What's in a Word? Tuxedo

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Canterbury Bankstown Rugby League Football Club, 1938. Photo: Courtesy Powerhouse Museum / Flckr Commons

tuxe•do n. The only piece of rented clothing most men will ever have to wear.

Considering that it is synonymous with formal wear today, it's hard to believe that the tuxedo began life as a casual alternative, but such was the nineteenth century, the era of uncomfortable fashion. While much is made of the way women had to truss themselves up, men didn't have it easy either. They wore shirts with detachable collars, both items starched to the consistency of concrete; over their shirts were strapped snug waistcoats and on top of that, black tailcoats that hung awkwardly long in back. This was evening wear, meant for every evening, even when you were just having dinner at home with the wife in the middle of summer.

Queen Victoria's eldest son, Edward, wasn't the formal type, and he designed for himself a more sporty sort of coat that he wore at his country estate at Cowes. In the 1880s, he invited a young Yankee couple, the Potters, to come dine with him there; when the husband, James, asked what he should wear, the Prince of Wales sent him to his Savile Row tailor, who hooked him up with a tail-less black coat. Wanting to show off to the guys back home how tight he and the future King of England were (never mind the fact that he'd only gotten the invite because the prince had the hots for his wife), Potter took to wearing his precious jacket when he hung out at his country club in Tuxedo Park, a gated getaway for the Knickerbocker elite of Manhattan. Although there are many stories about what happened next, presumably all the club members copied Potter, and when they were out on the town in New York and some dude snarkily asked, "Hey, what the hell is that jacket you Tuxedo guys are wearing?" they got to retort, "Oh, it's what the prince wears-didn't you know?"

 

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.