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Articles >>Formal Wear

FORMAL WEAR by Alan Flusser. The notion of a man "dressing up" after the sun goes down, whether it be in top had and tails or simply in his best finery, has been with us for centuries. In fact, in the great European opera houses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the "dress circle" meant just that, with no one allowed in unless he or she was properly attired. However, the idea of wearing black for evening wear was, according to the English clothing historian James Laver, first introduced by the nineteenth-century British writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who utilized it "as a romantic gesture to show that he was a `blighted being' and very, very melancholy." And it was Bulwer-Lytton who gave further impetus to this notion of black as the color for formal wear by writing, in 1828, that "people must be very distinguished to look well in black." Naturally, the moment this statement was noted by would-be dandies, the style became decidedly de rigueur, and it wasn't long before black became popular for daytime wear as well. Although for years white tie and tails were the traditional mode of formal attire, the introduction of the dinner jacket added another viable alternative from which the well-dressed gentleman could choose. The original dinner jacket was simply an adaptation of the "Cowes" jacket - a sort of compromise between a mess jacket, a smoking jacket, and a dress coat - invented for or by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales, and worn by him first at dinner aboard his yacht at Cowes and then later at other semi-formal evening gatherings away from London. The original single- breasted model was simply a tailcoat without a tail, worn with white piqu‚ vest and later with a matching black vest of the same fabric as the jacket and trousers. The dinner jacket made its debut in the United States in 1896, when a celebrated dandy named Griswold Lorillard wore it to a white-tie-and-tails ball at an exclusive country club in Tuxedo Park, New York. Tuxedo Park, founded in the 1880s by a group of prominent and wealthy New Yorkers as a residential club colony, was an "informally formal" community. Apparently, society had had enough of tails, which had traditionally been worn for formal evening wear, because Lorillard's "invention" was immediately accepted in even the stuffiest of circles. The use of the term "tuxedo," sometimes lamentably abbreviated to "tuck," or, even worse, to "tux," is pretty much confined to the United States. The garment is known abroad, and generally in this country as well, by its correct name of "dinner jacket," or (frequently in the New York area) "dinner coat." It is probably seldom, if ever, called a "tuxedo" in Tuxedo Park. The dinner jacket remained just as its inventor intended until the 1920s, when the next Prince of Wales - later to become the Duke of Windsor - ordered a new dinner jacket (by this time, Lorillard's tuxedo had taken the name of its American birthplace), and specifically requested that the fabric be not black, but blue - midnight blue, to be precise. Under artificial light, midnight blue appears black - blacker than black, in fact - whereas black, under the same artificial conditions, tends to take on a greenish cast. The new color caught on, and is now counted among the great sartorial inspirations of that bygone era. In the 1930s, the prince once again tinkered with tradition, appearing in a double-breasted dinner jacket. Although the double-breasted dinner jacket was first ordered from a Savile Row tailor by the English song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan (who also wrote extensively on fashion), it was most certainly the prince who popularized this style. Worn with a soft-front pleated evening shirt, this innovation brought a new level of informality to the traditional dinner jacket - but with no lowering of the standards that separated those who dressed correctly from those who simply dressed up. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, the tuxedo has undergone various stylistic changes, including the excesses characteristic of the decade of the sixties. And yet, fashion aside, the proper tuxedo, whether it be single-or double- breasted, still endures as the most elegant attire for any man. For a man, no other form of dress is as steeped in such a ritualistic sense of propriety as formal wear. Thee is something so elegant about the simplicity of black and white, with its stark contrast and lack of pattern, that when the elements are properly put together, they present a man at his most debonair. After dark or 6 p.m. - whichever arrives first - there are two ensembles that can properly be called formal: white tie, which means tails, or black tie, better known as the tuxedo. The more formal of these ensembles is white tie, which includes a tailcoat with matching trousers trimmed by two lines of braid on the outside of each trouser leg, white piqu‚ tie, white piqu‚ single-or double-breasted waistcoat, and wing-collar shirt with stiff piqu‚ front. However, with the exception of a man's wedding day, or occasions of state, a man will probably never be called upon to wear white tie. Nevertheless, anyone residing in a city, large or small, will probably find himself attending affairs requiring black tie at least several times a year, as more and more people today are reexperiencing the pleasures of dressing up. Thus, a properly styled tuxedo is one of the smartest and potentially most enduring investments a man can make for his wardrobe. Unfortunately, though, like most solid investments, a fine tuxedo is not easy to find. There are four proper styles for the tuxedo: the single-or double-breasted with a peaked lapel with grosgrain facing on the lapel, or the single-or double-breasted shawl collar with either satin or grosgrain on the lapel facings. These are the only proper choices. Yet American manufacturers, in order to save on costs and increase profits, have taken to producing a notched lapel - the same style manufactured for their normal daytime suits - and facing them in satin. This unfortunate trend began in the sixties, when men were experimenting with alternative styles of dress. Once manufacturers realized it was less costly to produce this model, they persisted. Today the man seeking a proper dinner jacket, with either peaked lapels or shawl collar, has his work cut out for him. One might try searching the better men's specialty stores, but even the venerated Brooks Brothers sells the notched style. The more adventuresome man can explore the second-hand shops. Or, finally, he can have his formal wear custom-made. The most versatile jacket style is the single-breasted, peaked-lapel model. It was the original black-tie model, the direct descendant of the tailcoat, and its angular lapels look best with a wind collar, the tailcoat's original complement. It can be worn with a vest or cummerbund, and even with a turndown collar. Peaked lapels look equally elegant on the double- breasted version of this coat. The double-breasted model offers the advantage of allowing the wearer to dispense with a vest or cummerbund. The shawl collar model, either single-breasted or double- breasted, has a more subtle look than the peaked-lapel models. Because of its Old World image and the fact that it is a jacket style worn only for evening wear, it is especially factored by the most sophisticated dressers. However, if one's build is on the portly or rotund side, one might want to avoid the shawl collar, as it tends to accentuate the roundness. Both single-and double-breasted jackets are at their best either without vents or with moderate side vents. Whichever style one chooses, the pockets should never be in the flap style, which is traditionally associated with day wear. The color should be black or, if one is lucky enough to unearth one in this color, midnight blue, in a finished or unfinished worsted. In summer or at a resort, a
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