Yuppie Years (Part 1): Classic Renaissance

John Travolta at the Emmys in the 70s with huge velvet bow tie, and piped notch lapels

America.  Formal wear is back on top.  Back and better than ever.

GQ, October 1974

Conservative Tide

As the eldest baby boomers began to mature from yesterday’s hippies into tomorrow’s yuppies, America began a gradual return to conservatism.  The result for formal fashions was a marked paradox.  On one hand, the younger boomers continued to rent the kitschy tuxedos immortalized in 1970s prom and wedding portraits.  On the other hand, the upscale tastes of the new yuppie demographic inspired the return of classic black-tie styles not seen since the 1940s.  Black-tie etiquette was equally schizophrenic during this time as traditionalists rejected any further changes to convention while modernists proclaimed historical precedent to be all but irrelevant.

After Six Tuxedo Ad from the 70s

After Six Tuxedo Ad from the 70s

Nevertheless, by 1974 the country’s newfound appetite for elegance and luxury meant that “formal” was no longer a four letter word.  An After Six ad that year proudly announced that Americans had begun to rediscover proms, galas, balls, and banquets, prompting the delighted tuxedo manufacturer to welcome “the millions of American men who grew up deprived of the romance and debonair elegance of formal wear and the memorable moments for which it is worn.”

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — Radio/TV Correspondents’ Dinner — Pictured: (l-r) Chevy Chase, Gerald Ford, White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen on March 25, 1976 — Photo by: Fred Hermansky/NBCU Photo Bank

Mid & Late ’70s Fashion: The Classics Reborn

Neatly dovetailed with this social transition was the migration of women’s fashion designers into the new world of men’s couture.  Practically overnight, GQ shifted its focus from mass-marketed tuxedos which had never cost more than $175 to chic evening suits styled by likes of Pierre Cardin and Yves St. Laurent and priced at up to $900.  As a consequence of these developments, informal tuxedo variations such as colored jackets and pastel shirts were swept away by a tide of classic black and white in the pages of menswear magazines.  Neo-Edwardian excesses like velvet trim, satin edging, and embroidered ruffles followed suit shortly after.

1972 Phil D'Antoni, Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda and William Friedkin - note bow ties size and ruffled shirts

1972 Phil D’Antoni, Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda and William Friedkin – note bow ties size and ruffled shirts

Not content with simply discarding the contemporary innovations of the sixties, period designers also set about restoring black-tie details not seen since the tuxedo’s golden age.  The September 1974 issue of Esquire exhibited a designer formal suit of “unerring elegance” featuring wool-gabardine material, grosgrain lapels and the return of the long-absent matching waistcoat described as “a classic touch that looks new again”.   The traditionally styled ensemble was finished off with a flourish by a wing collar, appearing with a tuxedo for the first time since World War II.

During this time patent leather pumps also returned to popularity and the gradual narrowing of formal neckwear precipitated the reappearance of the straight-end bow tie.  The renaissance of classic black tie arguably reached its zenith in 1979 when designers reintroduced the shield-shaped waistcoat, a formal wear detail virtually unknown for the previous fifty years.  When combined with a return to conventional styling – looser cuts, narrower lapels and straighter trousers – some late seventies tuxedos appeared nearly indistinguishable from those of black tie’s 1930s heydays.

There were some new twists on the old classics, though.  A number of single-breasted jackets were sporting two or three buttons and contemporary waistcoats were being styled more like suit vests with a high cut and no lapels.  The wing collar shirt, in particular, had undergone significant changes.  Originally introduced in the 1960s, the modern version had a soft, attached collar instead of one that was detachable and stiff, and the previously rare appearance of an accompanying pleated bosom was now standard.  There was no doubt that this new style was much more comfortable than the original but in traditionalists’ minds it was also infinitely less formal – particularly as its once grand collar became reduced to paltry proportions towards the decade’s end.

70s tuxedo and sunglasses - note the DB dinner jacket is worn unbuttoned and the vest peeks through in the middle

70s tuxedo and sunglasses – note the DB dinner jacket is worn unbuttoned and the vest peeks through in the middle

Mid & Late ’70s Etiquette: Paradox


In December 1974 GQ announced “There’s a new day dawning and it’s bringing back manners . . . refresh your memory with a copy of Amy Vanderbilt and/or Emily Post.”  Readers who picked up the 1975 edition of the latter book would have found its black-tie guidelines were essentially unchanged since ten years prior.  Similarly, the 1978 completely revised edition of the Amy Vanderbilt tome noted that evening wear seemed to have become more formal even as men’s daytime dress grew more informal.  First and foremost, classic black remained the preferred choice, particularly in winter; colors, patterns, and piping were simply “not elegant”.  Conversely, informal summer black-tie evenings still allowed for colorful jackets or trousers worn with black counterparts.

