The tuxedo may be one of the most misunderstood garments of all time.
It’s true that these early tuxedos bear similarities to their modern day counterparts – but the evolutionary changes are clear when you look at images of the tux over time.
Peter Marshall, the formal-wear expert behind the Black Tie Guide blog, has spent hundreds of hours poring over old magazines and newspapers to examine the changing face of the tuxedo. We combined his research with our own to bring the whole story of the tuxedo into focus.
The tuxedo burst onto the scene in 1865, thanks to trend-setting Prince Edward VII, as an alternative to the more formal tailcoat.
Though many attribute the creation of the tuxedo to wealthy American aristocrats attending the Autumn Ball in Tuxedo Park, New York, the garment actually dates back to 1865 and Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales), according to The Wall Street Journal.
Savile Row tailor Henry Poole & Co., which is still in business today, fit the prince for an ensemble that was more formal than a lounge suit, but not without the trimmings of a tailcoat. (It was something the prince could wear in the dining room and informal settings.) His highness commissioned it in blue with matching pants and the “dinner jacket” – as the tuxedo was called back then – took off.
At this time, the jacket was usually black, shawl collared, and accompanied by white accessories.
By the early 20th century, the tuxedo had taken America by storm.
- New York Public Library
Most likely, the dinner jacket was brought to America in 1886 by millionaire James Brown Potter and his wife Cora, who were introduced to the Prince of Wales during a trip to Britain.
The prince sent Potter to be fitted for the popular new jacket and Potter later wore it to the Autumn Ball of a private country club in Tuxedo Park, New York. There, the American moniker of the suit was popularized. How it spread to the rest of the country is deeply steeped in folklore with many conflicting stories.
By the early 20th century, the dinner jacket had risen in popularity and was acceptable in formal situations. Black accessories and a peaked lapel were also de rigueur.
After a dip in popularity during World War I, the 1930s saw a resurgence in formal dress.
- New York Public Library
By the 1930s, black-tie came roaring back, mostly unchanged since before the war. It was the de facto evening wear, relegating white-tie to special events.
The midnight blue tux was all the rage, and in 1935, there were more mills churning out blue tuxedo wool than black tuxedo wool.
The double-breasted tuxedo jacket variant – previously considered too informal – also exploded in popularity during this time. For warmer climates and seasons, the white tuxedo jacket (contrasted by black trousers) became an acceptable alternative.
In the 1940s, tuxedos took a backseat to suits.
- New York Public Library
World War II brought a time of informality to America. Tuxedos became a rarity – an exception instead of the norm. Men wore suits instead of tuxedos when they went out at night.
White-tie (then known as full dress) would never truly recover from this period.
The Space Age incorporated new fabrics and styles in the tuxedo.
By the 1950s, the tuxedo was back. It was renewed by few changes: more “Space Age” fabrics (like polyester), more intricate shirt patterns and designs (including the first ruffles), and a shorter, more fitted jacket.
White-tie had been completely abandoned, and black-tie was the new norm at movie premieres, high society events, and even weddings.
John F. Kennedy was the last president to wear white-tie to an inaugural ball, until Ronald Reagan briefly revived the tradition in the ’80s.
Colorful variations on black-tie began to appear during this period, but it was the exception rather than the rule.
By the 1970s, all formal-wear bets were off.
The tuxedo was completely remade in disco’s image by the 1970s. A young, revolutionary generation looked at the conservative styling of the tuxedo and threw out nearly everything, keeping only the vague silhouette.
Huge, floppy bow ties, colorful patterned jackets, shirts with ruffles and lace, and trousers that looked more like bell-bottoms became much more prevalent. The typical tuxedo in the ’70s usually had at least two of these elements, if not all of them.
By the 1980s, a return to classic styling had thankfully re-emerged and tuxedos started looking more conservative.
The 21st century saw the blur of formal and casual styles.
- Getty/Vince Bucci
By the late 2000s, as dress codes became diluted and misunderstood, formal-wear took another hit.
Business-casual was the predominate dress code of the workplace and shiny black suits with matching ties had nearly supplanted traditional black-tie. Colored dress shirts also began to trend in this era.
Those who continued to wear traditional black-tie made it as simple as possible to match the casual aesthetic that Generation Y preferred.
Finally, in the 2010s, the tuxedo is entering a Golden Age.
- Getty/Jason Merritt
Today, more and more young men are adopting the black-tie styles of the ’30s and ’40s. Midnight blue tuxedos have even made a comeback.
Period dramas like “Mad Men” are at least part of the reason for the shift, with men growing nostalgic for a bygone era of neater, more crisp duds.
The ease of tailoring-by-mail is thought to be another reason for the resurgence of formal-wear. It has never been easier for a man to find a well-fitting tuxedo.