'Monkey-suit' misfits: Men unhappily trussed up by the women in their lives

The tuxedo, according to a story in our business section the other day, is making a big comeback.

"Much of this growth," said staff writer Bruce Horovitz, "is credited to President Reagan. Not only does he look smashing in fancy attire, but he also wears tuxedos with the same regularity that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, wore cardigan sweaters."

Horovitz also noted that next year the tuxedo will be 100 years old, having been invented at Tuxedo Park, N.Y., in 1886, by a chap named Griswold Lorillard, who had the cheek to show up at a ball in a short coat and black tie instead of the traditional white tie and tails. The style caught on.

Naturally the tuxedo business fell on hard times in the '60s and '70s, when the trend was toward blue jeans and T-shirts, even for weddings; but the conservative movement of the '80s has brought it back, even though it costs about $60 to rent one, and more for one with a "designer" label.

What fascinates me about tuxedos is why men wear them. Granted, a tuxedo is a lot less showy than a white tie and tails, but most men still resent having to wear one, which is why it is generally called a "monkey suit."

Obviously, men wear tuxedos because women want them to. But why would a woman want her man to dress just like every other man, when she wouldn't be caught dead wearing the same gown as another woman?

Women like men to provide a neutral, colorless background for the display of their own garments; imagining, I suppose, that they will show to much better advantage in their fashionable get-ups if they are seen on the arm of a man who has wiped himself out, made himself a cipher, by dressing entirely in black and white, like some Art Deco object.

It may just be that women like their men to be in uniform, as if they would be much more controllable and disciplined that way, and a tuxedo is the closest thing to a uniform that a civilian gentleman can be made to wear. It is significant, I think, that at really ritzy affairs gentlemen are permitted to wear their medals with their tuxedos.

Also, most men are poor dressers, and left on his own, a man will usually turn up in a polyester check that makes him look like an off-duty narc. Rather than risk having their men make buffoons of themselves, and consequently of them, most women prefer to encase them all in standard black, so that they look alike, and can't attract any attention.

Whenever you get an invitation that says "Black Tie" you can be sure that it was made by some woman; no man would deliberately ask his guests to wear tuxedos. It is always the women's doing.

Naturally it is traditional for bridegrooms to wear tuxedos at weddings. It is thought, I suppose, that this will add a touch of class to the ceremony; but actually it is symbolic of the man's deference to the woman's institutions, her dominance. It was she who decided that he would wear a tuxedo. She wears bridal white, of course, as a symbol of her chastity; and he wears the uniform of his sex, as a symbol of his servitude.

I have owned two tuxedos in my life, and rented a good many. I remember the anguish sometimes occasioned by my failure to prepare for a black-tie affair.

Only a few years ago I was invited to a garden party in June. There was to be a dinner, after which I was to be among a group of persons to be honored at a ceremony. Since it was outdoors, and summertime, I assumed that I ought to wear a white dinner jacket. I tried two or three tuxedo rental shops on my orbit and found nothing I could rent. I wound up buying one. I was the only one who turned up at the party in a white dinner jacket. I have never worn it since.

I bought a tuxedo to be married in, and didn't wear it again until many years after the war. In fact, by then I had a grown son and a daughter-in-law. I got out the old tuxedo and found I could still get into it, and came out into the living room, where my wife and daughter-in-law were waiting. They smirked. They snickered. Finally my daughter-in-law began holding her stomach and giggling hysterically.

"What's wrong?' I asked.

"Nozing, Mr. Smith," she said, trying to reassure me. "It is all right."

But the damage was done.

"Is something wrong with my tuxedo?" I asked.

My wife said, "It is a little out of date."

I had thought tuxedos never went out of date. That was their only virtue. I went back in the bedroom and took it off and put on a blue suit. Not long after that I bought a tuxedo, which I still wear.

Why don't men rebel against this custom? There are minor rebellions, small acts of defiance that do not strike at the institution itself. Some men now wear plaid jackets and ties; some gold lame. I even have a plaid tie, but I wear it rarely. Last year I bought a rainbow-colored tie to wear at the black-tie opening of the French Impressionist exhibit at the Museum of Art. I haven't worn it since.

Finally, we all go back to black and white.

That's what women want.

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