Urbanities

Nicholas Antongiavanni
Tailcoats: An Elegy
Summer 2003

Everybody knows how JFK sent hats to the ragbag of history and made hatters obsolete. Before 1960, most men, presidents included, wore felt hats with their suits. Even Ike, who carried his hat more often than he wore it, never ditched it altogether. Then this dashing fellow Kennedy won the highest office in the land—hatless. Suddenly bare heads weren’t just acceptable—they were fashionable.

Such sea changes in men’s attire invariably occur with a nod or a frown from a head of state, whether hatted or not. And what Kennedy did to the hat, George W. Bush has now done to the tailcoat. Consider: the president didn’t wear a tailcoat to his inaugural ball or to his first two state dinners. This isn’t yet decisive—neither Clinton nor Bush’s father wore tails for these occasions either. The acid test is the White House reception for the entire diplomatic corps, traditionally held early in a new administration. Every president of the twentieth century hauled out the tails for this event.

Bush wore a tux.

If tails had been on the way out for a while, why blame Bush for their demise? Nobel laureates, with a few recent exceptions, don’t even wear them to receive their prizes anymore. (Oddly, the buffoonish lefty novelists Dario Fo and G&#uuml;nter Grass went to the effort, while the otherwise elegantly dressed Kofi Annan and reactionary monarchist David Trimble couldn’t be bothered; temptations aside, I shall remain silent on Jimmy Carter.) But this anti-tailcoat trend only makes Bush’s coup de grace more blameworthy. After all, this is an administration that rode into town on a promise to “restore dignity” to the White House. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, when asked how Bush’s first big state dinner would differ from his predecessor’s, replied: “More stately.” That led some people (well, me) to expect white tie.

It was not to be: tails are history, and Bush finished them off. In the same way that Eisenhower ratified the New Deal, Bush sealed our culture’s dismissal of tails.

Why should anyone care, you may ask? After all, the tailcoat is an unusual garment—rarely worn, thoroughly impractical, a bit ridiculous, even. But here is a somewhat highfalutin response.

Among the virtues that the ancient Greek philosophers enumerated, “greatness of soul,” or “magnanimity,” stood at the top—“the crown of the virtues,” Aristotle called it. The magnanimous man characteristically displays his freedom from the petty and mundane with tokens of self-sufficient plenitude: as philosopher Allan Bloom put it, the magnanimous man “loves beautiful and useless things.”

And in the world of men’s clothes, nothing is more beautiful or useless than the tailcoat—one of the few garments of which the sartorial clich&#eacute; is actually true: that it makes a man, any man, look his splendid best. If it fits and is well cut, the tailcoat can turn any man—short or gangly, fat or lanky—into an Adonis. No one looked better in tails than Fred Astaire, who was short, wispy, and not particularly handsome. But when we see him dressed to the nines, we hardly notice his deficiencies. Astaire, never forgetting how much tails did for his appearance, donned them in movie after movie.

Even if the tailcoat’s beauty isn’t enough to make you care about its disappearance, its glorious history is worth knowing, not least because it tells us something about the leveling tendencies of modern societies. Clothing historian James Laver has observed that all men’s clothes “start by being sports costume; they are then adopted, and adapted, for ordinary day wear, they then become evening dress and, if they run through the whole gamut, they end as servant’s costume.” One can see this movement from elite day wear to servant’s costume in the tailcoat.

Like every tailored garment worn today, the tailcoat started out on horseback. Its “tails” are nothing more than the vestiges of a riding coat that once fell to the knee. It seems that in the mid-eighteenth century, some practical English country squire asked himself: “Who needs all that cloth spilling over the saddle and getting in the way?” He then asked his tailor to make him a coat cut sharply under the rib cage, so that the front of the skirt (the part that fell below the waist) was missing. Apparently, no one considered simply cutting the coat short all the way around: some residue of the old forms usually stays in place when innovations are introduced. Thus the tails remained, falling harmlessly from the rider’s back over his horse’s flanks.

It was the prince of the dandies himself, George “Beau” Brummell, who, roughly a half century later, brought the new tailcoat from countryside to town and made it the last word for metropolitan day wear. Brummell was a middle-class boy with a decent income, an Eton education—and vaulting social ambition. Resigning his army commission after his regiment was posted to Manchester (“No gentleman could bear to live in so barbarous a place,” he grumbled), Brummell moved to London, where he immediately noticed that the clothing worn by the aristocratic set he so desperately wanted to infiltrate not only was beyond his means but also taboo for anyone in his social position. For a middle-class young man to wear aristocratic garb was to risk contempt, ridicule, and ostracism. Imagine a military buff, who has never spent a day in the armed forces, wearing a full-dress Marine uniform to a Corps-hosted event. You get the picture.

