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Penguin or Peacock? The History of Black Tie Attire


Clearly, the idea of wearing black after dark began before automobiles became a threat to pedestrians. Laying aside the considerations of practicality, however, a simple focus on fashion leads us to discover the exciting history of black tie evening wear. Evening dress began in a mode that most fashion historians like to identify with peacocks. This is an interesting choice, since men’s formal wear of the 18th century—that is, the mode of dress appropriate for the opera and other grand events—definitely included reds, oranges, pinks, and purples, colors less conspicuous in a peacock’s plumage, in addition to those more commonly noted.

With the swift blow of the guillotine, however, much of men’s fashion began to include darker shades of bloodstained red. The French Revolution literally decapitated the monopoly that the nobility held on dictating appropriate evening wear. Dandily dressed Frenchmen began to turn to the darker fabrics of the working man, hoping to appease the indignant masses. As well, with liberty, equality, and fraternity being championed from the rooftops, it was fashionable to dress as the people dressed. Sartorial eloquence of course still expressed itself even through the most somber of colors but the change had come. Black—or at least dark—was the new black.

As this style began to spread throughout Europe, the specific cut of suit in England began to derive primarily from that worn by horseback riders. Several fashion historians have pointed out this “interesting irony” of the concept of the black tie. Black itself eventually emerged as preeminent over other dark colors through the efforts of one dandy and novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Best-known for coining the phrase “it was a dark and stormy night,” he casually mentioned in another novel that black was the most refined of color options for sartorial evening wear. Needless to say, the public grabbed the thought. Soon, the dinner jacket, or tuxedo, evolved as an alternative to the standard tailcoat and even began to take precedence (except in ultra-formal occasions) after World War I.

In the 1920s and ‘30’s, the Prince of Wales swapped in midnight blue for the standard black of his black tie (and tux) ensemble. At this same time the cummerbund was introduced, at first disgraced and later accepted. Roughly during this time, white dinner jackets became acceptable substitutes in the summer. The history of the black tie look took a turn for the colorful at this point, with plum, dark green, wine, bright blue, and even hints of red appearing in American formal wear. This double standard continued through the end of World War II. Colors increasingly began to encroach upon the starkness of the black tie dress until the psychedelic 1960’s and ‘70’s hit. At first accepted as substitutes for white during the summer, they soon began to appear during wintertime even in fashion hotspots such as New York and Palm Beach. Even so, the tuxedo maintained a tenuous hold—

—until the ‘70’s got into full swing. Creative Black Tie, involving cowboy boots and denim, as well as flared or bell-bottom pants (and a whole kaleidoscope of colors) invaded the pages of men’s magazines and the halls of fancy-dress occasions. Soon, fashion magazines began to fight back and even win a few battles, especially with Reagan’s ascendancy to the presidency. A fan of the classic black tie look, Ronald Reagan made sure that the eighties saw a strong revival in all things black tie. Eventually, black tie preferred and black tie optional looks began to evolve to where we are today. The black tie will likely never be thrown out completely—every past attempt has eventually come back full swing—but plenty of permutations lie ahead. Ultimately, no matter what becomes the new black, the old black will always be the acceptable black. Peacocks will never fade, but you will only ever find the Emperor among penguins.

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