Putting On The Dog (aka Going Formal)…

Tonight we took a small break from our various projects and attended the Holiday Grand Ball put on by the Social Daunce Irregulars. The Holiday Grand Ball is somewhat of a Thanksgiving Weekend tradition for the two of us, providing a bit of a break from all the usual pressures created by project deadlines and the overall holiday frenzy as well as providing an excuse for use to wear some our latest creations. 🙂

This year was no exception for Karin but for me it represented a new departure. For years, I tended to avoid men’s formal wear like the plague, usually opting for some sort of uniform. However, uniforms get old after awhile and I decided that it was time for a change so I opted for formal wear but only on my terms. Like many, I raised on the idea that if one needed formal wear, one rented it and that usually meant some sort of cheap polyester nightmare (I still have prom pictures from 1978 with me wearing a powder tuxedo that I might actually be bold enough to post one day…). In the end, it just seemed to be of such limited use item that it simply wasn’t worth the expense.

So what changed my view? Well, a small confession is in order: it was from watching way too many episodes of Downton Abbey. Yes, that Downton Abbey… For many years, I regarded formal wear (or “penguin suits” as I normally called them) as an affectation that really bore little relevance even though I do a variety of 19th Century living history events and presentations. Besides, uniforms are just way more cool… 🙂 However, after watching Hugh Bonneville I changed my mind- I like the character and he seemed to pull of the look with a sense of presence without looking affected. It simply looked way too good for me not to try it. 🙂

Image result for hugh bonneville downton abbey

So, after doing some research I decided to have a tail coat and trousers constructed based on a style that was appropriate for the 1880s/1890s. Here’s some of the inspiration for my set of tails. First, we start with some overall impressions:




Wedding Suit, 1886; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.47.76.10a–c)


Evening Suit, c. 1885; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.171 to B-1960)

Obviously the color choice was going to be black with both coat and trousers made form wool. Because I live in Southern California, I opted to have the coat and trousers made from a tropical weight wool. Also, I decided to have the coat made with panels of black silk set within the lapels- the contrast in fabrics between the wool and the silk make for a more interesting appearance and it’s a detail that one rarely sees on modern formal coats.

For the vest, I opted for one with a shawl collar made of white pique fabric with silk lapels, somewhat along these lines:


Vest, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1991.388a–f)

Just for contrast, here’s one in black wool:


Vest, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1991.388a–f)

It’s difficult to discern in the picture but it also have a shawl collar. Finally, I decided that I’d go for the “white tie” look, which was considered more formal, so I had a fixed bow tie made from ivory silk and opted for a straight detachable collar. Below is the final product:


Not bad for the first time out! 🙂

I’ll be making some additional improvements for the next to time to include a more comfortable collar and not forgetting my white gloves. See you at the next ball…


Leave a Reply