Tuxedo Origins: Formal Sundries

Posted on November 14, 2013


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

We wrap up our series with various odds and ends gleamed during my research into the original dinner jackets.

Comfort in Context

Fashionable seaside outfits from summer 1894

Fashionable seaside outfits from summer 1894. (Chicago Daily Tribune)

It is not difficult to understand why Victorian men were eager for a break from the rigid full-dress uniform they were expected to don every evening.  A wool tailcoat worn over a waistcoat and starched shirt with stiff upright collar and bow tie doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of comfort.  But how is it that simply cutting the tails off the coat was considered by these men to be such a huge relief?  That’s a hard concept to grasp in our modern world where many people resent having to wear anything more than sweatpants and a T-shirt.

The most obvious reason is a very practical one: for physical relief from summer heat.  I was not previously aware of the emphasis placed on the dinner jacket’s warm-weather role, particularly at seaside resorts or in the country where the gentry would emigrate each summer.  This must have been a tremendous relief considering that the new jacket was exempt from the old etiquette of wearing an overcoat with one’s tailcoat year-round.

On a more cerebral level there was also the mental relief of casting aside the all-encompassing formality inherent to the dress coat.  Here’s a great insight into the sartorial mindset of polite society from The Times of Philadelphia in 1888:

The old swallow-tail . . .  had and still has something of the phylactery in its composition.  From its cold and incomplete embrace of the masculine torso there struck in a restraining chill of pride; there even resulted a higher politeness of manner and a more ceremonious malformation of sentences.  Bows in a swallow-tail were lower, attitudes more decent and movements more confined.  There are still, and may be for many years, occasions in which the Princes of Wales and his supporters at Tuxedo will continue to find a swallow-tail a proper envelope for an officially solemn demeanor.  But the Tuxedo coat is evidently the garment of the future . . . It is a coat to lounge in.  Physically and morally, its wearer is entitled to the privileges of demi-toilette.   He may smoke, cross his legs, yawn, put up his heels, stretch himself and wriggle at ease with no coat-tails to disturb his post-prandial comforts.

Or as San Francisco’s The Argonaut put it simply a couple years prior:

Jackets appeal direct to the heart of every man.  Who does not slip off the ‘claw-hammer’ and swagger around home with his hands in the pockets of an old sack-coat, worn over evening clothes, when no strangers are about?

The Dinner Jacket Dandy

Evander Berry Wall aka “King of the Dudes” in 1888. (Wikipedia)

New York Socialite and reigning dandy E. Berry Wall was a very early champion for the dinner jacket when it had not yet achieved widespread acceptance at formal events.  A story was widely reported of how Wall was ordered off the ballroom floor at the posh Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, New York in 1887 for wearing the “tailless dress-coat so popular in England for summer wear, but which was new to the attendant, who regarded it as little more than a waiter’s jacket”.

The dinner jacket, by the way, was from Henry Poole & Co.

The James Brown-Potter Tale

James Brown Potter's wife Cora is said to have dazzled the Prince of Wales with her beauty.

The renowned beauty of James Brown Potter’s wife Cora is said to have earned the couple an invitation to dinner with the Prince of Wales.

The story of original Tuxedo Park resident James Brown-Potter importing the dinner jacket to America is beginning to look distinctly apocryphal. 

The story, according to a recollection of the last original founder of the exclusive enclave, is that Potter visited England in the summer of 1886 with his actress wife Cora and they were invited to dinner with the Prince of Wales at his Sandringham country estate after meeting him at a ball.  Not knowing what to wear to an informal dinner with royalty, Potter accepted the Prince’s recommendation to visit his tailors Henry Poole to be fitted for the new style of dining jacket.

The problem is that no secondary documentation has yet been found to verify this account and a fair amount to discredit it.

As reported in 2012, Henry Poole & Co.’s recent examination of their ledgers was unable to find any record of Mr. Potter being a customer.*   Their research also revealed that their clientele included many other Tuxedo Park residents, any of which could have potentially ordered the jacket.  And now they have informed me that the Prince of Wales was actually no longer a client at that time.

In addition, my recent newspaper research suggests that Mr. Potter may have never even gone to England that fateful summer.  While  journals on both sides of the Atlantic do indeed refer to “Mrs. James Brown-Potter” making a striking impression on English society and meeting the Prince at a ball that summer, none of the reports mention her husband.  Indeed, one period publication asks “Who hath seen or known him?”  Furthermore, a New York Times article of June 5, 1900 about the couple’s divorce proceedings noted that “In 1886 [Mr. Potter’s] wife, daughter, and nurse, with his wife’s mother and sister, went abroad for the Summer with his consent.” Why would a man provide consent for his wife to travel if he was to be escorting her?**

In retrospect, while the original source of this story certainly has a valid connection to the original circumstances we must keep in mind how the story has been passed down.  Firstly, the source recounted the event to an other individual approximately 43 years after it took place.  Secondly, that individual waited another 50 years before putting it to paper.   I think that it is best treated as just another part of the intriguing folklore that is woven into the tuxedo’s true origins.

Library of Alexandria 2.0

ania-gilmore_library_of_alexandria_detail_100ppi

(Ania Gilmore)

As an aside, I have to say once again how astonishing it is to witness the fulfilling of the Web’s potential.  I am often reminded of the Ancient Library of Alexandria’s legendary collection of manuscripts from around the known world. It was an astounding accomplishment then but now, two thousand years after its destruction, humanity is not just working towards assembling the entire world’s knowledge once again (a Herculean feat in and of itself) but also making the results universally accessible.  Whereas the vast intellectual treasures of Alexandria were limited to those few with the means to travel to its hallowed halls, Alexandria 2.0 comes racing to the fingertips of anyone with access to the internet.  And as if that weren’t enough, this colossal database is searchable.

As a result, the study of history will never be the same. When I began my in-depth research around 2005 I followed the millennia-old pattern of seeking out printed resources authored by experts.  That meant I was limited to the resources available at my local library and had to trust that the expert authors, in turn, had access to extensive first-hand resources.  Flash forward seven years and here I am sitting in the comfort of my own home and accessing two centuries worth of digitized books, periodicals and newspapers that I located just by typing in simple search terms (albeit in numerous permutations and using multiple indexes).   Now, rather than relying utterly on the results of authors’ in-person research, I find myself using their books more as a benchmark.  I am able to clarify or even correct their research utilizing first-hand sources that are being added to the global database every day.  Not only that, but I am actively contributing to this new world library by posting my own original analyses of the raw data that I have just mined.

I don’t think previous generations could have imagined such a revolutionary approach to information storage and accessibility.  And future generations will naturally take it for granted.  That makes those of us alive today eye-witnesses to history.  Pretty cool stuff.

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Postscript

November 25, 2013

Research subsequent to this post suggests that the Potter story may be (slightly) more credible:

*Tuxedo Park historian Deborah Harmon has informed me that the essay writer was adamant until his death in 2010 that he was shown Potter’s dinner jacket order when visiting Poole’s in the 1980s.

**Additional examination of period newspaper accounts has finally produced references to Mr. Potter joining his wife for visits with the Prince in London and Cowes.  While this does not validate the essay’s claim that the jacket arose from a visit to Sandringham, the connection to Cowes is quite significant as that location is closely connected to the earliest appearances of the dinner jacket.

Posted in: History