Man Without Qualities

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Tall Tux Tales At The Times

The New York Times runs an article on the decline of the traditional dinner jacket that includes the oft-repeated story of its creation:

Tuxedo purists can not complain that it didn't have a good run. It made its debut in 1886, when the stylish upstart Griswold Lorillard wore one to a white-tie-and-tails ball at the Tuxedo Park Club in upstate New York. The short black jacket shocked the crowd with its informality. By 1900, the "tuxedo" was a formal wear staple, standing stock-still for a century while women's evening wear waltzed every which way.

That's a nice story. The only problem is that the story is almost certainly completely untrue, and while the origin of the dinner jacket (or "tuxedo") is hardly of real significance, it's still more than a little weird that the Times keeps spreading a long-discredited cannard.

The matter is discussed in GRIZZY'S LARK AND A LEGEND - Why Griswold Lorillard did not introduce the dinner jacket - How two words in Town Topics were misinterpreted, Written for the Tuxedo Park Library by J. Earle Stevens:

When we seek the origin of the dinner jacket - or Tuxedo as it is now known - we constantly come across a story about its introduction to this century by Griswold Lorillard at the first Tuxedo Autumn Ball in 1886.

The trouble with this story is that it is based entirely on a quotation from a society journal called Town Topics. According to an October 1886 issue of the journal, young Griswold Lorillard appeared (at the Ball) in a tailless dress coat, and waistcoat of scarlet satin, looking for all the world like a royal footman. ... Taken literally, this quotation seems quite plausible but, unfortunately, it has been misinterpreted. A tailless dress coat has been taken to mean a dinner jacket and, as a result, we have a story which is hard to believe, Griswold, or Grizzy as his friends called him, may very well have worn a tailless dress coat as a lark but this does not mean that he introduced the dinner jacket. Such an assumption is wrong for several reasons.

First of all, Grizzy’s tailless dress coat was much too short to be a dinner jacket. ... Secondly, Grizzy would have been far too young to introduce a new fashion to his elders at the Ball. ... Finally, a formal ball would not have been the right occasion to introduce what was then an informal dinner fashion. ... The Ball did, however, offer Griswold and his friends an opportunity to play a prank, inspired perhaps by the dinner jackets which his elders had recently adopted. ...

Griswold’s lark has nothing to do with the dinner jacket ... Fortunately, there is a reliable, although little known, source of information. Some sixty years ago, Grenville Kane, last founder of the Tuxedo Club left alive, revealed to this writer that it was James Brown Potter, one of Tuxedo’s first residents, who, after staying with the Prince of Wales at Sandringham in the summer of 1886, brought back the new fashion to Tuxedo and introduced it to the members of the club.

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