The king of all male civilian garments is the evening tailcoat. Its long tails confer dignity while its starched white expanse of pique waistcoat, shirt, and tie flatter even the most rubicund of faces. The evening tailcoat has changed very little in the two hundred years since it was a riding coat. Its major alteration occurred when its double-breasted model was altered so it no longer buttoned in front. The single-breasted cutaway retained the button stance from the double-breasted model, as it does today. The outfit was, and still is, pretty straightforward, entailing very little choice in either color or detail. All that is needed is to tailor its established proportions to magically turn average men into movie stars.
The outfit consisted of white pique bow tie and matching stiff white pique-front evening shirt with attachable wing collar, worn with a single- or double-breasted pique vest, black worsted swallowtail coat, and matching trousers trimmed with two rows of braids on the outside of each leg. Black silk hose worn under patent leather oxfords or opera pumps with grosgrain bows completed the uniform. A white linen handkerchief with hand-rolled edges graces the breast pocket, while a colored carnation as boutonniere was optional. The only dressing errors egregious enough to scuttle its perfection were if the waistcoat's points extended below those of the tailcoat's front (a common occurrence today) or if the length of the coat's tails were not resting exactly in line with the back of the man's knees.
THE WHITE-TIE EVENING SHIRT
The pique-front evening shirt had a separate stiff wing collar whose shape evolves from turning down the corners of a stiff Beau Brummell fashion. The white pique bow tie was made to exact neck sizes, so that in addition to covering the exposed metal head of the front and back collar studs, the bow's intended width was fixed.
The wing collar sat high under the chin, giving extraordinary stature and definition to the face and chin. Its high back was to show a half inch above the jacket's collar, or a half inch higher than the black-tie's more comfortable turndown collar. The collar's wings helped to keep the pique bow in place by pressing it forward. The angle of the opening and height of the collar determined the style and size of the bow tie. The outer edges of the bow never finished outside the edges of the wing collar. This boilerplate guide for all bow-tie wear was established during that time and is respected even today.
Complementing the wing collar, the evening shirt's sleeve took single, stiff cuffs that, like the collar's height, were intended to show more than the softer French-style double cuffs of the black-tie dress shirt. The "boiled" shirtfront look took one or two studs, and the type of stud fastener determined the size and shape of the opening through which it connected with the stud's head, thus covering any evidence of the shirt's construction. The shirt's bosom, a biblike design in stiff linen or pique, was to fit so that its width did not extend under the trouser's suspenders, and its length was to stop short of the trouser's waistband. Because of its stiff front, if you sat down without it being secured to the trouser, it would billow out like a sail in full wind. A tab with buttonhole affixed the shirt to a special button in the trouser's waistband, keeping it in place and worry-free.
For all of this arithmetic to add up, the dress trouser needed to fit on the natural waist and not below it. This was accomplished with the help of suspenders (termed "braces" in the King's English). Without a high-waisted fit, the vest would not cover the bottom part of the shirt's bib and have its points finish above those of the tailcoat. With all of these studs, straps, and buttons needed to keep everything in place and in proportion, it may seem to be a form of Victorian bondage. In fact, when the clothes are tailored correctly, they are both comfortable to wear and move in graceful lockstep with the wearer.
Most of these design were transformed and worked into the classic tuxedo's final composition. Thus the stiff white-tie and "boiled" shirtfront gave way to the black-tie's softer lines without compromising its formal look, and so on. Let's move on and consider this information as it applies to today's black-tie dressing.
DINNER JACKET DOGMA - THE DETAILS
Most formal affairs are held indoors, Where central heating and air conditioning insure comfortable temperature. So most men prefer a fabric weight that provides comfort for more than a single season. Unfortunately, contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as a year-round weight; no cloth can both warm you in the frost of winter and cool you in the heat of summer. However, a fine worsted cloth of nine to ten ounces will get one through most climate-controlled environments rather handsomely. Since most affairs include dancing and dining, when in doubt, err on the lighter side. While your dinner jacket may never drape like the gravity-prone, fourteen-ounce ones worn in the old movies, you should not have to suffer in pursuit of elegance either. If you wear a dinner jacket frequently enough to justify owning more than one, a choice of weights will certainly expand your style and comfort quotient. You could drop to a lighter, seven-and-a-half- or eight-ounce fabric for summer wear and move up to a fuller eleven- or twelve-ounce weight for fall and winter.
