If you’re wondering why a site devoted to everyday fashion is featuring “white tie, top hat and tails,” it’s not just because I love old Fred Astaire movies.
The 20th century was often a more formal place than the 21st century. Many middle class men owned — and needed – formalwear.
In the 1960s, my father and I were cleaning out the attic when we found his old tuxedo. My father was ‘blue collar;’ he did manual labor. He wore carpenter’s overalls to work. But, when he took my mother dancing in the 1920s and 1930s, he wore his own tuxedo. I doubt that he owned a business suit, but the tux was essential wear for nightclubs and dances. Once, when his brother secretly borrowed my father’s dress shirt, my parents couldn’t go to the dance, because he wasn’t properly dressed.
The chart above comes from an article about formalwear, Coats of Male, by Gerald McCann, which appeared in The Delineator – a woman’s magazine published by the Butterick pattern company – in January, 1936. The Delineator was aimed at home stitchers – and their dressmakers. The article’s subtitle is “The Fine Art of Making Your Husband Look Impressive in Evening Clothes.”
The article explains correct “White Tie” for 1936, and also discusses tuxedos. (When you see the words “dinner jacket” think “tuxedo”, although a white dinner jacket, with black tux pants, could be worn in hot weather.)
Here are McGann’s MEN’S FASHION TIPS for 1936:
“Since really formal clothes are coming into their own again [in the heart of the Great Depression!], the question is: When should a man wear tails? When may he wear a dinner jacket?
“Before the last big war, tails were worn whenever ladies were present; a dinner jacket only when dining informally – at home or a club.
“After the war, the tail coat was almost abandoned. Men wore dinner jackets as more appropriate…. [But] now we are getting back to the old rule. Tails are almost obligatory at any important function, at any big dance, and even at proms in Eastern colleges. When a man dines with a man of importance, he wears tails, even if no women are present.
“Dinner jackets are worn on boats, at resorts, and when night clubbing. They have become so much less formal that turned-down collars, and even soft shirts (which I dislike) are worn with them….”As trousers usually wear out before coats, don’t try to make to make one pair of trousers do for both dinner jacket and tails. Furthermore, those worn with dinner jackets should have a single stripe of plain quarter inch braid. [Trousers worn with tail coats had two braid stripes along the side seam; see illustration.]“[With a tailcoat]…I do like to have a [white bow] tie and waistcoat of about the same weave. [White pique – pronounced pee-KAY but written without an accent mark – is fine cotton with a raised pattern woven into it.]
“Lapels of single-breasted dinner jackets are usually faced with dull silk, grosgrain, or barathea. With the more informal double-breasted dinner jacket, many men have the shawl collar faced with satin … to distinguish it from a double-breasted navy blue [business] suit. ”
Eyewitness Note: Vintage formalwear for men is often dark navy blue, rather than black. Black wool can look brownish under incandescent lighting; blue was thought to look “blacker.” And the wool fabric is often surprisingly heavy and not smooth like wool gabardine or the wool blends we are used to nowadays.
“For black ties, like white, the butterfly shape is the most popular…””and easiest to tie well.” [The black tie should be] “made of the same material as the [lapel] facings.”
“Black waistcoats, however, should be made of the wool material of the suit.”
“Small white pearl studs are correct with all evening clothes. Black studs are not worn with dinner jackets…. Some men wear platinum and diamonds, if they happen to have them.
“More and more men are wearing flowers in their buttonholes. Carnations, dark red or white, are favorites, but I prefer the less usual batchelor buttons, gardenias, or violets.
“Evening mufflers ,,, should always be plain white, without pattern or fringe.””[For] evening overcoats,…”most men wear the dark blue, double-breasted coats they wear in the day time.
“The black homburg is now correct with dinner jackets, but a man must have at least an opera hat for tails.”
[NOTE: An opera hat looks like a top hat, but is collapsible, so it fits in the hat clip on or under your seat.]
“Failing the right hat or coat, the little woman should stick a flower in his buttonhole, make him face pneumonia smartly, without hat or coat.”
If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to go out and party like it’s 1936. Happy New Year!
[Edited to resize images 12/14/13]