Black Magic

BlackMagicIllust Black Magic
by Grandin Donovan
Prom. Weddings. Octopussy. The traditional tux is anything but; its history, one of exception rather than rule. Introduced as a less formal alternative to tail-coated Victorian "white tie," it overcame British humbuggery to become the ultimate icon of dignified modern fashion.
Legend held that Griswold Lorillard scandalized the 1886 Autumn Ball of his father's elite Tuxedo Club when he appeared in a tail-less dresscoat with scarlet lapels. History, however, suggests that Grizzy's jacket—sans scarlet—had been introduced earlier that year by member James Brown Potter.
Mr. Potter had summered at the Prince of Wales' country retreat, and brought back to the States a "short smoking jacket" that Ed favored for his dinner parties there. Bespoke to Savile Row's Henry Poole & Co. in 1860, it became the "Homburg," the "dress lounge," and, finally, the "dinner jacket." In 1903, shortly after the Prince became King, any American Joe could rent a tux from After Six.
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By the 1940s, black tie was officially established eveningwear, and cross-dressing à la Viktor und Viktoria was a sign of both empowerment and kink. Marlene Dietrich poured herself into white tie as Lola, singer in the eponymous cabaret of 1930s Blue Angel. During WWII, "Sepia Piano Artist" Gladys Bentley sang "gay songs" in tails at Mona's Club, blowing kisses to San Franciscans. Gender-bending changed fashion in 1966, when Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking. Inspired by Betty Catroux and immortalized by Helmut Newton, this first trouser suit for women was daring and sexy—if vaguely androgynous.
Le Smoking has since become the template for ladies' tuxes. In '71, Bianca married Mick in a white one. Later, Madonna vogued in hers. The mid-90s got girlied-up as Phoebe Philo and Stella McCartney flared hems and opened jackets to reveal pretty camisoles and slips. Today the likes of Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs, and Viktor & Rolf continue to reinterpret Le Smoking's sharp glamour. Scarves, pencil skirts, t-shirts, and plunging necklines are mixed with variations on the dinner jacket. Even denim has been added to black, white, and gray.
Men's styles have changed, but the radical is rare—and dandyish. A conceit of DJ and blue jeans featured in John Ray's Gucci premier, and Versace recently offered a marine-blue coat in patterned velvet. Such foppery is fine for the runway, but you won't get into the Lumiere without your papillon.
Note to dapper: Black tie for men is best enhanced by attention to detail. Avoid colored or patterned accessories (read: naff/tacky). Jackets can be single- or double-breasted, with one to four buttons depending on cut. Lapels may be shawl, peaked, or notched; shirts wingtip, pointed, or collarless. Waistcoat or cummerbund is a question of taste, as is trading your bowtie for a cravat or an ascot. But, whatever you do, ask your date first—she wears the pants, too.
Illustration by Pepin Gelardi, www.pepingelardi.com
Prom. Weddings. Octopussy. The traditional tux is anything but; its history, one of exception rather than rule. Introduced as a less formal alternative to tail-coated Victorian "white tie," it overcame British humbuggery to become the ultimate icon of dignified modern fashion.
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