Spotlight: The Notched Lapel

Posted on March 6, 2014

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(Roberts-Wicks Co. tailors, 1928)

(Roberts-Wicks Co. tailors, 1928)

Menswear discussion boards occasionally feature lively debates about the appropriateness of a notched lapel on a dinner jacket.  Most commentators will argue that it is a modern trend imported from the common business suit and thus has no place on formal attire.  But some will inevitably counter that it is legitimized by historical precedent and adoption by sophisticated dressers.  So let’s take a look at the evolution of this contentious jacket flap to find out the facts behind the arguments.

The Formative Years

Opponents of the notched tuxedo point out that the dinner jacket evolved from a merger of the tailcoat and the smoking jacket and therefore should feature the peaked lapel of the former, or the shawl collar of the latter.  (Technically, the tailcoat also featured shawl collars at the time of the dinner jacket’s debut but this only adds to their formal legitimacy.)  The notched lapel, meanwhile, was imported from the ordinary business suit – or lounge suit as it was then called – and consequently was not considered appropriate for tuxedos.

From a 1902 UK tailoring book that referred to the notched lapel as a “right angle step-roll” and noted that it “finds much favour”.

Patterns from an Edwardian British tailoring book that referred to the notched lapel as a “right angle step-roll” and noted that it “finds much favour”.  (Cutter’s Practical Guide, circa 1902)

Supporters of the notched tuxedo don’t dispute the lapel’s origin but consider it moot in light of vintage illustrations of such jackets, which they regard as historical validation. However, random depictions do not necessarily represent past validation.  We need to find broader evidence of the notch’s relative popularity and acceptability during the tuxedo’s early years when modern formalwear etiquette was being established.

Beginning with popularity, I delved into my extensive image archives and counted the number of notched-lapel tuxedo jackets versus shawl and peaked versions.  This is what I found:

 decade

total tuxedos

total single-breasted

total notched lapels (% of single-breasted*)

1880s, ‘90s

21

21

1 (4.5%)

1900s

66

64

1 (1.6%)

1910s

37

35

2 (5.7%)

1920s

84

77

14 (18.2%)

1930s

175

94

2 (2.1%)

1940s

86

28

2 (7.1%)

*notched lapels do not appear on double-breasted jackets

Assuming that these results are representative of trends in general – and I don’t see why not – we can conclude that the notched lapel was indeed prevalent in the 1920s (when it virtually replaced the shawl collar option) but outside of that period its popularity was negligible.

Furthermore, actual period surveys of tuxedo styles suggest that my results may be exaggerating the extent of the notch’s popularity in the 1920s.  For example, Men’s Wear surveys  in April 1924 and March 1926 both revealed that only 6% of Palm Beach’s best-dressed men sported notched lapels on their tuxedos.  A similar sampling conducted in New York in 1928 found this style was preferred by only 4% of men.

1922 Saks ad.  The notched lapel’s popularity in the 1920s came at the expense of the shawl collar.

1922 Saks ad for “new” notched-lapel tuxedos.

As for appropriateness, it is highly relevant that the majority of the notch illustrations in my archives derive from tailors’ advertisements and tailoring pattern books, and not from the editorial content of menswear magazines.  By far, authoritative periodicals such as Men’s Wear, Apparel Arts, and Esquire tended to ignore the notch in their features. (In fact, not a single issue of Esquire from its debut in 1933 up until the early 1960s contains an illustration of a notched-lapel tuxedo jacket.)  Just as importantly, the lapel was typically excluded from their correct dress charts, just as it was omitted from other authorities’ dress charts and from etiquette books in general.   Once again, here’s a summary of its appearance in such sources that specifically provide lapel descriptions (the majority do not), as drawn from my collection:

 source

shawl collar and peaked lapel (only) mentions

notch lapel  mentions

various Men’s Wear correct dress charts from 1920s and 1930s

6

1

various Apparel Arts correct dress charts from early 1930s

4

1

various other dress charts and etiquette books from 1900s-1940s

10

0

So unless someone with a more extensive sartorial database can prove otherwise, the fact of the matter is that, during formal wear’s defining decades, the notched-lapel dinner jacket had limited general popularity and very limited official acceptance.

