Friday, December 6, 2013

Formal Attire: Evening Tails

Fred Astaire
     One of the most iconic and yet one of the most rarely worn items of formalwear, evening tails were once a staple of high society, any evening ball, formal parties, the opera supper clubs, etc. There were many, many places people went to in full dress tails. 
    Since the 1950s though, the white tie dress code(for regular tuxedos, black tie dress code is the term)has become less and less common, until today when it has been so rarely worn, etiquette on wearing them has come to an all time low. 

Even in the highest of places...

     Now this has nothing to do with their politics, but it has everything to do with how our society has increasingly allowed more and more lax standards on all levels of dress. White tie is the strictest dress code. There are no exceptions and there is very little variation. Now however, it is most widely available through rentals, very atrocious rentals. The horrible thing is though, the above picture is not of rental is of a current President and a Presidential Candidate, who aren't even within dress code. If you notice, you'll see trouser-lines below the waistcoat that show the shirt, a shirt with a turn-down collar that isn't even a white tie shirt, , waistlines too low, a waistcoat too long, and just general atrociousness. 

     Why though? I think it's because there aren't any enforced dress codes anymore, nor are there any places of etiquette to teach anyone how to dress, as there once were. People just don't seem to care anymore, which is very sad; we've reached a point where we have become so lax, that even recreational clothing is sometimes replaced by bed-wear in public; but I digress....
Fred Astaire in Top Hat 1935
                                                   Now that's more like it! 
     Just to clarify, I'm not trying to be a snob; it's hard to come by a lot of this now, and most people don't have much choice in buying(unless it's vintage)or when they rent; however, people who are millionaires and above like our most resent presidential candidates have no excuse in dressing poorly; they can afford it. It is a combination of celebrities/politicians either dressing how they want to or not caring, and companies making clothes which has further lead to the downfall of what we wear. You may not be able to choose what you rent, and the rental company may not choose the styles, but the designers have a choice. And that choice is usually to make things look trendy. 
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

     What should you look for though? 
     Well what one should look for is a tailcoat with a closely cut waist and properly cut shoulders, the trousers should be exceptionally high waisted, with buttons for suspenders. The trousers should preferably have a double silk braid/stripe down the leg, however, this is very hard to come by nowadays, and I don't even have trousers like that for my tails. It has become more optional, but still preferable. Your tailcoat should be made of wool. Buy vintage. They're the best. 1930s and 1940s tailcoats are particularly the best cut and made. They flatter the figure like no other era of tailcoat. 

Fred Astaire
     You'll also need a stiff bib front shirt with a detachable collar(make sure it isn't a short collar, as they were more for servants), collar studs, mother of pearl shirt studs with gold(maybe not real though)trim and cufflinks(although you are not limited to this swatch, it is what is traditionally worn). 
"Deco" Starched Bib Front Shirt From RJW Shirts

Stiff Front Shirt From Darcy Clothing

You should have a white marcella/cotton pique waistcoat with waistcoat studs. To go along with this you should(as you should with black tie tuxedos)have silk hose or just non-silk long black socks(hose); of course you should also have either lace up patent leather shoes or pumps.
Formal Pump/Court Shoe
     A note on court shoes, you need to have them in your exact size or they will not work at all. One of the reasons they fell to the lace-up shoe was that even one in your exact size slips a little bit when walking. They are probably one of the rarest choices in formalwear, but will get attention and will be a nice difference between everyone else's lace-up shoes. 
   Your bowtie should be white, and starched, along with the waistcoat too. The bow tie should be made of marcella/cotton pique. The shirt front can, but does not have to be, as it has only been a trend and not a rule. You should also probably get a silk top hat, but can probably get away without having one. Make sure to also have a pocket square, either made from linen(as I hear is the correct white tie choice)or silk. A flower on the lapel also lends to a very nice look too. You can get silk ones at Gentleman's Gazette, rather than a real one that will wither. 
Evening Tails in Midnight Blue 1930s

      Your ensemble should look something like this ^  

    Often, the preference is to have the tails in midnight blue, but having tails is a special thing in and of itself; just make sure that you don't mix and match with regular black and midnight blue, or else it'll be obvious in the color difference. 
More Modern Tails from Brooks Brothers
     You can find some the accessories at Darcy Clothing, including the much coveted waistcoat studs. The site has lots of other white tie accessories, and I highly recommend it. Be careful of the waistcoat studs though; I'd recommend tightening them once on, as they are libel to slip off; I had this experience myself. I suppose you could also weld them together, but you may not want to in case you get other stud sets. 

William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta, in a promotion shot for The Thin Man
     Some other great places to look into for buying your tails and set are eBay, RubyLane, and Etsy. Sometimes you'll have to wait around and just keep looking, but you'll eventually find something for a good price. 
     In case you're wondering how to clean the starched items, Darcy has recommendations on their page for the stiff front shirt,(also called a boiled shirt) and if you don't want to go to the trouble, you can get a washable stiff front shirt. They also have washable stiff collars. You can also go to RJW Shirts, although I'm not sure what they are like, but they seem like they're worth a shot! They don't have as many accessories as Darcy, but they have more shirt variations and have some different collars. 