1973 textured tuxedo shirt

1973 textured tuxedo shirt

Underneath a man’s jacket, the new author advised that white, off-white or pastel shirts in cotton or silk were acceptable but agreed with her contemporary that ruffled, flouncy shirts were not in good taste (“and never were, in the opinion of many”).Guidelines offered by fashion pundits continued to be much more lenient.  For example, whether due to ignorance of custom or simple ambivalence towards it, menswear magazines began issuing formalwear protocols that contradicted nearly a century of tradition.

Thus at the same time that they were hailing evening wear as “an elegant island of rules” that had not been washed away by the tide of fashion democracy, the periodicals were also erroneously referring to the tailcoat as a type of tuxedo, pairing the full-dress coat with black-tie accessories and incorrectly depicting the dinner jacket as being suitable for daytime wear.  Despite the best efforts of the Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt authors to repudiate these fallacies, they became accepted as fact by the American public and still are to this day.  Style books were no better.

Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt in 1974 wearing black tie

Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt in 1974 wearing black tie

The 1976 bestseller Dress for Success heralded the end of fashion’s capitulation to youthful rebellion by offering evidence that conservative colors and styles were essential for a man to advance in business.  However, author John T. Molloy’s treatment of formal wear – arguably the most recognizable symbol of success – was meager, derisive and ill-informed.  While Molloy would backtrack considerably ten years later, by that time the original volume had become a sartorial bible for business schools and blue-chip corporations which no doubt tainted the tuxedo’s integrity in the eyes of millions of men.

Similarly, in 1978 the GQ-inspired hardcover Dressing Right countered a classic description of black tie with the author’s personal ambivalence towards tradition.  “When the invitation says ‘Black Tie’”, Charles Hix summarized, “usually that enjoinder only means that the guest is expected to wear a dinner jacket or something ‘formal’. What style or what color is often beside the point.”

Billy Sims, the 1978 Heisman Trophy winner, is joined by former winners Billy Vessels, left, and Steve Owens, right.


In 1977 GQ was still prescribing tuxedos for diplomatic receptions, balls, and business dinners but contemporary Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt guides suggested that evening wear was being used far less often.

In fact, conventional black-tie occasions such as opera performances, public dinners, and transatlantic crossings were no longer even mentioned in the 1978 Vanderbilt publication. On the brighter side, the Post book noted that tuxedos were once again being worn in some locales to America’s newly re-popularized proms.  And while formal transatlantic crossings had been reduced to a single ship (Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2) due to the economy and convenience of jet travel, pleasure cruises were steadily increasing in popularity making “formal night” a tradition for ever more travelers.

When it came to black tie by invitation, Mrs. Post finally conceded that in a post-modern world it was not realistic to rely on the genteel precept that formal invitations implied formal attire.  Consequently, she accepted the practice of specifying “black tie” on such invitations – an allowance that Mrs. Vanderbilt had first made back in 1963.  Ironically, just as these traditional authorities were updating their advice in order to eliminate dress code confusion, American hosts found a new way to confound their guests: Black Tie Optional had now been added to the formal lexicon.

Robert Redford in 1978 with tiny pre-tied bow tie with textured lapel facings

Robert Redford in 1978 with tiny pre-tied bow tie with textured lapel facings

Status Symbol

In 1973 the authors of Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions had proclaimed that “formal evening wear has ceased to be a status symbol.  It is simply the kind of clothing a man likes to put on when he wants to look and feel his handsomest.”  Like the title of the book, their proclamation turned out to be somewhat premature.  Far more accurate was the observation made five years later in Dressing Right: “Formalwear customs vary according to geographic regions and – let’s be honest – social strata.”

While it was true that for mainstream America the tuxedo had come to be regarded largely as cheaply-made rental attire, the country’s elite had continued to invest in premium quality, conventionally styled ensembles throughout the counterculture revolution, in effect preserving the dinner suit’s exclusive status.  Consequently, when the yuppie phenomenon emerged in the late seventies the advertising industry was quick to adopt the conventional tuxedo as the ideal representation of the luxury lifestyle craved by the demographic.  By the end of the decade black tie had survived its darkest years and was ready for a bright new chapter in its ongoing history.

What’s in a Name?
“Dinner Jacket” Redefined

As matching dinner jacket and trousers returned to favor by 1973 GQ began to consistently refer to the ensemble as a tuxedo, dropping the traditional synonyms such as “dinner suit” which remained standard in the UK.  For most Americans the term dinner jacket was now associated specifically with the non-matching coats that had become so popular over the previous two decades.

Formal Facts:

Black Tie in a Bottle

black tie cologne

black tie cologne

A common downside to iconic status is the tendency for the original to become viewed as little more than a gimmick.  In 1977 a new cologne apparently offered the sublime essence of the evening suit’s century-old tradition in a convenient bottled format.  (Check out the two groovy TV ads on YouTube.)

Tuxedo Rebirth - The Yuppie Years - 1970s
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Tuxedo Rebirth - The Yuppie Years - 1970s
Learn how tuxedos looked in the 70s including John Travolta in velvet piped dinner jackets with huge bow ties, Nicholson and Redford
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