There is an absolutely fabulous moment in the most recent episode of Downton Abbey where the Earl is not able to dress properly for dinner because his dress coat has been misplaced, and the Dowager Countess mistakes him for being a waiter. He is, of course, wearing a tuxedo.
No one at dinner would wear a tuxedo except a waiter, so, well, comforting to know some things haven’t changed. But what is . . . a weekend? No, really, what is a tuxedo? And why did men wear them in a more casual style then, and only in a formal style now?
Well, because all leisurewear ultimately becomes formal wear. Actually, while the Earl of Grantham was being derided by the Dowager Countess, tuxedos had already caught on among the smarter set in England. In 1886, Edward VII (when still just the Prince of Wales) decided he wanted a more comfortable form of dinner attire. He was tired of the traditional dinner jacket with tails. The tailor Henry Poole cut a shorter jacket for him to wear at less formal dinners. Edward was very hip, and royal, so he could basically wear what he wanted.
And then, in 1886, James Brown Potter and his beautiful wife Cora, arrived from New York. Rumor has it that Edward found Cora so beautiful, he invited the couple to stay at his estate. This is Cora: James, however, didn’t know the proper dinner jacket for formal dining in England. So Edward sent him to his personal tailor, where he asked what would be appropriate. Poole, familiar with the Prince’s preferences, advised Potter to get a short coat. Potter was delighted, and continued wearing one when he returned to the New-York-elite Tuxedo Park Club.
After that there is some dispute about what made them popular in the United States. Some say that wasn’t James Brown Potter’s doing, but his son, who caused the shorter jacket to catch on. Some claim it was actually the heads of the Tuxedo Park Club – William Waldorf Astor, Robert Goelet, Ogden Mills and Pierre Lorillard. But I say, no. I say it was James Brown Potter, because he had a pretty wife. In any event, that explains why the term “tuxedo” is considered by some sartorial experts less appropriate than “dinner jacket” as, really, it was Prince Edward’s cool take on the idea. However, both terms are pretty commonly accepted.
And as for Mrs. Cora Potter? James Brown Potter returned from England alone. Mrs. Potter remained in Britain to pursue a career on the stage. To be fair, I bet if any socialite suddenly had an affair with Prince Harry, she’d almost certainly decide to become a movie star. That just seems like logic, there. And she actually became quite successful, touring on the stage until 1912 (and raising money for the second Boer war), before becoming a French citizen and ultimately dying in Monaco in 1936. I’d make her a Shelved Doll if there was more information on her. And today, tuxedos are worn by seventeen year olds attending Prom, grooms at formal weddings and maitre d’s. I think Prince Edward would be a little sad about what he had wrought, but I like to believe that things worked out for him and Cora.
Pictures via Downton Abbey, Wikipedia Commons