To Buy or Rent…?
A good dinner jacket is a substantial purchase but should you find yourself attending black tie events enough, an essential one as well as one that will see you recoup your money
Article by Oscar Udeshi
The dinner jacket (for Brits), otherwise known as tuxedo or tux (for Americans), smoking (for the rest), black tie, penguin suit, or the best a man will ever look, was actually casual attire for informal evenings. It evolved from the smoking jacket (hence the name in quite a few languages), which was usually made of velvet to absorb the smoke from tobacco smoking at more casual dinners. The alternative would have been white tie or tails – sadly the preserve of the Vienna Opera Ball, the Nobel Prize ceremony and formal wear for orchestra conductors nowadays.
The term “Tuxedo” comes from the dinner suit’s first reported outing in America in the summer of 1886 at a club in Tuxedo Park, an upstate New York countryside enclave for the wealthy.
On our side of the pond, a dinner jacket is strictly something for the evening, as it is a suit for dinner (hence its often today referred to as the dinner suit), thus worn after 6pm. On the other side of the pond, people frequently get married in tuxedos during the day. This is as alien to us as drinking Champagne at room temperature, or not discussing the weather. The worst offenders though may be the Swedes who wear white tie (the most formal dress) at weddings during the day.
The dinner suit has not changed radically in the last century. Fashion comes and goes, and lapels get wider or narrower, jackets longer or shorter, but fundamentally, the basic black tie ensemble has remained constant. In the past, there were far more occasions to wear formal wear, society in general was far more formal, and many dinner suits have been passed down the generations, assuming they are still serviceable and fit the younger generation.
What is one to do if once doesn’t have a hand me down, buy a dinner suit, or rent?
If you are only going to wear it once, and are on a budget, rent. If you are going to wear it a lot, say more than six times a year, then buying would make sense. What happens if you answer lies somewhere between these two?
If money is not a problem, buy it, as you will have something that fits better than a rental, and you won’t be wondering what the previous wearer did while wearing this suit. If you don’t have a money tree in your garden, and you are trying to justify the purchase of a dinner suit, and you think you will wear it more than three or four times over the next two or three years, and the suit is bought on sale and costs no more than three or four rentals, then I would say buy if you can spare the money. There is the initial up front purchase cost, and the alterations, and the time it takes for that process, but one doesn’t have to go around finding a rental place that has one’s size in stock, and reserve it, then actually pick it up, and drop it off, necessitating three trips for every occasion one wears the dinner suit. I would like to think my time is more valuable than that.
If you have decided to buy, what should you be looking for? My suggestion is to stay clear of cream dinner jackets. You will probably not look as good as Sean Connery did in his, no matter what you may think. You might confused for a waiter or bartender – this is not necessarily a bad thing, as they are one of the most important people at events, and people will always come up to you to order drinks. If anything is spilt on the jacket, one will see it straight away. The other reason I would avoid them is that they are thought of more as a summer dinner jacket and not an all year round one. It could look quite odd wearing a cream dinner jacket at a black tie event when snow is falling outside. For that same reason, I would also avoid black velvet as a dinner jacket fabric, as it would be a little unusual to wear that fabric in summer at an outdoor event.
A lightweight, all year black cloth is the safe option, as most venues will have some form of heating in winter, and the lights at events don’t make things any cooler.
Preferably cut with a peak lapel; a shawl lapel is a little more casual, and a notch lapel is for business suits, not evening wear. A plain satin or ribbed silk facing for the lapels finishes off the dinner jacket. Anything else becomes too interesting, an oddity, that makes the jacket immediately recognizable, and usually not for the right reasons.
The author will admit to two dinner suits, a black velvet dinner jacket, a cream silk dinner jacket, and three unusual evening trousers for more casual affairs. Then there are the items he will not admit to…
Oscar is the founder and owner of Udeshi.