Rather than try to beat the aristocrats at their own game, Brummell changed the rules. His fashion revolution, which proved so successful that the aristocrats soon were playing by his rules, entailed dispensing with embroidered silk coats, ruffled shirts, knee breeches and silk hose, buckled shoes, and the like—expensive aristocratic finery he now deemed “vulgar”—and replacing it all with a more refined, but affordable, version of country wear: wool instead of silk, and plain rather than brocaded; dark blue instead of salmon and turquoise; trousers instead of breeches; top hats instead of tricornes; black leather boots instead of velvet pumps; and plain white shirts (no lace) with starched white cravats. And at the heart of Brummell’s new sartorial vision: the country tailcoat, “tightened and smartened,” explains Laver, for wear in town (see page 99).

Today, Brummell and his “dandy” imitators look preposterously overdressed. But at the time, people considered everything the typical dandy wore as restrained in the extreme. The dandy rejected ostentation in favor of clean lines, somber materials and colors, impeccable cut, and perfect fit. Despite what you may have heard, dandyism is the antithesis of foppishness.

The rise of Brummell’s dandyism, explains art historian Anne Hollander, marked the historical moment when men’s clothes made the leap into democratic modernity. Western societies increasingly expunged outward and obvious signs of rank and class, so that, as Hollander puts it, only a man’s “personal qualities [were] shown to matter.” The peacockery that had long marked all dress—and that to some extent still rules female fashion—no longer held for men’s clothes.

Brummell’s success as a democratizing fashion trailblazer is all the more amazing in that it depended almost completely on his extraordinary hold over the mind of the prince regent—the future George IV. That someone could lead any royal, but particularly one so fond of peacockery as George, to encourage the stigmatization of ostentatious display and the erosion of class distinctions is surely extraordinary. No wonder Byron declared the three greatest men of his age to be himself, Napoleon—and George Brummell.

Brummell’s friendship with the prince did not end happily, however. It appears that Brummell took one too many liberties with his royal patron, resulting in his expulsion from the royal circle and voluntary exile in France, where he eventually died in 1840. But not before (Laver again) “dictating the main lines of male fashion for the whole of Europe of the next hundred years.”

Brummell made the tailcoat fashionable day wear. But how did it become acceptable evening wear? Back in the eighteenth century, remember, men would change their clothes before sitting down for dinner—every day, even in their own homes, and certainly before going out. As designer Hardy Amies observes, “Men spent a great part of the day on horseback. Personal hygiene apart, you did not want to bring the smell of the stables into the house.” And the clothes that men changed into were more formal than the ones they changed out of, the idea being that one dressed “up” for the formal ritual of a multi-course meal. Moreover, the presence of ladies demanded better clothes. Ladies, the thinking went, have delicate sensibilities, and one always wanted to look one’s best for one’s sweetheart. This practice of “dressing for dinner” long outlasted its original rationale.

The tailcoat became acceptable dress for dinner sometime after George IV’s death in 1830. As happy as George was to wear the tailcoat and to see it worn during the day, he would not countenance it for the evening, and insisted that his set—basically, the entire British upper class—stick with traditional regal and courtly garments. But his brother and successor William did not care—about the tailcoat, about clothes, or about much else. The new king’s relaxed stance provided men with an opening, and they took it. Why wear all that foppish and uncomfortable nonsense at night when the perfectly respectable and far more comfortable tailcoat was at hand?

By 1860, the tailcoat was only worn at night. The reason was obvious: if evening clothes should be more formal than day clothes, and if the tailcoat was okay for night, then surely one could wear something less formal and more comfortable than the tailcoat during the day, right? We needn’t concern ourselves with its daytime replacements, except to say that these too came from the country, where the squires had already abandoned the tailcoat during the day, on the same comfort principle.

By the time it vanished from daytime activities, the tailcoat had assumed the form we recognize today. No longer truly double-breasted—no longer buttoned across the chest, in other words—it now hung open, the better to show off one’s brilliant white waistcoat, shirtfront, and gleaming studs. Yet it retained the peaked lapels and the two rows of buttons, now purely decorative, from its double-breasted days.

Over the years, the tailcoat also took on some of the trappings of military uniforms. Blame envy. At really high-flown affairs, gentlemen entitled to do so would still wear their best heraldic finery or else full-dress military uniform, outclassing by miles the somber civilian tailcoat—and such outclassing rankled just as much as it did in Brummell’s day. Dandyism may have had the upper hand for decades, but it is impossible to suppress completely the natural male impulse toward peacockery. “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she’ll be constantly running back,” as Horace once said. Thus did the trousers come to be made of the same cloth and color as the coat, uniform-style, for example, and facing lapels to be made with rich silk grosgrain, among other subtle changes.

