As cultural iconography goes, the tuxedo has a bad rap. Thanks to characters like Jay Gatsby and Rich Uncle Pennybags, the tux is seen as the uniform of the 1%, associated with indulgence and elitism. So severe is this problem that civilized, successful men still rent tuxedos, as if to say, I am but a visitor here in this black-tie world. This is a shame, not just because tuxedos are extraordinarily flattering, but because they are, in fact, a quintessentially democratic garment.
Of course, this may not seem obvious, given the tux’s aristocratic history. When the Gilded Age financier James Brown Potter was invited to spend a weekend in the English countryside with the Prince of Wales in 1886, he asked Savile Row tailor Henry Poole to suggest appropriate attire. Poole recommended a short jacket without tails. Potter loved the jacket and wore it later that year at Tuxedo Park, his upstate New York country club, inspiring much imitation. Thus the tuxedo was born. (The name has Iroquois roots, thanks to the club’s namesake lake, Ptuck-sepo.) But not everyone was enamoured with the style. In 1898, the New York Times argued that the “half-decent and altogether vulgar undress known as the Tuxedo jacket” was acceptable only in very casual settings. Still, tuxedos were more affordable and easier to launder than tails, and by 1922 Emily Post called them “the essential evening dress of a gentleman.” It was around this time that tuxedo rental services appeared.
It was also during the 1920s that the ensemble’s essential form took shape. Then, as now, the key components include black or midnight-blue wool trousers with a striped outseam; a matching jacket, typically unvented, featuring a satin lapel (peak is most classic, notch is safest, shawl collar is most elegant); a black bow tie (neckties are gauche); and unadorned black leather shoes (patent slip-ons are traditional; oxfords are understated). The cummerbund, which I find bizarre, has colonial Indian roots (kamar-band is Hindustani for waist tie). These days, a nice white shirt—ideally with bib front and French cuffs—will suffice.
The rigidity of these rules that haven’t changed in a century is integral to the tuxedo’s democratic character. In a tux, as in a voting booth, all gentlemen are equal. Creativity and trendiness are irrelevant. And in contrast with tails, which were worn only by elite men going to elite events, tuxedos have become standard for all formal affairs, from glitzy charity balls to cash bar weddings.
And yet, men insist on renting, driven by the perception that they do not live tuxedo-worthy lives. Every man owes it to himself to own a tux, and to wear it proudly as a symbol of his belief in a world in which men are not judged by the colour of their suits. In wearing one, men submit to a greater cause, offering what my friend, writer Russell Smith, has called “sober backdrops for the dramatic colour and flashes of flesh of the women.” In a powerful way, a tux says, We’re all in this together. And we look damn handsome.
The myth: Tuxedos cost a fortune
Suitsupply offers this classic tuxedo collar. It’s not too wide, so it’ll always look sharp.