Formal eveningwear is the last bastion of die-hard sartorial pedantry. For well over a century, it has been technically defined as a single platonic form: the immutable tailcoat ensemble, negotiable only in the cut of the waistcoat. Contemporary convention has of course promoted the semi-formal tuxedo* to be the gussiest gear most of us will ever don, but even here, acceptable variation is limited to a handful of styles -- single button or double-breasted, peaked or shawl lapels -- and two colors: black or midnight blue. But as it is now, must it ever be, world without end? Having myself recently joined the small band of miscreants who possess brown tuxedos, I will now attempt to use this modest platform to justify them. Bear with me.
The avatar and alibi of the brown tuxedo has always been Noël Coward, who famously had his made in the early 1970s by Dougie Hayward. Curiously, it’s cut from polyester -- an artifact of a more optimistic era, before the space age wonder fabric (and space itself) had lost its futuristic luster -- but being exquisitely rendered in otherwise impeccable form, it carries no whiff of Sextonian excess. It has long held my fascination as a garment particularly befitting an iconic dresser who made his name roasting high society’s mores and peccadillos from deep within. By artfully challenging an orthodoxy it obviously respects, the brown tuxedo embodies a Cowardly quality rarely noted in classic clothing: wit.
Brown is, of course, not a color that conjures urbane evening elegance, but I suspect the reasons for this are more arbitrary than generally supposed. In the mid to late nineteenth century, when eveningwear was more widely and frequently worn, it was considerably more varied, more vital, more fashionable than the classically calcified costume we’ve enshrined as the apex of elegance. Part of that dynamism was the wider spectrum of color in play, particularly in the burgeoning and controversial semi-formal stratum then being defined by the elder Prince of Wales and his sartorial disciples: garnets, emeralds, sapphires, and yes -- even rich browns. According to this aesthetic, the essence of eveningwear was not necessarily strict uniformity, but sumptuous understatement, and a liberal understanding of smoking jackets and their derivatives as leisure wear -- play clothes, even: mildly naughty liberations, if one was so inclined, from the sober worsteds so ubiquitous in daytime business attire.
Ironically, at the other end of the sartorial bell curve that peaked in the interwar years, the time for more discretely playful (semi-)formality may have come again. As its occasions dwindle, “black tie” becomes less a starchy ceremonial obligation to be endured, and more an exotic opportunity to be sought and savored. The callow hubris of “creative” black tie is finally sparking a reactionary traditionalism on various red carpets; perhaps this renewed respect for the rules can carry a cautious appreciation for those who break them not out of ignorance, but in pursuit of an elite elegance.
Whatever we may claim, no recreational dresser truly wants to melt into a crowd or disappear into the woodwork; whether by virtue of flamboyance or impeccability, we strive for distinction and differentiation. The fact that midnight blue tuxedos are having a moment reflects not abandonment of traditional sartorialism, but its renascent vigor: more and more men want their clothes to be noticed. As they nudge the mean up the color spectrum, more rarefied dressers may seek higher ground.
This could all end very badly, of course, with a kaleidoscope of jewel-tones at formal functions. But I don’t think so. I may well confront the odd fellow dandy dressed to the teeth in his equally unique brown tuxedo, but not a pack of them. There simply aren’t enough outliers, enough dressers with the cheeky confidence to brave the clucking of their peers. There are certainly more than there used to be, and that’s a good thing for us all. Don’t let’s be beastly to them.
* Hush, Jeeves. “Tuxedo” is a mellifluous term, conjuring both sex appeal and best of the garment’s competing origin narratives -- a classic parable of English polish and American brass. It is also delightfully infuriating to those who prefer the infinitely worse Anglo(phile) term “dinner jacket” -- usually abbreviated by natives to the utterly savage “DJ.”
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]