Red Carpet White Tie

Posted on April 21, 2012

Walther Matthau at the 1968 Oscars.

The Academy Awards shows do a great job of recreating the glamour of old Hollywood but they can’t compare to the days when white tie was a staple of Oscar night.

Debuting in 1929, the awards ceremony took place in swank Los Angeles hotel ballrooms during its early years.  Vintage photographs suggest black tie was standard attire for the first two years then was joined by white tie up until the war.  During World War Two evening wear was mothballed in favour of regular suits as was the norm for formal occasions across America at the time.

When formal wear returned to the Oscars in 1946 it the dress code was solely tuxedos, once again following the general trend as post-war America embraced a distinctively informal sartorial style.  Also new was the event’s upgrade to theatre venues and its use of multiple presenters, innovations both introduced in 1944.

In 1949 the show’s producers made a surprising decision to turn back the clock by requiring male presenters to dress in tailcoats once again.  Thus for the next two decades various leading men of every age appeared in full-dress glory both on the stage and, commencing in 1953, in the living rooms of America courtesy of NBC’s live television broadcasts.

In retrospect, the 1968 show was a harbinger of change to come.  30-year-old presenter Dustin Hoffman embodied the counterculture generation not just in his age and his role as The Graduate but also in his obvious incongruity with Edwardian formality.  His ill-fitting outfit made him look like a teenager forced to wear his grandfather’s clothes.  Perhaps this was a factor in the Academy’s decision to end the practice the following year.  Beginning in 1969 with the ceremony’s first international broadcast, presenters settled for black tie.   Tony Curtis’ unorthodox contemporary interpretation that year only underscored the passing of the formality and uniformity that defined the Oscars’ white tie era.

White tie returned to the Oscars in 1949 when it became prescribed attire for presenters such as actor Ronald Colman.

Host Bob Hope and best picture winner Cecil B. DeMille at the first televised Oscars in 1953.

Presenter and best supporting actor winner Jack Lemmon at the 1956 Oscars.

Co-host and best actor winner David Niven in 1958.

Fred Astaire and perennial host Bob Hope in 1960

A rare sight: Frank Sinatra in a tailcoat. (1963)

Presenter and best actor winner Sidney Poitier in 1964.

Warren Beatty in 1966.

Rock Hudson at the last white-tie ceremony in 1968.

Dustin Hoffman sounding the death knell for full dress in the same 1968 show.

Tony Curtis ushers in the post-white tie era in 1969.

Thank you to the readers who suggested I write this post.  Keep the requests coming.