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Style: Formal Introductions

William Kissel

A Washington, D.C., Microsoft executive who attends an exhaustive number of black-tie functions recently called upon Jack Simpson of Oxxford Clothes to put an end to his formal fashion boredom by suggesting alternatives to the traditional tuxedos that filled his closet. One of Simpson’s proposals—a gold-colored cashmere dinner jacket worn with a silk vest and charcoal trousers—clearly pushed the man’s conservative boundaries, but with a little coaxing, it was reluctantly adopted.

 

“I was worried about selling him this outfit until he called me after he wore it,” recalls Simpson, Oxxford’s creative director. “He told me: ‘Every woman in the room came over and stroked my sleeve. All my friends were jealous, and my wife was furious. It was the best evening of my life.’ ” The point, says Simpson, is that “even in the domain of conservative Washington, when it comes to evening dressing, a man always has options.”

This was one of the messages that Brioni delivered when it altered its usual fall presentation at the biannual menswear trade show in Florence, Italy. Instead of the normal stockpile of suits, tailored sportswear, and accessories for the coming season, the clothier used the formidable three-room expanse to present a retrospective exhibition on the history of formal wear. The intent, explains Brioni Chief Executive Umberto Angeloni, was “to reintroduce modern gentlemen to this very graceful, formal way of dressing.” He is referring in particular to the elegance personified in the 1930s and 1940s by the Duke of Windsor and, more recently, by actor Pierce Brosnan, who wears Brioni formal wear in the James Bond films. In addition to showcasing the two standard-bearers of after-six dressing—the single-button, peaked lapel tuxedo and the shawl-collared dinner jacket—Brioni illustrated formal wear’s less traditional side in both vintage as well as historically inspired new designs. These included a copper-colored silk dinner jacket and a tuxedo made of sumptuous cashmere jacquard. Brioni created another over-the-top retro novelty in red velvet with sheared mink lapels. “Ideal,” says Angeloni, “for formal entertaining at home.”

This retro twist on formality has been on Ralph Lauren’s mind for some time as well. Last year, the designer found that the best way to differentiate his upscale Purple Label collection from other Polo offerings was to sprinkle in a healthy dose of tuxedo separates, including a milk chocolate shawl-collared dinner jacket worn with fluid cream-colored trousers, and a brown double-breasted formal suit, both influenced by designs from the 1940s and ’50s. Lauren’s return to the elegance of yesteryear extended into this fall with the introduction of his eight-button double-breasted and four-button single-breasted tuxedos.

 

Although they differ in their interpretations, suitmakers agree that formal wear—in defiance of the weak economy and world events—is poised to make another comeback after its peak in 1999, when millennium celebrations began. Some say the reemergence of the classic single-button, peaked-lapel tuxedo—the benchmark from which all variations are interpreted—could have been foreshadowed by this fall’s emphasis on pinstriped and double-breasted suits, all throwbacks to the 1940s, another war era.

“I think we’re in a very serious moment in our society,” explains Joe Barrato, U.S. president of Brioni, the company that introduced the first dupioni silk dinner jacket and infused men’s formal wear with color in the 1950s. “Psychologically it’s important to dress up again, to project an image of power and credibility, especially in business. The tuxedo is a very important extension of this whole concept.”

It appears that some men are getting the message. “More than 40 percent of our business is made-to-measure and custom, so we can really see what men select for themselves when they’re not limited to what’s in the store,” says Mike Cohen, president of Oxxford Clothes. Most are leaning toward the classic single-button, peaked-lapel formal jacket updated with a stronger roped shoulder. The style, explains Cohen, “takes the tuxedo to a sexier level while staying true to the traditions of evening wear.” Even the once-popular lavish silk waistcoats and colored cummerbunds have been replaced with a classic white piqué vest, he says.