Somewhere along the way, too, the coat’s color darkened from blue to black. Both Laver and the designer and sartorial philosopher Alan Flusser trace this development to writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wore black “as a romantic gesture to show that he was a ‘blighted being’ and very, very melancholy,” Laver explains. And since he had written in 1828 the “novel of the century,” the now-forgotten Pelham, people took what he said—and wore—seriously. Pelham’s protagonist was himself a dandy, one of whose maxims was that “people must be very distinguished to look well in black.” Comments Flusser: “Naturally, the moment this statement was noted by would-be dandies, the style became decidedly de rigueur.” Other commentators have traced the rise of black in fashion to the morally somber tone of the Victorian era or simply to practical considerations—soot belching from Industrial Revolution smokestacks didn’t show against black.

Whatever the reason for its blackness, the tailcoat ruled the night until the 1880s, when Queen Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII, made the first tiny cracks in its supremacy. In those days, all the men smoked, but few ladies did. Upper-class homes thus had separate rooms where the men could go to enjoy their tobacco. As they entered these rooms, they would don a special garment—the “smoking jacket”—that prevented the noxious fumes from sticking to their other clothes and offending the women when the men returned to mixed company. Edward decided to adapt the smoking jacket for wear outside the smoke dens by having it made in worsted wool (instead of velvet), in black (rather than burgundy or bottle green), and with trimmings similar to those on the tailcoat. But Edward only wore his new-style black jacket—a forerunner of today’s “dinner jacket”—at his country homes or at one of his town clubs. He never would have dreamed of wearing it in front of ladies.

A young American buck named Griswold Lorillard didn’t share Edward’s scruples. Lorillard once spied the prince wearing his short black dinner jacket, and, seized with the spirit of emulation, asked his tailor to make him one. This garment, according to (perhaps apocryphal) legend, he proceeded to wear on October 10, 1886, to the inaugural Autumn Ball of the Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, New York. Every other man present wore tails. Seeing Lorillard, the ladies gasped. The men, either out of resentment (“If I have to wear this damned getup, so should he”) or a sense of propriety, were outraged and showed him the door.

The dinner jacket would not appear in public for another 30 years. But Lorillard’s impudence, and the comfort it promised, did impress many men to order dinner jackets of their own for private stag events. The “tuxedo”—the tailcoat’s rival and eventual replacement—was born.

It took another Prince of Wales, who would reign briefly as Edward VIII, to make the dinner jacket acceptable for wear in public, beginning in the 1920s. This prince was the greatest sartorial innovator of the last 100 years—the Beau Brummell of the twentieth century. Why did he succeed where Lorillard had failed? Princes can get away with breaking the rules, of course, and they’re much more likely to be emulated when they do. Maybe men had grown sick of the bother of tails. Maybe it was the more relaxed mood of the Jazz Age. At any rate, it happened.

Nor was wearing the dinner jacket in public the prince’s only clothing innovation. He also introduced a softer, much more comfortable evening shirt—one that had pleats in lieu of a boiled front, double (or “French”) cuffs instead of hard single cuffs, and an ordinary, turned-down spread collar in place of the wing collar. And he started the tradition of wearing a black tie with the dinner jacket, instead of the tailcoat’s white tie, another of Brummell’s legacies.

Incidentally, Brummell’s starched white cravats have changed into something much more manageable over time. A guest once found the dandy standing with his valet surrounded by a heap of crumpled cravats. “Sir, those are our failures,” said the valet to the astonished visitor. A cravat, you see, was nothing but a large square of linen or muslin, starched into submission to prevent the knot from losing shape. But before one could even attempt to tie it, one had to fold it into the correct “preliminary” shape—requiring great skill and much bother. During the Edwardian era, some enterprising West End gentlemen’s outfitter devised a tie that made a man’s life much easier. You still had to tie the thing yourself, but you didn’t have to fold it, and its cotton piqu&#eacute; material made it soft enough to knot on the first try but strong enough to hold its shape without starch. It is this tie (the modern bow tie’s father) that people have worn with tails ever since.

The Prince of Wales’s fashion innovations gave rise to the traditional distinction between “formal” and “semiformal.” Though the prince managed to confer legitimacy on the dinner jacket, even he did not imagine it would entirely unseat the tailcoat, only that it should stand in for the tailcoat on less formal occasions—in nightclubs and restaurants, at smallish private dinners, maybe at the theater. For anything more elevated, he felt, you would still wear the tailcoat. The prince’s distinction caught on. Thus events requiring a dinner jacket became “semiformal” or “black tie,” while those demanding the tailcoat became “formal” or “white tie.”

