Tuxedo Origins: The American Dress Sack

Posted on November 9, 2013

Part three of a series featuring newly discovered first-hand accounts of the tuxedo’s earliest appearances.

"Daily Alta California", August 1871

Daily Alta California, August 1871

Fashion histories have consistently connected the dinner jacket’s US debut with Tuxedo Park in 1886 either through the fabled Griswold Lorillard appearance in the fall of that year or the less well known James Brown Potter importation in the summer.  However, I have found this ad for “dress sack suits” – the earliest American term for the tuxedo – dating back to 1871 (“sack suit” being the early American term for what is now a regular suit).

Without a description or illustration we can’t be sure of the specifics of this particular garment.  However, details begin to emerge in the spring and summer of 1886 when advertisements and reports featuring the dress sack suddenly explode in the press.  This explanation from a Kentucky paper in April 1886 is a good example:

The one novelty of the season is the dress sack.  It appears that in England among the most fashionable men a dress sack coat has become admirable for certain occasions.  During the summer, for the most formal occasions, and even in winter, to be worn by a host on occasions with the most intimate friends, a sack coat made of black cloth will be admissible.

That same month a New York tailor and haberdasher began running an ad with this illustration:

Vogel Brothers ad for “men’s dress sack suit”, 1886

Vogel Brothers ad for “men’s dress sack suit”, 1886

The garment shown here is actually sort of a hybrid between a sack suit and what would soon emerge as the established evening jacket.  The lapels appear to have silk facing but are not shawl style, the two buttons and pocket flaps although not unknown on period dress jackets (see example in the previous installment) have not yet been reduced to one button and flapless pockets (or both done away with altogether) and the waistcoat is very clearly a daytime vest.    It would not be until 1887 that the term would become specifically associated with the established traits.

Next installment: The arrival of the enigmatic “tailless dress coat”: faux mess jacket or original dinner jacket?

Posted in: History