At Davide Cenci in New York, store owner David Cenci says the single-breasted, peaked-lapel style may be a holdover from the past, but men drawn to this look are not hesitating to tweak the tailoring details. “Rather than plain satin on the lapel and pant leg, they are asking for grosgrain ribbon or built-in satin at the pant waist so it can be worn without a cummerbund,” he says. “On a personal level I think it’s important that formal wear remain classic. There is a certain tradition tied into these things that will always be important. All the fancy jackets and colorful accessories take away from the formality.”

Nevertheless, and despite this return to classicism, a few sartorial dalliances are an acceptable way for a man to distinguish himself from the other gentlemen in the room. The tuxedo is, after all, the result of one man’s sartorial rebellion. It was the comfort-conscious Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who in the mid-19th century enlisted his Savile Row tailors to rethink the stiff-necked shirt, white tie, and tails that was the uniform of formal English dress at the time. Although the suit took its name in 1886 after American Griswold Lorillard adopted the style and wore it to the autumn ball at his country club in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., it was Edward’s fashion experiment that first turned white-tie evenings into black-tie events. Another British royal, King Edward VIII, who later became the Duke of Windsor, is often credited with the modern-day peaked-lapel tuxedo. The silhouette he wore with such aplomb in the 1930s is now being faithfully resurrected, albeit in airy superlightweight wool and cashmere fabrics.

No other era in the history of formal wear is as influential as the 1930s and 1940s. “Whenever we speak about fine dressing we always return to that period,” says Cohen, who carries with him vintage photos of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper in homage to a time of elegance that will never be duplicated. “With all we know about style and fabric, we should have something today that evokes as strong an image. But we don’t.” In lieu of such a contemporary image, says Cohen, the look and fashion traditions of that historic period continue to set the standards by which all formal wear is judged.

Simpson, however, emphasizes that this golden era of formal wear should be viewed in the proper context when applying it to modern fashion. “I love the 1930s and 1940s and all these black-and-white images of men like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant wearing tuxedos. But even though we are still inspired by them, they just don’t have any applications to today’s lifestyles,” he explains. “We’re always trying to make it fit, but it doesn’t, because we don’t recognize elegance in the same way.” The other problem with reviving retro, adds Simpson, is that the weight of menswear has changed considerably over the past 70 years. “Textiles are lighter and much more fluid and therefore you can’t get the same clean architecture of those heavyweight suits you see in old photographs.”

Although evening dressing adheres to traditional disciplines, modern fashion must allow for each man to find his own way of conforming, if only for the sake of individuality and comfort. “There is convention, but there is also creativity, and men can now enjoy a fuller range of options,” says Simpson, who spends much of his time schooling his clients on the rules of elegance so that what they wear does not look forced. “Every man has a zone of comfort,” he explains. “Some you can push further with color and new fabrics, and others you have to take a few steps at a time. If you push him beyond his comfort zone, even if he looks great, it doesn’t work.”

Simpson’s suggestions for tinkering with tradition include a colorful single-button, peaked-lapel dinner jacket made of cashmere or silk with a bit of surface texture, and a formal suit that can be used for speaking engagements but can also be accessorized for formal occasions.

Barrato recommends a fancy white shirt instead of an ordinary white shirt, and a pleated tie in place of a basic black bow, “so it remains classic but with a twist.” Better yet, he adds, consider one of this year’s new navy tuxedos or perhaps an off-white dinner jacket. “A silk or a jacquard jacket is very elegant for formal evenings, particularly for the guy who has the tuxedo and is ready to extend himself a little sartorially.”

Then Barrato adds a final caveat: “We offer these items only to complement the classic tuxedo in a man’s closet,” he notes, “not to replace it.” 

Brioni, 888.778.8775, www.brioni.it
Ralph Lauren Purple Label, 888.475.7674, www.polo.com
Oxxford Clothes, 312.829.3600, www.oxxfordclothes.com
Davide Cenci, 212.628.5910, www.davidecenci.com

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Photo by Ted Morrison