A More Modern Example of Properly Done Tails
     As seen throughout these pictures, your shirt cuff can be very generously exposed. It's supposed to be with tails as it is one of the decorative pieces of the outfit. Jacket sleeves are also usually a bit thinner than those of a regular tuxedo or suit.
     Very little aspects of the white tie ensemble have any variation; at one time, black waistcoats were alright to wear, but that fell out of style in the 1920s, and since then, black has been reserved for the tuxedo(although, rarely, a white waistcoat can be worn with a normal tuxedo), and white with tails, as it gives a nicer looking line. 
Examples of Full Dress Tails and The Tuxedo late 1920s or early 1930s

     Another thing that gives a nicer looking line is the waistcoat not going below the tailcoat. When this is done, there is no break in the line of color, and the black and white are very elegantly put together. While this is not the strictest of rules, it is generally frowned upon, and few have worn longer waistcoats since the early 1920s. The trend has come back though, only due to poor designing for rentals and other formal companies.  
     I used to own a set of modern tails myself, and there is a stark difference between that and vintage. One of the greatest differences is with the flow of the garment itself; the wool used in older formalwear flows and has a relaxed quality. They will go to and fro as you walk, as opposed to being stiff. 
Me at 16; at my prom

Me at 19, at WWII Weekend in Reading, PA at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum
     The tails I owned before hand were more of a rental quality, and I got rid of them eventually, in favor of a vintage set, which not only fit a lot better, but felt a lot better and look a lot better. I got a vintage shirt set too, which also looked a lot better and even new shoes. I basically replaced the whole set, except for the top hat, which I no longer have. 
A front view of the vintage set from the same year. 
     The set isn't perfect, and could use some adjustments, but it was a great improvement over my previous set. I got it for $35 on eBay, the tails that is, and another $30 for the waistcoat, shirt, collar and two bow ties. Altogether, it probably only cost me around $180 including the shoes.
     I need a new shirt though, and can probably get the same size, even though I'm now 21 and more fit. 
     If you notice in the picture above, I'm wearing a cummerbund; never do that; I only did because I had a college function I went to for fun with a couple friends dressed up, and the trousers that came with the tails had too short of a rise. I have since found new trousers(the WWII Weekend picture)and have vowed to never again do that. 
Fred Astaire
     That's what a tailcoat should look like, and my set now looks more like that; I need some altering or a new set, but I'll get there eventually! 

     I really do recommend the top hat by the way, and I just found out that Darcy sells them, here. If you don't want that kind, you can always opt for the silk collapsible top hat, or the opera hat as it is also known. I personally prefer the latter, but if you opt for the former, it can also be used for day wear, unlike the opera hat. If you want one of those, you can find some nice ones at Uniformalwearhouse or try eBay. Uniformalwearhouse is on the cheaper price end for collapsible silk top hats made new. 
Fred Astaire in Top Hat 1935

     Okay, so I've posted a lot of photos regularly throughout my blogs of Fred Astaire; not only was he an impeccable dresser who set style standards, he was an Old Hollywood actor. He is considered to be the greatest dancer of the 20th Century by many(Michael Jackson set Astaire as a role model for dancing and had immense respect for him; the two did meet in person as well), but he was also a fair singer and actor too. I highly recommend his autobiography, Steps In Time: An Autobiography. I read it and was tremendously ingratiated into an older culture and his experiences in the entertainment industry from Vaudeville to Hollywood. 
      He made the top hat, white tie and tails iconic throughout the 1930s and 40s, and is one of the most talented entertainers of all time. Funny enough, he really didn't care for wearing tails, although that may be due in part to his being a dancer wearing stiff clothing(the shirt), and having to change constantly from costume to costume(one of his favorite things he wore was his military U.S.O. uniform, because it was so simple and he rarely had to change from it). The biggest reason was probably because he had to wear the outfit so much, and got sick of the constant changing. He represented high society and was high society himself, rubbing elbows with English royalty and the upper crust of society. 
  His tailcoats were specially made for him so that he could have more moving room, and they were cut with the greatest of tailoring, fitting him perfectly and allowing him to dance. I highly recommend watching his movies, especially his 10 with Ginger Rogers. 
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

Astaire and Rogers in their last movie together, The Barkleys of Broadway 1949
     Just Youtube some of his dances, like "No Strings" or his famous ceiling dance, in which he was placed in a rotating room(which is where Inception got the idea for some of their scenes)and dances on the ceiling and walls. 
     He is definitely an icon of another era, and I highly encourage you to see his films. He's one of my favorite entertainers.
     Enough about Astaire though(except for pictures), let's get back to our main discussion.

