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And the best penguin Oscar … a closer look at the tuxedo

Apparently the tuxedo was first worn in the New York Tuxedo Club. Mike Nelson/AAP

The women on the red carpet garner so much attention on Oscars night it can be easy to overlook the men. Even the title given to the required dress code - “black tie” – is deceptive. What indicates to male guests that a dark dinner suit is called for is carte blanche for women, as long as their hemline reaches the knee (at least) and is, well, dressy.

In fact, men’s formal wear is often unfairly maligned as stuffy and boring, perhaps because its subtleties dims next to the dazzle of borrowed Boucheron jewels and Elie Saab Haute Couture. Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli sums the general sentiment up best:

in the evening every man looks the same. Like penguins. Women have a special dress for that event; men, the same tuxedo.

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Andy Rain/AAP

Of course, such an assessment is hardly accurate. While at a glance tuxedos can seem a bit uniform, comprised as they always are of the same basic components - a jacket with a lapel and wrist-length sleeves, worn with trousers made of the same fabric, and a buttoned shirt – it is the variation of detail, fabric and fit that distinguish a good suit from a great one.

These variations on a theme are the currency of men’s black tie and are the key to individualising it.

So in the interests of equipping you with enough information to bore the others at your Oscars party to tears, here is everything you ever wanted to know (and some you didn’t) about the tuxedo.

The history of the tuxedo

The suit first developed in the English court in the late 17th century when loose-fitting buttoned coats for men came into fashion, replacing the gown and padded doublet. Breeches were still worn, but their desired fit was low-slung, loose and soft, rather than being laced tightly up to the now-abandoned doublet.

The buttoned waistcoat made its entrance in this sartorial context thanks to King Charles II who, in an effort to instill the value of thrift in his nobility, famously tried to set a fashion that would never alter: the waistcoat. (Unfortunately for the King, this decree was neatly side-stepped by the spendthrift nobility who constantly found ways to reinvent the garment in different cuts and fabrics.)

Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Since that time, the suit in this basic three-piece form has never really gone away, although it has developed into many different permutations, each bound with certain rules concerning the appropriate way it must be worn. These customs often have an intriguing catalyst. It is still considered fashionable for a man to leave the last button on his waistcoat unbuttoned. The trendsetter behind this particular look was the fashionable Edward VII, the Prince of Wales, who would apparently undo the bottom button of his waistcoat after a big meal to allow room for his generous stomach.

The particular origins of the tuxedo are contested, but all accounts are tied with the upper class. Both British accounts are tied with those classic pursuits of the English aristocracy: hunting and cigars after dinner.

As Hardy Amies, founder of the eponymous iconic English fashion label, tells it, men would change out of their hunting clothes for dinner so as not to bring the scent of the stables inside. The other account as told by art and design writer Maria Constantino is that the dinner jacket stems from the smoking jacket, which men would don to smother the odour of cigar smoke lingering in their clothes.

The French claim the dinner jacket as their own, dubbed the “Monte Carlo” as its lightweight fabric was well suited for wearing to the casino on summer evenings, whereas it is American history which lends the garment its distinctive name.

Apparently the place where a tuxedo was first worn in America was at The Tuxedo Club in New York, where American tobacco manufacturer Pierre Lorillard IV’s rather rebellious son Griswold wore one to a ball, scandalising everyone else, as the dinner jacket was at that point still regarded as casual wear.

Why are tuxedos still so popular?

Art historian Anne Hollander has written the best explanation for the enduring power of the tuxedo in her marvellous book Sex and Suits. If even that snappy title isn’t enough to make you pick up a book on fashion history, allow me to summarise here.

Women have a special dress for that event; men, the same tuxedo. Paul Buck/AAP

Basically, she argues that the suit is the most modern of garments in terms of its aesthetic: it has clean lines, it is functional and mimics the form of the figure underneath, allowing freely for movement, and there is no superfluity to its design.

Tuxedos are always black or midnight blue, the uniform colour both visually unifying the body whilst avoiding any further decoration, the antithesis of modern design which favours strong, simple forms.

Hollander links the erotic appeal of suits to:

the unselfconscious natural dress of animals [as their design mimics] the efficiency and elegance of nature.

I believe that this is precisely why ill-fitting suits are such a visual irritant. If the visual power of a suit is tied with ease of means and movement, superflouous fabric in the limbs or torso, an overlarge fit on the shoulder, or pant legs that are too short bely the easy inhabitation a suit is supposed to invite.

Ettore Ferrari/AAP

Instead of seeing the unity of suit and man wearing it, in an ill-fitting suit we see a slippage between: the suit is not doing what it is supposed to.

Such qualities of masculine black tie dress are thrown into relief when compared with that of women. If a tuxedo implies readiness for action, ease in the body and casual elegance, the attire of women on the red carpet suggests the exact opposite.

From her elaborate hair and make-up, her expensive jewels, her fitted or ballooning gown, and her high heels, the appearance of women at the Oscars suggests the careful preparation of a dazzling appearance, one that restricts quick movement and presents her to be admired.

The contrast suggested by this gendered dress is identical to men’s and women’s wear in less formal contexts, but in both, as Hollander observes, the conventions of men’s and women’s clothing are “always being made with respect to the other”.

Where men can get creative with their suits is in the detail, and these can be varied to the minutest detail to form an original look.

Ultimately, the cut is the most important factor. The length of the sleeves and trouser legs must be hemmed exactly to the wrist and bottom of the ankle, and the shoulder seams must sit exactly on the tip of the shoulder. A ready-made suit can fit almost as well as one tailored to an individual, but the key is to buy one that fits like a glove.

Like penguins. Daniel Deme/AAP

From there, the choices are virtually endless: single or double-breasted, black or midnight blue? Shawl, peaked or notched lapel? And what colour the buttons on the sleeve, and how many? To cummerbund or waistcoat (but most certainly never both)?

And what kind of shoes? A butterfly or straight bow-tie at the neck? And what of tie-pins, watches, socks and buttonholes? But the final word must belong to English fashion designer Hardy Amies, who advises free rein in terms of the colour of the pocket-square but strictly advises that:

to show a white handkerchief is to show a white flag in the battle of life.

Be ye thus warned should you ever receive an invite to the Oscars.

See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.

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