Facing the Tuxedo Decision

| Saturday, 01 Jan. 2011

Here's the definitive answer to the most-often-asked cruiser question: Do I (or my husband or my partner) need a tux for formal nights?

No. A dark suit with a white or ecru shirt and a subdued four-in-hand or bow tie will be just fine.

Since that's out of the way, let's take a look back at about how tuxedos came to be. The Princes of Wales have historically been known to take certain liberties, and the prince who later became Edward VII decided back around 1890 to give formal evening gear the boot. He started wearing a short black jacket rather than a long coat with the full tails.

The look appealed to an American guest of the prince's, a Mr. Potter, who ordered a similar garment from his own tailor. He wore the new jacket to the Tuxedo Club in New York. In those days, the fashionable crowd had to have "what they're wearing at the Tuxedo Club," and the name stuck to the jacket: Tuxedo.

An alternate story claims that, at about the same time, a Mr. Lorrilard snipped the tails off his swallow-tail evening coat, had it hemmed, and pranced about. However, this too was at the Tuxedo Club, so at least we're sure where the name came from.

Another Prince of Wales, this one famous for his relationship with an American woman named Simpson, added a new touch. He created the pleated-front, soft-collared shirt.

A proper tuxedo, sometimes known as a "dinner suit" by those who own one, consists of several components. The shirt has a pleated front, with studs instead of buttons and French cuffs with cufflinks. Another piece is the pleated black cummerbund, always worn with the pleats up to catch the crumbs or spare change, according to the oldest living salesman at Brooks Brothers. The rest of the ensemble includes a black bow tie, hand-tied; black pants with a satin stripe down the outside seams; black jacket with satin lapels; "clocked" black silk socks, held by garters; and black patent leather slip-on shoes with black grosgrain ribbon bows.

There are no Tuxedo Fashion Police on cruise ships. About the only place to see "proper" in the 21st century is on a debutante's great-grandfather, who probably bought the suit before World War II, or on the maitre d' aboard ship. Some men enjoy dressing up formally as much as most women do. Sometimes - as in the case of a brocaded "coat of many colors" that a friend commissioned in Hong Kong - the result is more peacock than penguin.

Most male fashion statements take the form of jazzy ties and cummerbunds: polka dots, Disney characters, a lovingly needle-pointed cummerbund with appropriate tie or, my husband's favorite, the family tartan. These enhancements to the basic black ensure that one will not be mistaken for a waiter.

The husband has yet to appear on a cruise ship in full formal kilts with sporran, but such a get-up is perfectly acceptable on a formal night--and the wearer is quite popular, as he's asked the age-old question again and again by giggling ladies.

Also acceptable - and smashing - are military "mess" uniforms. On one recent cruise, a Chief Petty Officer was togged out in full gear with ribbons. The fact that he was also six and a half feet tall didn't hurt, but he turned every woman's head as he walked by. There definitely IS something about a man in uniform.

Many men enjoy wearing a white (really cream-colored) dinner jacket. While a gent who might appear at the Union League Club in Philadelphia (oh, so proper) wearing a white dinner jacket at any time other than its proper season - Memorial Day to Labor Day - would probably be locked in the cloakroom, this rule is not observed in the Caribbean and some other hot-weather itineraries. There's a simple way to know: Go on a reconnaissance mission before dressing. If the bridge staff is wearing white, go for it. If not, leave it in the closet.

It's hard to be tacky in a tux, but it can be done. Tie and cummerbund that match the lady's frock should be left behind after the junior prom. Also, trying to turn a dark suit into a pseudo-tux by wearing a black bow tie is not a good idea.

TO RENT OR TO BUY, THAT IS THE QUESTION ...

Tuxes can be rented through all the mainstream cruise lines for around $100, and your fancy dress clothes will be hanging in the closet of your cabin when you board. This is a great convenience. The kit generally includes one tux, two shirts, the accessories, and sometimes even the shoes. Bring your own socks. For a few more bucks, you can add the white dinner jacket.

You're generally responsible for taking your own measurements and providing them to the concessionaire or cruise line. You can also rent at home, usually for less money, but saving $10 or so probably doesn't make up for the hassle of picking up and returning. Don't take chances with onboard rentals, especially if you wear an extremely uncommon or extremely common size.

If you do rent, consider owning your own set of studs and links. Those awful black plastic "onyx" studs and links are just that - awful - and scream "rental". Expect a good set of studs and links, preferably gold, to set you back about $200. It's well worth it: You'll be the envy of every dealer in the casino.

A factor in favor of buying rather than renting is amortization. If you're going to wear a tux more than two or three times in your life (think weddings of children and grandchildren), it's a good investment. Top-of-the-line? Brooks Brothers offers the basic black jacket at $420 and pants at $178 - the reverse-pleated kind - or the bargain plain-front pants at $70.

For regular penguins, most formal shops will sell you a previously-worn dinner suit for around $200. Accessories are extra, adding $50 or so. One of the great things about the non-tailored tux is that the pants have an adjustable waistband, hidden by the cummerbund. Women have known the cruise secret of elastic waists for a long time. It's time for the guys to get on board with it.

AND WHEN THE WORST HAPPENS?

Spaghetti sauce on the front of your only shirt? Cruise ship laundries are far more experienced in dinner shirts than any land-side laundry. If you don't spill and don't sweat too much at the tables doing a James Bond imitation, a single shirt can "air and wear."

I once forgot the socks. The shipboard shop did not provide socks for the husband's size 13 feet. When I threw myself upon the mercy of the hotel manager, he rousted an officer known for extremely large feet, who had a spare clean pair.

The total worst was when a nasty flu that hit as I was packing, and I forgot the jewelry - including the studs and links. The gift shop was sold out, so I made my weak way to the first officer I could find and begged for a spare set. He said that I wasn't alone and all the extras aboard had already been loaned to equally desperate people.

It was the first formal night, we were dining with the Captain--what to do? Returning to the gift shop, I purchased two pairs of plain gold stud earrings (useful as Christmas gifts to young nieces later) and a pair of clip-ons to serve as cufflinks. Never pat a husband on the chest when he's using earrings as studs.

THE GOOD NEWS ...

For those men who simply won't dress up on formal nights (though their wives might become peevish) is that more and more ships have alternative restaurants--and there's always room service.


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