The tuxedo is a man's tailored suit used for semi-formal or formal wear. It may be sewn from a wide variety of colors and fabrics; increasingly, brighter colors and unconventional designs are pervasive in tuxedo styling. Nevertheless, most tuxedos are produced in black. While tuxedos are available for purchase, most men rent these fancy suits for special occasions since they are infrequently worn and seen as an unwise investment.
Tuxedo jackets often include satin on the lapels that are attached to the collars. Tuxedo pants resemble men's tailored trousers except that they generally have a satin or ribbon stripe sewn over the outside seam of the leg. Most tuxedos are worn with specific accessories that include the slightly stiffened, sometimes fancy, white pleated shirt that closes with old-fashioned shirt studs rather than buttons. Another important accessory is the cummerbund or fabric belt that encircles the waistband of the trousers and secures in the back.
The tuxedo is, essentially, a ready-to-wear garment made in specific, standard sizes. They may be purchased or rented from an apparel store at a moment's notice. Custom or couture tuxedos are available through a personal tailor and are made to fit the wearer to his specifications. Tuxedos are constructed just as a man's tailored, pattern-graded ready-to-wear suit would be produced except the fabric is a bit dressier, the lapel includes satin and a decorative stripe is sewn onto the trousers. Companies that make men's suits may also be involved in tuxedo production.
Interestingly, the tuxedo did not begin as formal wear. Rather, it was seen as a less formal alternative to men's formal wear. Until the early twentieth century, gentlemen wore frock coats for formal wear, choosing a black frock coat with tails and gray-striped trousers for formal wear during the day. A black frock coat with tails, a white waistcoat (sometimes referred to as a vest), white shirt with stiffened bosom, and black trousers were worn with a black silk top hat and was the typical formal evening wear for gentlemen.
About the turn-of-the-century, legend suggests that American gentlemen in and around Tuxedo Park in New York, an enclave of the wealthy, chose to simplify formal wear and drop the fancy tail coats preferred for evening wear. They chose instead to wear a black coat styled much like their work suitcoats. The gentleman thought they could then wear these simple black trousers for semi-formal occasions. The jackets, known as tuxedo jackets, were often decorated with rich black silk satin on the lapels and that detail persists in many tuxedos today. The ribbon stripe on the outside edge of conventional tuxedo trousers may be reminiscent of the gray-striped trousers popular for day formal wear in the nineteenth century. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the black tuxedo had supplanted the formal black tailcoat as acceptable formal and semi-formal wear.
The wealthy had their fine tuxedo jackets and matching trousers made by a personal tailor in the early twentieth century. However, with the development and refinement of the American ready-to-wear industry, tuxedos were available in standard sizes by the early twentieth century. Today, few men own such suits, instead they are frequently rented for special events. There is no question that today we see these suits as quite formal and do not consider them semi-formal. Colors and styles are varied today, including bright colors, patterns, double-breasted styles, even long coats are popular again. The design of the tuxedo is only as limited as the imagination can create and the market can bear.
Tuxedos may be made from a great variety of fabrics today. These include wool, polyester, and rayon. Fancy detailing is generally an imitation silk satin such as polyester or rayon. Linings may be acetate or polyester. Stiffeners are an important part of the tuxedo as they help the shoulders, collar and lapel retain their shape. These stiffeners may be felt (underneath the collar) and buckram, a coarsely-woven fabric used in more structured ready-to-wear outfits. Fasteners typically include synthetic component buttons that can hold up to the chemical bombardment they receive during endless dry cleanings, and metal-toothed zippers in the trousers.
The design of the tuxedo may be the most important part of a successful manufacturing process. Popular trends in men's clothing help set the style for tuxedos. A group of designers study men's fashion and suggest what tuxedo styles will appeal to a broad group of consumers. This group finds illustrations and may create illustrations of the styling they hope to reproduce within the factory. Fabrics, new colors, interesting lapel shapes, length of coat, or flare of the trousers may be among the new styling features the designers manipulate to produce new products.
