Attire here at Under Western Skies Galactic HQ tends toward business casual, although we don full business drag when there’s a client meeting in the day’s agenda. It may also consist of athletic wear on those days we’re determined to hit the track or the gym (the UWS employee weight room, pool, sauna, racquetball court and all-weather track are perks that help us retain our top-flight staff).
Rarely does the occasion call for the full-scale, all-out total nuclear option: the tux.
Recently, though, we had a formal affair to attend, a year-end gala for some associates, and yours truly was prevailed upon to overcome his native shyness and serve as master of ceremonies.
I don’t own a tux. My acquaintance with the garment has always been on a short-term rental basis. Looking out at the social horizon for the next couple of decades, I don’t see any significant turning of the tide, so I’m not going to have one tailored. I’m certain it would be a bodacious thing to have everything cut to fit just so. Sean Connery, Daniel Craig and every James Bond in between have looked great in those tuxedos, whether they’re sitting at the baccarat table or running along some rooftop, pulling the Walther PPK out of its shoulder holster. They, of course, have an army of tailors working three shifts a day to meet the demand for replacement tuxes as Bond rips, tears and rends them in take after take.
We’re accustomed to seeing musicians in them, too, and not only the classical cats. Sinatra, Tormé and Jack Jones all looked like they were born in one.
Here I am as dressed up as I’m ever likely to be (patent leather shoes not depicted).
Clearly, Daniel Craig need not be worried.
The word “tuxedo” was applied to a formal dinner jacket in the 1880s, because Tuxedo Park, in New York’s Hudson River valley was an enclave of the social elite (I think “social elite” means “wealthy people”). Eventually the word became associated with the ensemble of dinner jacket and accessories. Ah, the accessories. What every man required to wear one of these setups wants to know has to do with two utterly silly accessories: shirt studs and the cummerbund. Who thought of this stuff?
As it turns out, the cummerbund is there because the English wore it. We do a lot of things because the English did them, and they are not to be questioned. It’s How Things Are and Must Be. Don’t ask me, ask Her Majesty. She’s in charge. English officers in colonial India saw a waist sash being worn there and viewed it as an alternative to a waistcoat. (Apparently they were unwilling to consider the alternative of just not covering that unseemly juncture between shirt and trousers. Heaven forfend!) The word itself comes from Hindi, not German, as the sound suggests. So be it. Wear your cummerbund and carry on. Man, I’ll bet Prince Philip has a closet full of those things, and maybe even a Chamberlain of the Ducal Cummerbunds.
Why shirt studs? The explanation is so perfectly crazy that it’s almost worth the pain one suffers when one invariably drops one of them, has it carom off the tip of one patent-leather shoe and shoot under the sofa, requiring one to remove the tux trousers before retrieving it so they don’t get wrinkled, torn or compromised in some other way that will cause one to forfeit the rental deposit. Wait’ll you read this: It’s better than any reason you can think up on your own.
Back in the mid-19th Century, formal shirts were starched so stiffly that it wasn’t possible to flex them enough to fasten them with buttons, so they came up with studs one could insert into the buttonholes without having to bend the shirt fabric. Is that perfect? What’s more perfectly silly is that it’s such a tradition that we still use them, even though we no longer apply the ol’ starch to the same degree. I love that.
The tuxedo has a number of nicknames, including penguin suit and monkey suit. Another term for this outfit is “the soup and fish.” Presumably the reference is to formal dinner affairs at which one is served multiple courses, beginning with soup and fish. P.G. Wodehouse is often accredited with coining the phrase, and if you’re a fan of “Pride of the Woosters” (recently included on the Top 100 British novels of all time we featured here) or any of his stories about hapless Bertie Wooster and his inimitable man, Jeeves, you’ve probably encountered the phrase.
However, there seem to be a number of instances in which the term appears prior to Wodehouse’s first use. A website that’s avid about tracking down such items is named World Wide Words. CLICK HERE to see their citation in which they explain that although the Oxford English Dictionary itself credits Wodehouse as the initiator in 1918, there were some earlier examples.
Call it anything you like, it’s always going to be a rather extraordinary day when I clip on a cummerbund, let alone insert those wacky shirt studs. At least now we’ve answered the question, “Who thinks of these things?” Thank goodness the tie was already tied, because my bow-tying skills are somewhat rusty, to say the least.
Fasten your cummerbunds, gentlemen. Mustn’t keep Her Majesty waiting.
© 2015 Brad Nixon. Photograph courtesy M. Vincent.