Tuxedo Suits which were originally created by Henry Poole and Co. – The first Bespoke Tailor and father of Savile Row- appears to be more popular today than the topcoat although both have been around for almost the same amount of time. The Topcoat – that practical piece of outerwear- is the closest connection the modern man has to the supreme elegance of Edwardian and Victorian Tailcoats. Why is the topcoat then not as common a sight as tuxedo suits in today’s time?
This apparently was not always the case. During most of the 19th century in England, the morning coat was standard attire for a gentleman outside of formal occasions and hence more commonly used than Tuxedo Suits. It was single-breasted, finished just above the knee and was made of a wool that, although heavy by modern standards, was not considered the ultimate protection from the elements.
Unlike tuxedo suits, the modern topcoat certainly has echoes in both morning and frock coats. It is interesting to notice how close the topcoat is even to the original late 17th-century suit. This ultimate ancestor of the male bespoke suit became popular during the late 17th century when Charles II returned to England. It comprised a long waistcoat, knew breeches and mid-length coat in the same material.
Of course, there are many ways in which these bespoke coats differ from a modern topcoat and definitely bear no resemblance to the tuxedo suits. Some tailcoats, such as the dress coat, are actually cut square across the waist and don’t fasten in the middle; the morning coat is tapered similarly but sharply at the waist (reflecting its origin as a riding attire). But the most stylish topcoats are also, one could argue, one-or two-button affairs with a similar swish to the skirt, unlike the tuxedo which is strictly one-button.
However, the sharp cut of a topcoat, just like tuxedo suits, certainly connotes glamour. It is the mark of the Man About Town. It swaggers and commands attention. It is old Hollywood with the likes of Fred Astaire in Top Hat or Gary Cooper in just about anything. Fred Astaire, especially wore many things in Top Hat (including a rather fetching and flowing cape) but he is best known for the morning coat that flew behind him as he danced and sang ‘Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails’, surrounded by a similarly clothed backing troupe. Gary Cooper, meanwhile, had a predilection for peak lapel coats with a fly front. Never was he seen with a tuxedo or a dinner suit or anything with even a slight resemblance to a shawl lapel. He is pictured in such a model several times over the years, most famously with Mexican actress Lupe Velez in 1929. And while such a coat has the ability to fasten three or even four buttons for warmth, it is most flattering buttoned to a single, central button and allowed to flow from the waist. The single waist button gives any garment – jacket, topcoat or tuxedo jacket – a fulcrum on which to fix the lapels and begin the long sweep of the foreparts.
The fact that most topcoats and dinner jackets are cut with one waist button and either a peak or a shawl lapel, put them on the formal end of the menswear spectrum – a view that goes back to those original tailcoats. For when the morning coat was originally introduced, in the middle of the 19th century, it was commonly found with both peaked and notched lapels. This was a time when it was considered relatively informal, or half dress, with the frock coat being the most formal option. Gradually, the morning coat replaced the frock coat and was worn almost exclusively with peaked lapels.
The same has happened in reverse with tuxedo suits in the 20th century. More and more are now made with the shawl lapel as men consider them less and less formal (or we have to presume they do, given how willing they are to wear cheap rental tuxedos). One more reason, perhaps, to hold on to the swagger of the topcoat over and above tuxedo suits.
The term ‘topcoat’ has not been used consistently over the years, unlike tuxedo suits which have always had a constant definition. In fact, it dropped out of use entirely at one point and has often been conflated with the overcoat in the nomenclature. We can define it in contrast to the overcoat, as the outer layer that is both shorter and lighter in weight. It finishes on or just above the knew and adds warmth and protection from the elements, but without the bulk of an overcoat. Partly for that reason, it is usually single breasted.
Defining it thus, by virtue of its weight, length, and use helps to understand why the topcoat is so inherently stylish compared to tuxedo suits. It is appealing because it is so versatile. It can be sporty as a blazer over knitwear and jeans or elegant with a suit and tie. Today, the style and range of can be quite vast but the recognizable elements of the close waist and flowing tails are always there. Such is the appeal of the 19th-century tailcoats angular lines and flattering proportions that it has survived, in form if not in name, as every gentleman’s go-to coat.