     Your tails should come to about the back of your knees; they should never be too short, although some may be a little long, but this is okay, as it was the style at some points. The line of the trouser should never show, it should be covered up by the waistcoat, and the jacket is to never be taken off. It is also to be never buttoned, and doesn't even have the option to button on a correct version. Some older ones do have a buttoning option, but they are either much older, or not for a white tie affair(perhaps for a butler though?). When sitting down, either drape the tails over what you are sitting on, or place them to the side, but do not sit on them. 

     As I mentioned earlier, there is very little variation allowed in the white tie dress code, however, there are some things allowed to vary; your shirt collar can a little in design, as long as it is a wing(or straight up for earlier time periods), your shirt can have different, but slight, bib front designs, including the number of studs, the studs themselves can have many options as to what kind to wear, your bow tie can be of different shapes, but the most noticeable is the waistcoat. Unfortunately, this is also the most difficult to find any variation in now, unless you find vintage or you have it custom made(in which case, it must be made correctly, as a white tie dress code waistcoat). 
William Powell
     As you can see, William Powell's waistcoat is double breasted, a very nice, yet rare option now. There were a number of variations which no longer exist, although a good tailor might make one exist for you. 

1936 Ad for White Tie Waistcoats

     Above are just some of even more available variations of the day. There were many options for wear, and if you can find one in vintage in good condition, you've got yourself a rare find. I'm afraid the most common and almost impossible to not find one is the single breasted waistcoat with lapels. They are usually without variation in the lapels even. Be sure to get a high waisted waistcoat, and be sure that the waistcoat you get does not fall below your tailcoat front, or else the look will be off. 
     A place to find custom double breasted waistcoats is Duchess Clothier, and if you look towards the bottom of the page, where the formal waistcoat topic is, you can contact them about making one for you. Luxire Clothing is another place you can get bespoke marcella waistcoats.
Arrow Collar/Shirt Ad
     An accessory I'd consider essential to the tails, one that goes nicely with the waistcoat, is a pocket watch; a regular watch is too informal, but a pocket watch is formal enough. And a real one, not one with a silly design or character(s) on it. It's a nice little something extra to add on to it, and it's really great getting to pull it out of your pocket and check the time. It has a very old world feel. You can either keep it in your waistcoat pocket(which I recommend), or you can keep it connected to something on one end of the chain and into your trouser pocket with the watch. Either way, you generally wear your pocket watch on the same side you would a watch, so the opposite of your dominate hand(since that's what's usually done). You can also get a dress knife on a chain, but too many chains isn't good, so keep it simple. A cane is another nice accessory, as well as gloves, although not necessary. 
    Vintage is probably your best buy with nearly everything, although I'd get a new shirt and collar, since many of the old ones are stained or hard to come by. Sometimes one can find a vintage shirt and/or collar, but it is very difficult. 
But not as difficult as Fred Astaire's dancing
      If you watch old movies, you'll likely see people dressed in top hat and tails. You'll get to see some of the variations in detail, but you'll really get to see a kind of elegance that has been lost, a time when people just dealt with putting aside some of their comfort in order to look nice for a few hours out of an evening. 
     In my experience, wearing tails is very fun, probably one of the best items in my wardrobe, perhaps even the best, as it is definitely a favorite. People will notice and will swoon and give you compliments. If you're a lone gent at a dance, all a lady has to see is a well put together set of evening tails, and you're set. I didn't receive a single no to anyone I asked to dance with me. Then again, I didn't when in a 1940s suit the next year, and the people are really friendly, but everyone noticed the tails. 
     And it might be because no one wears them anymore. I think this is an item which really needs to be brought back. Some of the only places that still require this dress code are countries in Europe for a royal ball or formal affair. 
William Powell & Kay Francis in Jewell Robbery 1932

     I don't think a comeback will be seen in the U.S. in the mainstream though, or of suits in general as they once were, but I think the person who wants something of quality and something that looks nice can opt for this, and really stand out as being the best dressed amongst their modern peers. 

     There is no modern dress code that stands any chance against evening tails from the 1930s, the height of men's fashion. There really isn't even a vintage one that does either.

     Some people might think they look ridiculous, or might feel that way, but they are well worth it. Once you try them on, you'll look great. 

     Also remember to make sure your hands are immaculately clean, since stark white doesn't do so well with skin oils or really anything except cleaning, starch and stark white. 
Myrna Loy, Astor and William Powell for The Thin Man
     I think I've covered just about everything you need to know regarding tails. Another site that is useful for advice is Into the Hidden CloudsGentleman's Gazette is another, along with The Black Tie GuideBricks In Suit(ignore the legos at the beginning)and Duchess Clothier. These are all good sites, very excellent sites actually, for even more advice and for looking around. 

     I strongly recommend getting tails, and if you so choose to do so, just take your time and put in your best effort. Only get things that fit you and suit you. If it's off, people will notice. If you rush, you are more likely to just get things you really don't want for a price that's too expensive. 

     I'm sure you'll be able to find something, and in no time you'll be dressed just like a gentleman of yesteryear and every head will be turning in your direction.

     Until then, good luck on finding your White Tie wardrobe! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to say something on here or on facebook!
David Niven

1 comment:

  1. A very well put together and informative piece. Thank you.