‘Men in Black’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

By Claire Charlotte Mowser


The dinner jacket, otherwise known as the tuxedo, is a staple garment in any gentleman’s wardrobe and is today only donned on the most formal of occasions. This past week an array of tuxedos could be spotted on the Milan Autumn Winter 2011/12 shows, with McQueen, Versace, and Gucci showing both single and double breasted shawl and peak collared versions in black and navy.  Whilst the fashions for collars and styles may vary, the dinner jacket is a traditional garment with over 150 years of history behind its iconic design.

The Savile Row tailors from Henry Poole gave a lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum to the MA History and Culture of Fashion and BA Bespoke Tailoring courses on the origins of the dinner jacket, which was first designed within their store by the Prince of Wales in 1860.   The details of this garment, as noted in the store ledgers, describe a short bespoke smoking jacket being ordered by the Prince in 1860 for use at informal dinner parties.  This jacket and trousers cost the Prince the sum of £13.00.  It was the Prince’s friendship with Mr James Potter, an American and a member of the Tuxedo Park Club, that was to elevate this garment to the iconic status it possesses today.  Mr Potter, following a weekend with the Prince at Sandringham, ordered a smoking jacket from Henry Poole on the advice of the Prince.  Mr. Potter continued wearing the jacket on returning to the Tuxedo Park Club in New York, and the short evening jacket became the clubs uniform for their “informal stag dinners” and came to be known as the tuxedo.

The tuxedo is traditionally constructed in a black or midnight blue fabric.  As Angus Cundy, current maintainer of the Henry Poole dynasty, explained “Midnight blue came in between the wars, then lighting made black look yellow, whereas midnight blue looked black.”  The colour black, largely associated within Europe with darkness and death, has a long history and has been linked to aristocratic fashions since the 15th century largely owing to the lengthy process of overdyeing involved in the production of black cloth.  Shaun Cole, course director of our MA History and Culture of Fashion course, concluded this lecture by explaining the tradition of black in menswear.  Black was the colour of choice of merchants in the 1500s as a way of displaying importance whilst remaining within the strict sumptuary laws of the time, however Philip of Burgundy is acknowledged as the first person to wear black as a fashionable colour in the 15th century.  Black soon became a fashionable colour for “priests, princes and merchants” and by the 16th century Philip II of Spain, widely considered the “most pivotal man in black in European history” is described as looking “very ordinary dressed in black just like the citizens”.  Black became a colour synonymous with reform and democracy.  It was the colour of the reformation and adorned pivotal figures such a Martin Luther and John Calvin.   Various iconic historical and fashionable people dressed in black in the 19th century such as Beau Brummell, Benjamin Disraeli and Oscar Wilde, and black is still widely considered today a fashionable colour of restraint, style, and democracy.

As James Sherwood, the self-appointed guardian of Savile Row explains in the Inside Outs recent investigation into the tradition of tailoring, “Savile Row’s past isn’t just about preserving what is gone, it is about the past preserving the future”.   This inspirational lecture on the tuxedo and men in black ensures that the rich history and heritage that surrounds such traditions can be preserved for future generations.

For further information on Henry Poole and the history of the Tux, go to http://www.henrypoole.com/henry_poole_story.cns


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