Art Deco Preservation Ball
Overview for Gentlemen
Formal Men's Options from 1920
Deco Dressing For Men
When stepping out in the swing era, men had three basic choices for evening wear:
- Full dress suit or "tails", worn to the opera, private parties, or first nights
- Dinner jacket or "tuxedo", worn to nightclubs, evening parties, first week of plays
- Daytime business suit, worn to less expensive seats at concerts, to the movies, or out dancing
The most exciting dance venues attracted a cross-section of society, all dressed in their best. Those who had one donned the tuxedo for an evening out. The "swells" who had already been to the opera or a private party dropped by in top hat, white tie and tails. Young working people who might not own a tuxedo came in their best dark suit, with a good white shirt and simple dark tie. They all came for the music!
The Art Deco Preservation Ball is always a great occasion to don your finest duds. Since we are celebrating the swing era, in a site where big bands actually played, we are going with the theme in dress.
The 20s and 30s have defined the what Americans consider classic elegance à la Fred Astaire or Cary Grant. Classic is the key, no colors, frills or fads just impeccable formal clothing.
Tails, single breasted, double breasted? Each is correct. Tails are the most formal and possess the most strict rules of wear.
Tails are worn only with a vest NEVER a cummerbund. White tie is the most formal and is worn with white vest (ivory is acceptable but considered less formal). Next is the black tie which is considered less formal, but still more formal than the tuxedo. The most important rule: White tie/white vest, ivory tie/ivory vest, black tie/black vest. White tie is usually bright white (bleached) cotton done in a pique (a waffle weave) for both tie and vest. Ivory means silk, plain or patterned (jacquard) the same applies to black.
Black or Navy only. Navy? Actually this color is called Midnight Blue and is an adjustment to the new technology: electric lighting indoors at night. Period light bulbs tended to be rather yellow/green in color and turns black into a dull yellowish black which is not flattering on anyone. Enter midnight blue which looks true black under those lights. So at the end of the day all tuxedos are black, even when they aren't.
Single or double breasted, that's completely up to you. The single breasted is most popular today, but to the vintage minded it makes no difference. Some advise that a gentleman of slight build try double breasted as the extra material will give them a bit more weight. Before choosing double breasted understand that it is not permissible to unbutton your jacket as it will hang open rather oddly because of the extra material.
Peaked or shawl collars, both are correct.
The Cream Dinner Jacket
Some hate this look, but it is completely valid. This look was designed for the tropics, and considered less formal as life in the tropics is assumed to be less formal. Humphrey Bogart wears this look in Casablanca as it is hot there. This jacket is made of light weight (called tropical weight) wool. The pants are still black.
The classic tuxedo pant is a marvel designed to adjust and adapt to the wearer for most of his life. The waistband is unfinished to allow your tailor to let them in or out depending on need. That satin stripe down the side conceals a little extra fabric so it too can be altered easily. All formal outfits of this period are the same black wool trouser with a satin or braid strip down the side. So when you are invited to a ball you should get thee to a tailor at least two weeks in advance so this clothing expert can make changes and clean and press your outfit. Since men's formalwear offers little in the way of standing out, the best way to make a good impression is to be impeccable.
White only. Pleated or pique front both starched to a cardboard stiffness. No ruffles, no color at all. Formal shirts do not have buttons so you will need studs and cufflinks (more on this later). Wing collar or turn down? For tails the only shirt is the wing collar. For tuxedos you may wear either. Younger men tend toward the high collar, older men go for the traditional turn down which is kinder to fleshier necks.
Vest or Cummerbund
With tails a vest is mandatory. With a tuxedo you may wear a vest or a cummerbund. One or the other must be worn as formal pants have an unfinished waist band which needs to be covered. With a double breasted a vest is considered a no-no, but more than anything it is pointless is you aren't going to unbutton your coat no one is going to see your vest. Cummerbunds are worn pleats up.
Black. Either a patent or smooth leather. Some like the slipper style with the tailored bow, but most men go with an unadorned oxford (lace-up) shoe. Whichever you choose the shoe should be polished and refined. No rompin/stompin' Doc Martins just because they are black. If you have problems with your feet, look for a well made oxford with a discrete supportive sole. Be careful if you plan to dance as rubber soled shoes will stick to the dance floor and could change your foot troubles into knee, hip or back troubles.
Jewelry is simple shirt studs and cufflinks in black or white rimmed in gold, silver or platinum. No novelty items for formalwear. You may wear the bulldog cufflinks to one of our many other, less formal, events. Traditionally formal jewelry sets come with three studs but often more than three buttonholes are visible. See if you can find extra studs to fill the gap, the studs must match each other. If you can't find an extra stud, you can't, so wear a simple white button in that extra hole.
Braces are suspenders. They are made of silk and have silk loops that attach to the buttons on your pants. NO CLAMPS! If you buy a new tuxedo you will need to have the buttons sewn on, either inside or outside the waistband. Formal or not, braces allow your pants to drape better.
WHAT NOT TO WEAR: Leave the turtlenecks, dark dress shirts, Nehru jackets, Levis, Dockers, and athletic shoes in the closet. Remember, everyone attending an Art Deco Society event becomes part of the "scene." It's part of what makes a Art Deco Preservation Ball such a magical evening! White dinner jackets are worn at resorts, in the tropics, or in the summer. Colored evening jackets and cummerbunds came in during the 1950s. Leave them home too.