Pattern makers provide the tools that will enable the manufacturer to produce these new tuxedos—the patterns. The process for this is fairly straight-forward; the pattern parts are sketched on paper and once there is consensus that these parts will create the targeted design, the pieces are digitized into a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) system. All men's fashions are drafted in prototype pattern form in one size referred to as 40 regular, which includes a jacket with a 40-inch chest, a 32-33 inch sleeve length, and a pair of trousers with a 33-34 inch waist. (Generally, in standard sizing for men's suits, the waist is 6 in less than the chest size of the jacket; thus, a 48 regular jacket would be accompanied by a pair of trousers with a 42-inch waist.) All subsequent patterns are then graded from this standard 40 regular pattern.
The prototype pattern is used to cut out a size 40 regular tuxedo. The company then assesses the styling and decides whether the tuxedo will indeed be marketable as well as the complexity and expense involved in production. Upon approval, the pattern is graded—proportionally scaled, up or down off of size 40 regular, lengthening or broadening the pattern as necessary. The variety of pattern sizes produced is significant since many tuxedo manufacturers offer the product in sizes from 36 extra short to 60 XXL. Specifications for cutting patterns is fed into the CAD system so that the pattern pieces are devised on a computer-generated system that produces all subsequent sizes of the 40 regular prototype.
The designers and other members of the manufacturing team suggest the appropriate fabrics for production of the tuxedo. Some tuxedos are produced in dozens of fabrics and colors and utilize a variety of linings, buttons and other notions. The designers and the pattern-makers are keenly aware that each fabric type utilized affects other aspects of production including how the fabric is cut, the lining and tapes that must be used to reinforce the fabric type, the kind of needle that most cleanly pierces the fabric, the type of thread that will ensure the fabric will not be pulled, etc. Once these specifications for production are established, production is ready to proceed.
Most tuxedos are worked on over a period of many days, even several weeks. There are so many small parts or tasks to be completed before the tuxedo is finished that much time is spent in production. If the time it took to cut, sew and finish a single tuxedo was condensed into one single day, it is estimated that it would take eight to 12 hours to produce one unit.
- Fabric pieces may be cut out in one of three ways depending on the manufacturer. All of the methods described enable multiple layers of fabric to be cut out at one time, cutting approximately 25 layers at once (this amount varies according to the thickness of the fabric). The fabric pieces may be cut by hand using manual shears or very sharp, heavy tailor's scissors. A second method employs an electric round wheel much like a circular saw that is held in the hand. A third method entails cutting fabric using a motorized machine that is run from a computer program.
- Each piece is tagged with special identification indicating the specific bolt of fabric from which the piece was cut because all tuxedo cloth must be cut from the same bolt and dye lot (or the parts may not match precisely in color) and the size of the tuxedo for which it is intended. Also, the tag may indicate which tuxedo style the piece is intended if more than one style is in production at the same time. The pieces are either carried to the operators at sewing machines for assembly, or are stored until they are needed.
- Operators sitting at individual stations generally sew the pieces together using industrial grade sewing machines (these machines are able to handle the heavy fabrics and linings used in men's suits and tuxedos). At one company, the construction of a tuxedo has been divided into 150 different sewing operations, meaning that many different operators actually work on a single garment. The coat generally consists of 110 operations and the trousers 40 different operations.
Assembling the coat
The sequence of operations includes the following general steps, each with many subcomponents.
- First, the two front panels are sewn together, which generally includes some stiffening in parts of the bosom. The stiffening fabric is sewn to each panel so they become a single unit. The fabrics are sewn inside out in order to hide the stitching upon reversal.
- Pockets are sewn in by the operator next. If they are patch pockets, like a breast pocket, they are sewn on the outside of the panel. Pockets in the seams have a lining that is sewn to the inside of the panel along the seam opening. The pocket edges are finished off by tucking excess fabric and stitching the seam edges to smooth and secure the seam at its openings.
- The back of the coat is constructed by sewing the two back panels together down the center. The front panels are connected to the back at the shoulder seams but not the side seams. Stiffening or padding may be sewn in at this point if needed.
- If the sleeves are to be lined they are juxtaposed with thin lining and sewn down the inner arm on a sewing machine. Again, the fabric is sewn from the interior in order to hide the seams and produce a more polished looking garment.
