” by any other name.

Posted in: History