The subsequent history of the tailcoat is a chronicle of marginalization. As men came to appreciate the dinner jacket’s freedom and comfort, the tailcoat appeared at ever more rarefied events—at debutante balls, the top theaters, and the opera. You know those plaques that say “Dress Circle”? When men first started to wear black tie to the opera, some of the snootier patrons demanded—and got—an area of their own, into which gentlemen could not step unless properly dressed. In tails. The tailcoat’s fading glory could still be seen in London during the 1930s, when, says Hardy Amies, “On any evening in May or June, Belgrave Square was full of young men in tails.” But in democratic, modern New York, 59th and Fifth, the tailcoat grew ever more rare. And even in London, plenty of young toffs would have been wearing dinner jackets.

World War II sped the tailcoat’s decline by ending the practice of dressing for dinner. Not that the American upper class was exactly religious about the practice by the time the war broke out, but the English did hold on to it in earnest. During the war, however, it struck many as indulgent, when men were fighting and dying in khakis and camouflage. And after the war, the practice’s inherently patrician cast offended democratic sensibilities. Wartime cloth rationing on both sides of the Atlantic and postwar austerity in Britain made tails increasingly impractical.

Now tails would only come out of the closet at most a few times a year: opening night at the opera, say, or daughter Buffy’s debutante ball, maybe some weddings or the odd banquet. The more men asked themselves: “Do we really need to wear tails to this?” the more the answer turned out to be: “No.” Women resisted, at least for a while: what man could say no to his daughter (to say nothing of his wife), if she insists that Daddy don white tie for the most important evening(s) of her life?

Haughty Europeans helped keep tailcoats from total disappearance, too. Americans have been running the world since 1945, but in matters of style we have never completely lost our inferiority complex toward our Atlantic allies. The Europeans exploit this sense of sartorial inferiority. They would never host an occasion of state that isn’t white tie, in part because they know that so few Americans own their own tailcoats. Nothing delights the arrogant European more than scoffing at the ridiculous Yanks in their hired clothes. That’s why American state occasions remained white tie for so long. Americans couldn’t bear to risk the contempt of their distinguished European guests.

But George W. Bush doesn’t care. Recall the now-famous story of the night before his inauguration, spent by the president-elect, as tradition dictates, at Blair House. Apparently, when asked what he wanted for dinner, W. replied: “A cheeseburger.” The horrified chef, doubtless a veteran of many state dinners, demurred, in a none too solicitous tone, that this was Blair House, that cheeseburgers unfortunately weren’t on the menu, but that he would happily make the president-elect some saddle of rabbit or trout amandine. Bush’s reply: “Bush. Texas. Cheeseburger.”

I tell this story only because I surmise that a similar conversation must have taken place in the planning stages of his diplomatic corps reception.

    The president: [disconsolate] So I guess I have to wear a tux to this thing.
    White House social secretary: Well, Mr. President, diplomatic receptions are traditionally white tie.
    The president: [alarmed] White tie?
    White House social secretary: Yes, sir. You know. Tails. [Pause]
    The president: [firm] Bush. Texas. Tuxedo.

That’s not entirely fair. Bush will wear tails when he absolutely, absolutely has to: when, that is, he must attend a white-tie affair hosted by someone else, such as the Al Smith Dinner in New York or the Gridiron Dinner in Washington—two of the last white-tie events in America. Despite his Texas veneer, Bush has been willing to play along with Washington’s permanent establishment, going to their parties and dressing the part—making him the most socially respected president since Reagan (Georgetown hated Bill Clinton even more than it did Jimmy Carter). And Bush surely deserves credit for reinstalling adult sartorial discipline in the White House, where frat-house slovenliness had free rein for eight long years under his predecessor.

For White House events, though, tails are now dead—meaning that they are effectively defunct in America. Sure, they’ll linger on at the Gridiron Dinner for a few more years, and some eccentric grooms might wear tailcoats to the altar. And of course the English will stick with them for a while—longer than continental Europe, I’d bet. But it’s only a matter of time.

Indeed, for the tailcoat, we’re at the end of the movement that Laver described—from day wear to night wear to servant’s clothes. We might think that such a splendid garment deserves a dignified retirement. But history tells us it is not to be. All that foppery that Brummell discarded in the eighteenth century wound up on the backs of the footmen and valets of the nineteenth. So, too, the frock coats and striped trousers of the nineteenth century ended up dressing the butlers and porters of the twentieth.

For some reason, polite society has always insisted that its servants dress better than itself. It’s the same principle Shaw pointed to when he had Henry Higgins say that he could pass Eliza Doolittle off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party—or even as a duchess’s maid, which requires better English. It’s the same principle, too, I think, that requires orchestras to dress in tails. Time was when their audience showed them the respect of dressing at the same level. Now audiences see orchestras as people paid to entertain them—the help, in short. And it’s the help who should dress to the nines.

Recall that scene in the movie The Remains of the Day, where a bunch of grandees are having dinner in an English country house in the 1930s? They are all wearing black tie. The staff is in tails.

End of story.

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