- The remaining lining is added to the coat body at this point. A thin layer of satin-like fabric is usually used for the lining and is cut to the dimensions of the front and back panels. The lining is sewn with both finished sides facing each other, and then flipped right side out. The sleeves, already sewn together, are attached to the coat at the armhole.
- Finally, the collar, including the lapel, is assembled. This has a shell or top of the lapel of satin (characteristic of a tuxedo) and an interfacing consisting of felt with a piece of canvas built into it and buckram to give it strength. The interfacing is cut to the shape of the collar and sewn into a "sleeve" of the outer fabric. Contrasting fabrics, such as satin striping along the edge of the collar are sewn onto the outer fabric as well prior to jacket attachment. The lapel is constructed using the same process as the collar, but in different shapes and styling. The lapel is sewn along the front opening of the front panels. After assembling and attaching both the lapel and collar, the coat is complete.
Assembling the trousers
Trousers are not generally sewn to a specific length. Instead, the end is often left with a pinked edge so the store can hem each leg up or down as needed.
If the trouser legs are to be lined, the liner fabric is cut to match
the size and shape of the trousers. The thin lining, usually a
- The characteristic satin stripe is applied along the outside of each trouser leg with topstitching. The legs are then sewn together at the interior curved seat seam and interior leg seams as well.
- The waistband, which is generally folded at the top and stiffened within with buckram or some other interfacing, is sewn all around the upper edge of the raw edge of the trousers. The belt loops are constructed of small, machine-sewn strips of self-fabric and are attached at regular intervals onto the waistband.
- The zipper is sewn to the interior of the trousers so that the overlapping fly fabric covers the metal teeth of the fastener.
- When the coat and trousers are completely assembled, the parts must be finished. Finishing refers to closing off raw edges with closely stitched thread, such as that seen around buttonholes. It also includes sewing buttons onto the coat and pressing both the trousers and the coat. The hem of the trousers may remain a raw edge. The tuxedo is now complete.
All fabric is carefully inspected upon arrival for any flaws or irregularities that could produce an inferior suit with imperfections. The industry examines a length of material in a 100-yard piece and has determined that an acceptable bolt of yard goods can only have a specified number of flaws per piece. Dye lots, in which yard goods are colored in the same dye vat at the same time, are carefully marked so that the tuxedo is not sewn from bolts colored at different times. These dyes vary widely even when the same recipe is used for their formulation. Seamstresses and tailors are vigilant in using fabrics from the same dye lot. Requirements are determined for each of the sewing operations performed on the tuxedo; thus each job is evaluated against that specific criteria. Also, since so much of the construction of the tuxedo is completed by human operators at sewing machines they easily and quickly perform visual checks at each stage of production. Garments are fully inspected after finishing as well, especially along seams for durability and closure.
An important part of quality control is prototyping each new design and ironing out all design flaws carefully before production begins. Armholes that are too small, lapels that have no body, trousers with improper flare, all can be avoided with thoughtful feedback on the prototyped tuxedo.
There is a considerable amount of wasted fabric resulting from cutting out the tuxedo parts. One manufacturer estimated that perhaps as much as 12% of the fabric is unusable after pattern pieces are cut. Most garment-makers try to recoup losses related to this unusable fabric by selling this scrap to companies that make reconstituted fibers. These fibers are used in everything from other garments to floor coverings.
Tuxedo manufactures need to keep up with changing men's fashions; men's styles change almost as frequently as women's fashions. Couturiers with great cache greatly affect the design of higher-style tuxedos. New styles by well-known designers seen at very public events, such as the Academy Awards presentation, certainly have resonance in the manufacture of tuxedos. New colors, and occasionally new fabrics creep into tuxedo use but the days of outrageous tuxedos are largely over. In fact, the conservative black tuxedo with white shirt used for middle-class weddings rarely varies from year to year. The challenges that face tuxedo manufacturers primarily revolve around their ability to construct tuxedos competitively.
Where to Learn More
Constantino, Maria. Men's Fashion in the Twentieth Century. New York: Fashion Press, 1997.
Hollander, Ann. Sex and Suits. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Oral interview with Barry Cohen, Vice-President of Manufacturing for Hartz and Company. Frederick, MD. September 2001.
Nancy E.V. Bryk