The dinner jacket emerged from an era when it was considered proper for upper-class men to dress formally for the evening meal. A comfortable, less formal alternative to a tailcoat, a jacket with long flaps in the back, the dinner jacket, or tuxedo jacket as it is sometimes called, has become the most common type of men's formal wear since the 1890s.
While upper-class formal wear for Western men had been frilly during the 1700s, the 1800s saw the introduction of a more restrained, tailored style. The particularly fashionable British writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873) popularized the color black both for men's formal and everyday wear, and by the mid-1800s men's formal dress was largely defined as "white tie and tails," that is, a white bow tie worn with a stiff white shirt front and a black coat with long tails in the back.
By the late 1800s clothing styles were beginning to become slightly looser. While vacationing at his estate in Cowes, England, the British prince of Wales, Edward VII (1841–1910), sought a more comfortable alternative to the usual formal dinner attire. His tailor modified a popular military-style short black jacket called a mess jacket, to create a semiformal dinner jacket for the prince. The new jacket was dubbed the "Cowes jacket," after the first place it was worn.
In 1886 the prince had an American named James Potter as a guest at his country estate. Potter liked Prince Edward's new formal wear and had a jacket made for himself. When he wore his new dinner jacket at the elite upper-class resort of Tuxedo Park in New York, it instantly became popular. Alternatively, some historians report that a New York socialite named Griswold Lorillard cut the tails off his formal coat in 1886 at the Tuxedo Park Autumn Ball, starting the fad. In either case, the new jacket soon took on the name of the resort and became known simply as a tuxedo.
In 1930 Philadelphia tailors Marliss and Max Rudolphker produced the first mass-marketed ready-to-wear tuxedos. During the economically depressed 1930s, dashing tuxedos became a symbol of hope, as Hollywood movies popularized not only the black "tux" but also the white dinner jacket and the velvet and brocade versions called smoking jackets.
Dinner jackets have remained the fundamental ingredient of men's formal attire into the 2000s. Though each decade has seen slight alterations, wide lapels during the 1920s, narrow lapels during the 1930s, bright-colored brocades during the 1960s and 1970s, the basic style has changed little from Edward VII's original Cowes jacket. While "white tie" formal occasions still call for a tailcoat, far more common is the "black tie" occasion, which demands that men wear a tuxedo.
Belkin, Lisa. "A Party for the Tuxedo at 100: Suit Regains Its Popularity." The New York Times (May 10, 1986): 17, 35.
Boyer, G. B., and Henry Wolf. "R.S.V.P. Black Tie." Town & Country (June 1986): 124–31.