In October of 1886 New York’s social elite gathered at a brand new exclusive country club called Tuxedo Park for its first annual Autumn Ball. As was the norm for upper-class gentlemen, magnates such as William Waldorf Astor, JP Morgan and Bruce Price (famous architect and father of Emily Post) donned their black tailcoats, starched white shirts and formal bow ties.
But there was also a small group of young mavericks who decided to have a bit of fun with the era’s obligatory evening attire and arrived in a variation so outlandish it was reported in the society gossip sheet Town Topics. Each of them wore “a tailless dress coat and waistcoat of scarlet satin” and according to sartorial lore this marked the debut of the shorter version of the formal coat which would eventually take the name of the club where it first appeared.
The actual origin of the tuxedo, however, is not quite so dramatic. For the true story we must travel back to the 1860s and across the Atlantic to England.
Despite having established the formal customs adopted by much of the western world, English noblemen were tiring of the practice of dressing up like orchestra conductors every evening especially if the occasion was as informal as a family dinner. Some of these gentlemen were inspired by the shorter and looser “lounge jacket”, a recent innovation and precursor to the modern suit jacket designed as an informal replacement for the long formal coats normally worn during the day.
The first adaptation of the lounge coat for evening use was the “smoking jacket” typically made of lush velvet with a quilted shawl collar and suitable for wear when the ladies retired after dinner leaving the men to smoke their cigars. Eventually country squires had these jackets made of the same dressy materials as their tailcoats and were bold enough to wear them to informal dinners at their country estates.
The future of the new fashion trend was assured when it was adopted by Queen Victoria’s eldest son the Prince of Wales. In fact, there are claims that this future King Edward VII requested the very first evening jacket, but conflicting claims and contradictory dates suggest the garment’s precise origin is lost to history.
What is not contested is the Prince’s role in exporting the jacket to the world at large during the summer of 1886 when he invited American coffee tycoon James Brown Potter and his famous actress wife Cora Potter to dinner at his country estate. James was unsure as to what to wear to such an occasion and was consequently advised by the Prince to visit his tailors to be fitted for the newly popular tailcoat substitute. Potter obliged and then brought the jacket home with him to share with his fellow bluebloods in the informal country atmosphere at Tuxedo Park.
This story of the jacket’s arrival on American soil is recounted in a 1979 interview with Grenville Kane, the last surviving founder of the prestigious enclave. The essay also explains that the legendary version of its subsequent premiere by the impudent youngsters actually arose from a misinterpretation of the Town Topics reference to “tailless dress coat” by later readers unaware that the term “dress coat” was a standard synonym for “tailcoat” at the time. Therefore a tailcoat without its tails would have been cut off at the waistline and tailored in a double-breasted style, just like a military mess jacket. It would not have looked anything like a tuxedo jacket which extends down to the wearer’s seat and is single-breasted. Instead, Potter’s import made its way into American society in a much more subtle fashion when his Tuxedo Park colleagues wore it one evening to a bachelor’s dinner at Delmonico’s in New York City, the only restaurant where people dined in public at the time. Others took notice and associated the jacket with the name of the club to which the men belonged.
It is unlikely that as James Potter packed his novel jacket into his steamer trunk for the voyage home 125 years ago he had any idea of how popular it would become. But as we will see in the next instalment, the journey through time would prove to be as tumultuous as the journey across the North Atlantic, fraught with world wars, the Great Depression, hippie revolution and, yes, the heinous disco era.