We have provided text from typical etiquette books from 1940 and 1922 had to say about men's dress! (Keep in mind that etiquette books are a bit on the rigid side)
Correct Dress for Men (circa 1940)
Fred Astaire in black tie
"The well-dressed man has about him a sort of carelessness that you cannot fail to recognize. This sounds like a paradox, but what we mean is there is no studied effort to be well-dressed, no obvious striving for effect He is well-groomed, but not consciously so. His suit is fashionable, but it does not challenge attention. His hat and shoes are faultless; his linens immaculate. He gives the impression of having dressed well without trying.
"It scarcely seems necessary to add that well-groomed men are never in need of a shave or hair cut, and that their nails are always presentable. A high polish, by the way, is in bad taste for men.
"Whether in street, office, or home, the shirt-sleeve habit is unmannerly and ill-bed. The gentleman does not remove his coat; not even the generous new etiquette will permit it. When the weather is intolerable, linen or pongee suits should be worn.
Correct Formal Evening Dress
"A gentleman wears a dress suit for evening weddings, the opera, ceremonious dinners or balls, and all highly formal evening occasions. With these formal "tails" one wears a white single or double-breasted waistcoat, a plain stiff-bosom shirt, a wing collar with wide opening, and a wide white bow tie. Handkerchiefs and gloves are white also, and if a muffler is worn it should be white or black-and-white. The overcoat worn with a dress suit must be either black or dark blue. Black dress shoes, black silk socks, and top-hat complete the full-dress ensemble. If a stick is carried, it should be one without ornamentation.
The Dinner Jacket
"For restaurant and theater wear, for dining and home and all informal evening occasions requiring more than ordinary street clothes, one wears the dinner jacket, or, as it is more familiarly known, the tuxedo.
"With the dinner jacket one wears a black or white waistcoat, as desired; a wing collar with a wide black silk bow tie; a plain stiff bosom shirt (pleats permissible only for very informal wear), and black shoes and socks. One may wear top-hat, bowler, or felt. Hat and gloves may be gray.
Todays Etiquette, Lillian Eichler, Doubleday (New York), 1941.
The Clothes of a Gentleman, Emily Post Etiquette. 1922
Arrow Shirt Ad, the most formal white tie.
Your full dress is the last thing to economize on. It must be perfect in fit, cut and material, and this means a first-rate tailor. It must be made of a dull-faced worsted, either black or night blue, on no account of broadcloth. Aside from satin facing and collar, which can have lapels or be cut shawl-shaped, and wide braid on the trousers, it must have no trimming whatever. Avoid satin or velvet cuffs, moiré neck ribbons and fancy coat buttons as you would the plague.
Wear a plain white linen waistcoat, not one of cream colored silk, or figured or even black brocade. Have all your linen faultlessly clean—always—and your tie of plain white lawn, tied so it will not only stay in place but look as though nothing short of a backward somersault could disarrange it.
Your handkerchief must be white; gloves (at opera or ball) white; flower in buttonhole (if any) white. If you are a normal size, you can in America buy inexpensive shirts, and white waistcoats that are above reproach, but if you are abnormally tall or otherwise an “out size” so that everything has to be “made to order,” you will have to pay anywhere from double to four times as much for each article you put on.
When you go out on the street, wear an English silk hat, not one of the taper crowned variety popular in the “movies.” And wear it on your head, not on the back of your neck. Have your overcoat of plain black or dark blue material, for you must wear an overcoat with full dress even in summer. Use a plain white or black and white muffler. Colored ones are impossible. Wear white buckskin gloves if you can afford them; otherwise gray or khaki doeskin, and leave them in your overcoat pocket. Your stick should be of plain Malacca or other wood, with either a crooked or straight handle. The only ornamentation allowable is a plain silver or gold band, or top; but perfectly plain is best form.
And lastly, wear patent leather pumps, shoes or ties, and plain black silk socks, and leave your rubbers—if you must wear them, in the coat room.
The Tuxedo, which is the essential evening dress of a gentleman, is simply the English dinner coat. It was first introduced in this country at the Tuxedo Club to provide something less formal than the swallow-tail, and the name has clung ever since. To a man who can not afford to get two suits of evening clothes, the Tuxedo is of greater importance. It is worn every evening and nearly everywhere, whereas the tail coat is necessary only at balls, formal dinners, and in a box at the opera. Tuxedo clothes are made of the same materials and differ from full dress ones in only three particulars: the cut of the coat, the braid on the trousers, and the use of a black tie instead of a white one. The dinner coat has no tails and is cut like a sack suit except that it is held closed in front by one button at the waist line. (A full dress coat, naturally, hangs open.) The lapels are satin faced, and the collar left in cloth, or if it is shawl-shaped the whole collar is of satin.
The trousers are identical with full dress ones except that braid, if used at all, should be narrow. “Cuffed” trousers are not good form, nor should a dinner coat be double-breasted.
Fancy ties are bad form. Choose a plain black silk or satin one. Wear a white waistcoat if you can afford the strain on your laundry bill, otherwise a plain black one. By no means wear a gray one nor a gray tie.
The smartest hat for town wear is an opera, but a straw or felt which is proper in the country, is not out of place in town. Otherwise, in the street the accessories are the same as those already given under the previous heading.
Evening grooming must be impeccable. Men of the 20s and 30s were clean and well groomed. Pomade was popular. Pomade is basically petroleum jelly used to slick up the hair. No fancy-boy blowed dried nonsense for the vintage man.
William Powell and Myrna Loy clean up pretty good.