Magazine article The Spectator

Tails You Win

Magazine article The Spectator

Tails You Win

Article excerpt

I recently discovered that until the early 1900s it was considered the height of bad manners for gentlemen to take off their hats indoors. As a mark of great favour, the hostess might ask those sitting closest to her to remove their hats, in which case they had to be stowed neatly under their chairs.

Fifty years later, Vidal Sassoon singlehandedly revolutionised English heads by suggesting that men wash their hair rather more than once a year. Since then, hats have been downgraded to a faintly affected accessory rather than a daily necessity, and consigned, if not quite to the dustbin, at least to the back of the wardrobe, mouldering among the mothballs along with spats, plus fours and Inverness capes.

A few seasons ago one would probably have included white tie and tails in that list of discarded garments. Unless you are currently on the state banquet rota or a frequent guest at the grandest of European embassies, this tenu de soirée -- which until 1939 was nigh-on obligatory in certain circles almost every night, and ideally needed a valet and a couple of footmen to help one struggle into its delicious constrictions -- has become a dim memory, nostalgically recalled from Fred Astaire movies, Lord Snowdon's iconic photograph of Marlene Dietrich en travestie, or by those Peter Arno cartoons that decorate Harry's Bar.

Now, due one can safely assume to Elton and David's unabashed passion for extravagant evening wear (incidentally, in spite of those unavoidably lurid daylight photographs of their parties, white tie really does look best after sundown), the 'full ensemble' has come out of the closet faster than you can say footballers or their wives.

Suddenly it's the dernier cri tion. It goes without saying that the true glamour of wearing full white-tie regalia is enhanced by following to the letter the exacting dicta established for over a century.

For openers, this depends on the wearer having the most willowy of figures. That starched pique shirt-front has to be deadpan flat, otherwise off you foxtrot to a corsetière, as indeed many a pre-war gent did, for a little tight-lacing. To lengthen the line of the leg, and achieve that subtle ratio of chiaroscuro, the edge of the waistcoat must barely show below the points of the cutaway coat; with more than just the merest flash of white, you'll look like Mr Punch. …

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