A man of any size, shape, or weight can look stylish in a double-breasted tuxedo; it just depends on how it is cut. Both single- and double-breasted models are equally authentic and correct. The single-breasted model in worn unbuttoned, requiring its exposed waistband to be covered by a cummerbund or dress vest, and providing more opportunities for accessories and thus versatility. The double-breasted model relieves you of this additional layer around the waist, but the jacket looks better buttoned when the wearer is standing. Men tend to unbutton it when seated, so this model ends up being fussed with more than its single-breasted counterpart. A double-breasted dinner coat is never worn with a vest or cummerbund underneath.
Black is the norm, while midnight blue with black trimmings is also worn, Midnight blue comes across less green and more rich in artificial light than black; however, such a garment is rarely offered in the ready-to-wear world. In America, between the beginning of the summer season, June 1, and the end of august, an off-white or tan-colored dinner jacket may be worn. On trips to the South or warmer climates. These light-colored jacket are perfectly acceptable throughout the year.
Only shawl or peaked lapels are used for dinner clothes. Peaked derive its heritage from the tailcoat, shawl from the smoking jacket. The shawl lapel produces a softer, old-world image and tends to be used on alternative tuxedo jackets such as the white summer dinner jacket, velvet smoking coat, or more idiosyncratic ones in wool tartan or cotton madras. Men with round faces or less muscular physiques generally look smarter in the uplifting, sharper-angles, pointed-end peaked lapel. Both lapels possess the sweep and self-importance that helps differentiate the black-tie coat from the less formal suit jacket.
A dinner jacket with notch lapels is a sartorial oxymoron, like sporting a dinner shirt with a button-down collar. (Actually, I've seen this done as a kind of tongue-in-cheek old-boy eccentricity.) Not only does this sportier coat lapel design lack the aesthetic logic and refinement required of formal wear, its casualness makes the rest of the ensemble look common and less dignified.
All dinner jacket lapels require a working buttonhole on the breast pocket side for a boutonniere. Many times, one finds himself in a wedding party or other official circumstances as an usher where he is asked to wear a flower. There is nothing more sophomoric-looking than having to pin one on the lapel. It makes this one flourish of tailcoat elan appear almost clown like.
Custom-made dinner clothes pay even more attention to the buttonhole area by sewing a loop as a stem keeper under the lapel. You could ask the store if they could cut a buttonhole in the dinner jacket's lapel, although they will probably discourage you. It takes a qualified tailor to correctly determine its proper location and to execute a well-finished buttonhole through the silk-faced lapel. It is done all the time in custom clothes, however, and even if the buttonhole is machine-made, the boutonniere will cover it up. The buttonhole should be no less than one inch in length.
The tuxedo pocket must be dressy, yet simple. There is really only one type that should appear on the dinner jacket and that is the jetted or double besom pocket. Besom pockets can be of self fabric, as on a dressy day suit, or trimmed in the lapel's silk facing. Flap pockets belong with notch lapel; neither were ever intended for formal clothes. While flap pockets are cheaper to make (as are notch lapels), they also add a layer of cloth to the thip, and are thus neither slimming nor simple enough for such elegant apparel. Just as you would not expect to find peaked lapel on a tweed sports jacket or cuffs on dinner trousers, you should not see pocket flabs on a dinner jacket.
The original dinner clothes were made vent less and then later offered with side vents. Vent less jackets are more slimming while side vents provide easier access to trouser pockets and are more comfortable to sit in, something one does a lot at formal occasions. Single vents are fine for horseback riding, as they open up, providing comfort while in the saddle. Unfortunately, They also open up when a man puts his hand in his coat or trouser pocket, exposing his back side as well as a patch of dress shirt. Single vents are acceptable on single-breasted coats, never on double-breasted ones, and with their sporting heritage, they compromise the intended formality of the tuxedo.
Because grosgrain or ribbed silk was originally used on tailcoats, this style of trimming has always been considered a bit more refined than the shinier, more theatrical satin. In the early days of off-the-peg English tuxedos, many carried satin facings, so the ribbed silk came to be identified with the Savile Row-made tuxedo. The best facing are made of pure silk, while less expensive ones contain a synthetic component. Shawl lapels look fine in satin or grosgrain. Grosgrain facings permit some contrast in textures for the bow tie, while satin facings demand the bow tie to match which, especially if not hand-tied, will produce a more contrived effect.
The dinner jacket's buttons can be plain or covered in the lapel's facing. Some of the more old-world custom tailor cover their dress buttons in a fine, woven silk design, which at first may look a bit fancy, but can be quite subtle and distinguished. Like the tailcoat and better lounge suit, the jacket sleeves are to be finished with four buttons, their edges touching. Forever buttons is not dressy enough, more is frivolous.
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