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The Story of a Bespoke Tailor, Royalty, Commerce and the Introduction of the Smoking Jacket or Tuxedo

by: Geoff Ficke

The modern, ubiquitous tuxedo is a staple of most modern gentlemen’s fulsome wardrobes. How the tuxedo, or “dinner jacket”, was initially birthed is an interesting story and entwines a London Saville Row bespoke tailoring house, royalty and an American investment banker. This confluence of influences has influenced how the well-dressed man presents himself for special occasions for a century and a half since the distinctive garment made its first appearance.

Tailless jackets, then called smoking jackets, first became popular in England in the mid-19th century among the landed gentry and royalty as alternatives to tailed suit coats. Distinguished by satin or grosgrain lapels and striping on the outside of pants legs, these suits were much more informal and less cumbersome than the restrictive, uncomfortable waist coated suits worn by gentlemen of that time.

Their popularity was insured when the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, asked his tailor to make him such a suit as an alternative to the waistcoat. Henry Poole & Co., the Prince’s Saville Row bespoke tailors, were tasked with designing and fitting what would become the first formally recognized “smoking jacket’. There are conflicting stories as to the date of the first iteration of what would become known as the tuxedo was crafted. But Henry Poole and Co. has receipts for such a commission dating to the 1860’s. By the 1880’s the Prince was ordering “smoking jackets” from the haberdasher.

During this period the banking firm Brown and Co. was the principal source of letters of credit for international trade payments. In 1886 the Prince of Wales invited the son of the founder of Brown and Co., James Potter Brown a London-based partner in the bank, to visit his estate at Sandringham House for a hunting party. In preparation for the visit Mr. Brown asked the Prince to advise appropriate dress for the various sporting and social functions that were to be enjoyed. The Prince referred Mr. Brown to Henry Poole and Co. where he was fitted for a proper “smoking jacket”.

During a subsequent visit to the fashionable new resort outside New York City called Tuxedo Park James Potter Brown wore his Henry Poole and Co. crafted “smoking jacket” to an elegant soiree. The suit was immediately praised and members of the resort began to demand to be fitted for the garment from their tailors. The connection to Tuxedo Park stuck and the appellation “tuxedo” for the American version of the “smoking jacket” was born.

The introduction of the modern tuxedo drove the creation of an elegant ensemble to be worn for any formal, special occasion from fund raisers to marriage ceremonies. The suit itself has developed a coterie of specialized accessories that have become almost mandatory to complete the classic look of the well dressed gentlemen. Shoes, stylized shirts and collars, studs, the cummerbund, pocket squares and neckwear specific to embellishing the tuxedo are deemed essential to complete the desired sartorial elegance.

Today, the well-dressed gentleman usually owns at least one black tuxedo complete with the requisite array of appropriate accessories. Colors and accompanying accessories now run the gamut from the elegant to the tacky. Nevertheless, whenever a man dresses in a tuxedo he is unwittingly paying a bit of homage to a successful man of  commerce, 19th century British royalty and the ageless craftsmanship purveyed by bespoke tailors.