In the Dr. Seuss book, On Beyond Zebra!, just when one thinks they’ve, er, mastered to all the options from A to Z, a range of additional letters come into view. So too, formalwear options abound, beyond the tuxedo. For a British themed lodge, the subject has even greater relevance.
In my travels, er, travails, as Grand Master a few years ago, I attended several events of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts to celebrate its 275th anniversary. –They are the fourth oldest grand lodge in the world. I met a line officer there who was a member of St. John’s Lodge of Massachusetts, the first lodge (1733) formed in North America. He was a provincial officer, professionally an executive in the financial sector, and over a cigar one evening he told me a rather humerous story, which may shed more light on the subject of formalwear. One should affect a crisp Boston accent when reading the tale.
My friend had occasion to visit St. Andrews’s Lodge, another old lodge situated in Boston’s tony Beacon Hill area. For that evening, they had secured a banquet facility at The Club of Odd Volumes for one of their quarterly festive boards. Historians will recall that Paul Revere had been a member of St. Andrews, and while the minutes of that fateful night in 1773 were truncated with a cryptic remark that “the brethren retired for their evening’s festivities,” it is told that the lodge members portrayed a band of rampaging American Indians during the Boston Tea party, and were organizers in fomenting the American Revolution.
St. Andrews thus is a very old, Boston Brahmin lodge, today of high style and even higher expectations of its members. While its dues in the year 2008 were set at a then-reasonable $100 per man, each brother was also expected to contribute “five figures” to the lodge’s various charitable endeavors each year.
My friend arrived at the appointed time, and was met at the door by his host, who said, “Good God, man! I thought I told you the event was formal!” My friend looked down at his attire. That evening, he had dressed in a crisp tuxedo, with black tie, white wingtip shirt and a black overcoat. –That he was bemused was an understatement. His host continued, “No, no, no. A tuxedo, my good man, is semi-formal. Here, White Tie is our preferred evening wear!“
The host paused, then drew a broad smile. As a guest, my friend was ‘forgiven’ for his faux pas, and ushered in for a tremendous evening of toasts, stories and a sublime dinner. Along the way, his host mentioned that this sort of thing sometimes happens with first-timers, and on each occasion they enjoy giving them a little ribbing.
At the festive boards for St. Andrews lodge, and for certain aristocratic lodges in the UK, Canada, and Commonwealth countries, members opt for White Tie evening wear, or variations on that theme.
Since members of Churchill Lodge here in Minnesota are interested in the topic, I will pass along what I have learned.
After looking at a dozen “sartorial” websites, that is, companies that specialize in formal menswear, I found two that are especially worth a look. This first one, the Gentleman’s Gazette website, offers an excellent primer, first noting what NOT to wear, and then elaborating on better choices with a great degree of detail: Some of the photos here are from the Gentleman’s Gazette.
This second example is a favorite London choice for renting or buying formalwear, called Lipman and Sons, offering a really well done website. Bravo. Most of the other photos here are from the Lipman website.
Dressing “above and beyond” the basic tuxedo, some of our members have purchased Morning Suits, which they have worn at the opening of our Grand Lodge sessions, mirroring the daytime formalwear choices of our friends from Ontario or Manitoba. Churchill members have also worn their Morning suits to special, daytime events like our celebration of the Royal Ascot horseraces.
At left is a dapper Morning Suit, notable for the grey waistcoat, colored tie and coordinating pocket square, long tailcoat (swallowtail style, not cutaway), and charcoal trousers. A grey top hat may complete the look, as at right. At right, this fellow is slightly more subdued, without the splash of color. But he’s still wearing a daytime, or Morning suit.
Note that in a masonic meeting, a fellow’s apron is worn UNDER a tailcoat or cutaway tailcoat jacket.
A type of scrunched-knot, festive tie, actually named using the French word for tie, cravat, is often worn with a Morning suit. This can be a great way for wedding parties to coordinate colors, but it is within the sartorial family of long ties.
Next, we move on to the classic white dinner jacket. This is holiday wear, and just right for dinner on a cruise ship, or at an intimate, upscale dinner with friends. It’s better in Ivory versus pure white, but one sees several color options. Additionally, you might see a velvet version of this type of coat, popular in some circles.
Finally, we reach the pinnacle of what to wear.
At left, these two gentlemen await their dates dressed in White Tie evening wear. Suitable for dining and dancing, the rule is that evening wear like this or a tuxedo should be worn for events beginning after 4PM. Here, the jacket is a cutaway, and exposes much of the white piqué, or quilted waistcoat. The waistcoat has a low drop, so admirers can see the starched white shirt, studs if used, and white bow tie, not a long tie. The trousers are black, and the shoes done to a high polish, in patent leather. The aforementioned Gentleman’s Gazette discusses the finer points of accessories and shoes. Another photo of a cutaway tailcoat is at right, showing less of the waistcoat. These jackets are worn unbuttoned.
These jackets are named Cutaway tailcoats. A variation called an Edwardian Cutaway, offers a more squared off cut in front, which coincidently would allow an even more unimpared view of a Masonic apron, worn underneath. Sadly, the Edwardian style is available from theatrical or vintage costumers only, and not from regular haberdasherists.
White Tie tends to be an aristocratic, or even Tory choice for formalwear — as far as I can tell — and most lodges do not press for this level of formality. Yet some do. There is a robust trade in White Tie rentals in London (the British use the word “hire”) for those not wishing to purchase such formalwear. The aforementioned Lipman’s is a good source.
On the European Continent, white tie outfits like this are required for Viennese White Tie Balls, suitable for opera and symphony appearances, and similar soirees. You may read about high-style Viennese White Tie affairs here.
Now, an option some of our Shrine pipe band members may already own is a Highlander version of the dinner coat and outfit, called a Scottish Highlands Prince Charlie.
The jacket is similarly cropped, that is, a short coat, but it does not have the tails in back. Rather, it is designed to highlight the wearer’s kilt, sporran and highlander accessories.
This dress is considered acceptable in most formal, evening occasions. A White Tie equivalent, as explained on the Gentleman’s Gazette website, would pair this with a ruffled white scarf called a jabot, pictured there. The vest is black, and cut low. There are several variations on these jackets, and the Prince Charlie is the most popular.
For those interested in Scottish dress from the lowland counties, rather than kilts which are worn as a highlander’s choice, the lowland version has trousers made with plaid tartan fabric. It is not as often seen here in the US. The Gentleman’s Gazette has a photo of this, and other variations.
Churchill Lodge members are exploring the option to purchase either White Tie ensembles, or ‘Charlies’, depending on member preference. Look for more on this at our meetings in late 2022 and early 2023. We are evaluating suppliers now for a group purchase.
Once we have this settled, we look forward to events with our ladies, such as a resumption of our attendance at Canterbury Park for the simulcast of the Royal Ascot.
Still reading? I’ve found this to be a terrific video to explain formalwear.