In the last essay entitled "Fine China", I received a comment asking "What's the difference between a black tie and white tie event?"
It's a fascinating topic, and there's an interesting history involved, if you have just a few moments this evening.
A while back, Miss Helen sent along an article from The Wall Street Journal entitled "Style and the Man" by Jamie Johnson (Saturday/Sunday April 30-May 1, 2011).
Johnson was writing about the planned celebration of the (disputed) 125th anniversary of the modern dinner jacket first being introduced (in 1886) at a posh resort on Lake Tuxedo (Tucseto as the Lenni-Lenape native Americans named it) in Orange County, New York.
But apparently the Prince of Wales, some twenty years earlier (in 1865) had asked his tailor (Henry Poole & Co.) to design a tail-less dinner jacket. And thus the dispute over dates.
You see, in former decades (make that centuries) dinner jackets had tails. And when a group of young friends (complaining that the long tails interfered with sitting, dining and dancing) showed up at the renowned Tuxedo Park Resort in 1886 with tail-less jackets, it created a shock and scandal not unlike Janet Jackson's famous "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl!
But the tail-less fashion took hold, both in America and in Europe. It still employed the white tie, cummerbund (original spelling) and silk or satin lapels -- just no tails. But in time, the white bow tie gave way to the black bow tie. And this is the currently recommended (not necessarily demanded) attire for a "Black Tie" event.
However, White Tie events are still very much alive. Often called "Top Hat and Tails", it is the most formal dress code in Western fashion -- and employs the original dinner jacket with tails, and a white bow tie.
You'll see this mostly at state dinners and in diplomatic circles, both in America and in Europe. (In a private home it can be considered extremely pretentious, and is rarely seen -- unless of course Regina herself and Prince Philip are stopping by for dinner!)
By comparison, Black Tie events are almost "informal" nowadays. And you'll see some gents in dinner jackets and black bow tie, and others in dark suits, even business suits.
The term dinner jacket and "tuxedo", by the way, are interchangeable these days. (And there's barely a dispute that the name came from the Tuxedo Park Resort.) In some uppity old-guard circles, however, the term tuxedo or tux is eschewed, in favor of the original designation, dinner jacket.
Of curious note, in America we have Tuxedo rental shops where you can rent a dinner jacket for just one evening. This would be for weddings and other reckless events, and it's a cultural phenomena for which I make no apologies. Ha! It's just how we are.
And another "by the way" -- to guard against the cold in the centuries before central heating, dinner jackets were originally long both in back and in front. They were split in the middle, font and back (tails), to make it easier to walk. But this eventually evolved into the front tails being cut away to make it easier to ride a horse -- therefore leaving only the back tails.
Fred Astaire in "Puttin' On The Ritz" can show us exactly what top hat and tails are all about. (Although he's wearing a white ascot and white spats on his shoes, an acceptable variation on fashion at the time.)
It's about a four minute clip, and you have to watch it at least until minute three -- when all the other guys come in. Here's the YouTube link to "Puttin' On The Ritz".
I hope this was a fun answer to a really great question.
Thanks for reading!