By  on October 5, 2011

Pinpointing the origin of the tuxedo in America has always been a bit of a mystery.

The prevailing story is that Griswold Lorillard, the 22-year-old son of tobacco magnate and Tuxedo Park, N.Y., founder Pierre Lorillard, cut the tails off his jacket when attending the inaugural Autumn Ball at the Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park in 1886, causing a scandal and spawning a new fashion trend.

It’s true that Lorillard and several friends attended the dinner party in bastardized tailcoats, said Chris Sonne, town historian for Tuxedo Park, but that’s not the whole story.

“The press picked it up and said they looked ridiculous,” he said. “A lot of people said it was the beginning of the dinner jacket but if you cut off the tails of a tailcoat, you’ve got a mess jacket that just goes to the waist. A tuxedo is a suit coat.”

The real story actually starts 150 years ago on London’s Savile Row, where bespoke tailor Henry Poole created a less formal version of the tailcoat for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. James Brown Potter, a Tuxedo Club member, attended a dinner at the prince’s country estate, Sandringham, early in 1886. Potter asked the prince for some fashion advice and he was sent to Poole, where he was fitted with a short black jacket and tie. Potter liked the new look so much that he brought it back home to Tuxedo Park, and he and his friends wore the dinner jackets to a bachelor’s dinner at Delmonico’s in New York City and then to nonformal dinners in Tuxedo Park. Asked why they were “out of uniform,” the group responded that they were wearing the latest Tuxedo fashion and the name stuck.

This weekend, descendants of Henry Poole and James Potter will be back in Tuxedo Park to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that little black jacket.

Planned festivities include an exhibition by the London College of Fashion at the Tuxedo Historical Society Friday night, followed by the return of the Autumn Ball at the Tuxedo Club Saturday evening. The Autumn Ball, which has been dormant since 1971, is being sponsored by Giorgio Armani.

The exhibition will be on display at the Tuxedo Historical Society through Nov. 4 and will showcase the winning designs from London College of Fashion students who were charged with reinventing the tuxedo for the 21st century.

“It started over a year ago when Steven Dell [program director for the college] got the idea to work with Henry Poole and second-year bespoke tailoring students to celebrate 150 years of the tuxedo,” said Ben Whyman, curator of the exhibit. And when they discovered that it was also the 125th anniversary of the Tuxedo Club’s Autumn Ball, “we decided to celebrate two great milestones,” said Roma Vaccaro, project manager.

Interestingly, the winning design, by Maria Thelin, is actually a women’s tuxedo and features an outside jacket that attaches to a waistcoat and a keyhole detail on the back.

The exhibition opened in London on Sept. 7 and then was shown at Harrods and the Burlington Arcade in that city before traveling to New York.

Vaccaro said plans call for it to be shown in Brazil next spring and the hope is that it will also be exhibited in Japan and Paris.

In addition to Thelin’s winning design, about a dozen of the students’ works will be on display along with two behind-the-scenes films on the project, produced by Vaccaro. There are also a series of black-and-white photographs of various people — musicians, actors, playwrights, bankers and students — “who share a collective appreciation of the tuxedos,” Vaccaro said.

The Tuxedo Historical Society display also includes some vintage formalwear pieces, including a Brooks Brothers tuxedo, an array of bow ties and a scarlet waistcoat.

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