S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 

Nip and Tux



"A tie is supposed to point down, to emphasize the genitals," says a corrupt, bowtie-wearing doctor in David Mamet's otherwise forgettable movie State and Main. "Why would you trust somebody whose tie points outward, to emphasize the ears?"

The search for answers goes on. Universally revered social scientist Wilson Bryan Key, whose combination of anti-marketing zealotry and castration anxiety makes him a kind of dry-run Chuck Palahniuk, connects the presence of a bowtie to the elimination of the male organ in his book Subliminal Seduction. "[Bowties] conjure up images of smoky men's clubs and owlish antiquarians, of something faintly dainty," writes Christopher Stump in "Confessions of a Bow-Tie Devotee," a 1997 Weekly Standard article that has become the central text for bowtie support groups everywhere. Until the 1960s, Cambridge University maintained a tradition of "ceremonial public castration" for students found not wearing a gown and bowtie on special occasions. "I work at a dating table and often am leaning over a cup of coffee," writes a correspondent to Alfredo Blasco's bowtie page. "Before I started wearing bow ties, I was constantly dipping my long tie in my cup." Shrinks given to oddball theories recount fever dreams associating emasculation with Eaton uniforms. Doctors of Philosophy plumb a psychology where tying a knot and being neutered are never far apart, while amateur psychologists see the chin-ticklin' bow as a symbol of "inoffensive non-masculinity." In a crowning insult, Iowa Planned Parenthood instructor Roxie Tullis teaches kids the dangers of STDs with the help of "Woody," described by the Cedar Rapids Gazette as "a penis model with a bow tie and goofy grin."

Freudian as all this anxiety may seem, it points to a deeper, more abiding reason to hate the bowtie: the central role it plays in the tuxedo, the single stupidest outfit ever worn by man. As prom season heats up, and a new generation of innocent kids makes a lifetime of bad memories, it's only fair to ask what particular madness squeezed America into this particular cummerbund.

Like most truly bad things in American culture, the tux was imported from Great Britain. "It all began in 1886 when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, began wearing a short black jacket in place of the formal tailcoat," writes Jim's Formal Wear's sartorial history:

An American guest of the Prince, a Mr. James Brown Potter, brought the look to the states, where he made a dashing presence at the Tuxedo Club in upstate New York. Soon the new look caught on as each man had his personal tailor copy the jacket and the new style became known as, "what they're wearing to dinner in Tuxedo." And so the new jackets had a name: tuxedos!

This is not an uncontested view of tuxedo history. Anne Hollander's Sex and Suits declares flatly that this fashion faux pas was "first invented a hundred years ago in easygoing America as an informal coat to go with black evening trousers," while Colin McDowell's breathlessly titled Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen follows the tradition that the suit was concocted by Pierre Lorillard IV, "who scandalized his fellow guests by wearing it to the snooty white-tie-and-tails Autumn Ball at the Tuxedo Club."

We tend to believe the first version, however. The Prince of Wales was for decades viewed by stateside hopefuls as such a beacon of fashion that by 1935 the fashion-conscious Esquire wrote, "Every third or fourth issue we swear off mentioning the Prince of Wales, getting sicker, if possible, of talking about him than you are of hearing about him." If the notion of Americans looking to the Prince of Wales for guidance of any kind does not fill you with shame, just consider the stylistic sense of the current POW (whose longing to be reincarnated as Camilla Parker Bowles's tampon hints at an erectile dysfunction more severe than any bowtie symbolism could match).

But the real crime isn't that we looked to the Prince of Wales back then. It's that we still look to him now. As the above comments indicate, the tux was originally seen not as formal wear but as a reaction against excessive formality (that it was promoted by people whose very existence was posited on maintaining outdated rituals should have raised suspicions even then). But rather than continuing any natural model of progression through greater and lesser points of formality and innovation, evolving into, say, something you might be able to wear without looking like a buffoon, the tux has calcified. More than a century after its invention, the costume remains trapped in a time vortex, its rigid and unchanging nature hailed everywhere as "classic style." After a period of innovations (for all of which Jim of Jim's Formal Wear slavishly gives credit to the Prince of Wales), the tux went cold in the 1930s, and has endured only minor changes ever since.

The pathetic thing is that this tyranny of stiff, uncomfortable formal wear, this unchanging dictatorship of a uniform even Burgess Meredith's Penguin could hardly wear gracefully, is everywhere praised as a classic. "[W]omen will look dowdy in tired or out-of-date evening dresses," writes Hollander, "whereas the men will all look marvelous in their dinner-jackets, however old their fashion is."

But they don't look marvelous; they look like dorks. Who has good mental associations with the tux? The name alone conjures images of mulleted best men singing along to "Hold My Hand" at wedding receptions in the Arby's ballroom, their bellies swelling against foodstained cummerbunds. (Even by the unforgiving standards of fashion, the tux is particularly hard on the portly.) Pustular high schoolers in feathered 1981 'dos and wide-lapelled purple dinner jackets. Frat brothers puking at some exclusive kegger, the grand William Powell tradition of drunkenness in evening clothes a distant, mocking memory.

Of course, it's only the persistence of this artificial support system — weddings, proms, bogus "black-tie" affairs, the Oscars — that keep the tux from total extinction. This limited life support may explain why all efforts to add some personality to the uniform invariably end in tears. The Lyle Lovett string tie, the George Lucas tab collar, that thing Russsell Crowe wore for his acceptance speech: all abortive fashion statements, crushed under the iron monolith of the tux. For the tux doesn't merely resist variety — the tux exists to quash it. Its purpose is uniformity; its function is to enforce an aesthetic of men as appendages in situations men would prefer to avoid entirely. Consider how, in a recent insider description of Toni Braxton's wedding, Ebony devotes a paragraph of description to the bride's ensemble ("The question of the day, the question the world eagerly asked was finally answered. Yes, Virginia, Toni Braxton's wedding gown was stunning, and modest, featuring spaghetti straps."), then goes on to depict even the bridesmaid's outfits, before dispatching groom Keri Lewis in a single sentence: "The groom wore a Ralph Lauren tuxedo with an ivory jacket and black tuxedo pants" — certainly one of the most terse narrative passages since "Jesus wept."

Strangely, for all its cockroach resiliency, the tux has been feeding into its own extinction all along. The high fashions of the 18th century lingered well into the 19th, but only as servants' gear — footmen and cab drivers were dressed in breeches and periwigs long after men of rank had moved on to less cumbersome fashions. Perhaps the cruelest trick of modern tux protocol — in which Oscar winner, security guard and President of the United States are all expected to wear essentially the same get-up for special occasions — is that it maintains the fiction of egalitarianism in an increasingly stratified society. It's the rich who can afford to dress down, while the poor wear tuxedo facsimiles for the privilege of bringing plates of spare ribs or handing out cologne and a fresh towel. Is there any reason to sit still for this social structure in a new millennium of ever-expanding possibilities? You have nothing to lose but your chains! Next time you see some swell in his dinner jacket and clip-on bowtie, slip him a twenty and announce, "There you go, Chico! Buy yourself some new shoes!" Make sure to be wearing your tuxedo t-shirt when you do it.




Courtesy of Magua
magua@suck.com



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