The Not-So-Black-And-White History Of The Tuxedo

By Karen Harris

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The tuxedo is a man's go-to outfit for weddings, proms, and evenings at the opera, but who's responsible for this uniquely stylish suit? It has something to do with the town of Tuxedo ("crooked river" or "crooked water" in the local native language), New York, but beyond that, the details are far murkier than the getup's crisp shades would let on.

James Brown Potter

It's possible that the tuxedo was popularized by a man named James Brown Potter (not to be confused with the father of soul or Harry Potter) of Tuxedo, New York after he was said to have encountered the future King Edward VII at a ball during a trip to England in summer 1886. The then–Prince of Wales was something of a fashion designer, so the story goes, and he boasted of a snug, short black jacket he'd designed based on contemporary British military uniforms that he insisted Potter simply must snag for himself. After getting suited up by the royal tailor at Henry Poole & Co. on Savile Row, Potter returned to New York and wore his new threads to that year's lavish Autumn Ball in the ritzy village of Tuxedo Park, where it was an instant hit and new disciples began calling it simply "the tuxedo."

Tuxedo Park Railroad Station, 2013. (Jared Kofsky/Wikimedia Commons)

Pierre Lorillard

But that's not the only possible origin story of the tuxedo. Pierre Lorillard, the wealthy heir to a prominent tobacco magnate, ran in the same Tuxedo Park social circles as James Potter, and to hear some tell it, he invented the tuxedo when he asked his tailor to remove the tails from his black tailcoat, take it in, and add satin lapels so he would stand out from the other men at the 1886 Autumn Ball.

Perhaps Potter had worn his English suit to another event around Tuxedo Park and inspired Lorillard. Perhaps the world was just ready for a snazzier, snugger suit. Whatever the case, the style dubbed the tuxedo soon spread across the country and beyond, becoming the gold standard of men's formalwear.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.