Mid & Late 20th Century

Regardless of its relative rarity in the early part of the century, this formal bastardization would go on to become the most common tuxedo lapel in today’s world.

The formal notch’s rise to widespread popularity began slowly.  In the 1950s, the shawl collar ruled supreme in tuxedo fashions and the only etiquette reference I have to the notched-lapel tuxedo prior to 1957 is the original edition of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette which grouped it with the shawl collar as being a “more casual” choice than peaked lapels.

Then, in the late 1950s and early Sixties, manufacturers became eager to reinvent the tuxedo for the modern world.  They initially focused most of their attention a slimmer cut and unique lapels.  Thus it was that lapels with embroidered edges, moiré facings, and cloverleaf cuts were all trotted out along with the “novelty” notch shape.

Sean Connery dinner jacket in 1964’s Goldfinger is one of the most cited examples of notch lapel legitimacy.  However, the scene’s context suggests otherwise.

Sean Connery’s dinner jacket in 1964’s Goldfinger is one of the most cited examples of notch lapel legitimacy. However, the scene’s context suggests otherwise. (Danjaq LLC / United Artists Corporation)

Narrow notched lapels edged in silk were a big trend in the 1960s (1966 Raleigh Suits ad)

Narrow notched lapels edged in silk were a popular trend in the 1960s.
(1966 Raleigh Suits ad)

Etiquette authorities weren’t quite so enamoured of the new development: Of the five conduct manuals I own from this period that specifically mention tuxedo lapel types, none referred to the notch.  Even the revised edition of Amy Vanderbilt’s book dropped her original allowance for that lapel.

The style then went back into limbo in the Seventies only to re-emerge with a vengeance during the 1980s formalwear renaissance.  By 1988 the revised edition of Dress for Success was reporting that it was “the model worn by most executives today.”

Wide lapels returned to popularity in the 1980s greatly exaggerating the droopy look of notched lapels.  Seen here is Timothy Dalton, the worst dressed of all the Bonds.

Wide lapels returned to popularity in the 1980s, greatly exaggerating the droopy look of the notched shape. Seen here is Timothy Dalton, the worst dressed of all the Bonds. (Danjaq LLC / United Artists Corporation)

By the late 1990s, one- and two-button notched-lapel tuxedos modelled after common business suits had become the most popular style and even designers as conservative as Ralph Lauren were including them in their formal lines.  (Worse still, Ralph Lauren proffered four styles of notch lapel tailcoats in the 2000s.)  Said The Indispensible Guide to Classic Men’s Clothing in 1999:

The notched-lapel tuxedo is, in essence, a formalized single-breasted suit coat.  It is considered bad form in some circles, because it is perceived as less formal and therefore less traditional, than coats with shawl or peaked lapels. Nevertheless, [it] has earned its place among the classics of men’s formalwear.

The New Millennium

Prince Philip in 2005 photo portrait, President Obama at his 2009 Inaugural Ball.

Left: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in a 2005 portrait.  Right: President Obama at his 2009 Inaugural Ball.

At the dawn of the new millennium, notched lapels had become the norm on tuxedos and were increasingly seen with other business suit-like accompaniments such as an uncovered waist and a long tie.  In Europe they have been endorsed by royalty and the US they are seen regularly on the red carpet and on President Obama who has worn his two-button, flap-pocket, centre-vented version regularly since his 2009 inauguration.  Even etiquette and style books regularly treat the notched tuxedo lapel as equal to the shawl and peak.  In fact, it has become so ubiquitous that formalwear manufacturers and fashion pundits often label it as “timeless” and “classic”.

Of course, you now know better.

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For a description of the notched lapel’s (inferior) aesthetics in comparison to the peaked lapel and shawl collar, see Contemporary Tuxedos in The Black Tie Guide.

Posted in: History