In a world in which stability seems a lost art, is it any wonder that "the tuxedo is in a state of flux"?
Mark Werts, who put the problem so precisely, is not complaining. His idea of a modern tuxedo can be as unconventional as a cropped black blazer worn over jodhpurs and boots. It is a look he calls "Out of Africa" and sells to younger men at his Los Angeles store, American Rags Cie.
But even classical style makers on the city's social circuit--lawyer Sheldon Andelson, financier David Haft, TV executive Douglas S. Cramer among them--say they have come to appreciate, if not indulge in, variations on the traditional tux.
It's as if fashion conservatives and liberals alike have contracted a form of the seven-year itch. In this case, it's not all that serious. They are, after all, flirting with formal wear, not family loyalty.
But it is ironic that this minor rebellion comes at a time in history when the tuxedo is celebrating its centennial year.
The marriage of the "formal" dress code to the black-and-white tuxedo was itself a revolutionary event. It took place in 1886, when a tobacco heir named Griswold Lorillard of Tuxedo Park, New York, attended an autumn ball wearing a black dinner jacket instead of a conventional jacket with tails.
This 100th anniversary of the Lorillard look may well be remembered as the year the tuxedo turned "sporty."
It doesn't take much to dress down the archconservative suit, which includes a black, single-breasted jacket with satin lapels and black trousers with a single, satin stripe on each leg. A white shirt with or without wing collar, gemstone cuff links and studs and black cummerbund complete the outfit.
For Cramer, a conservative dresser who owns six tuxedos, including several that are custom-made (one by Ralph Lauren and one by Giorgio Armani), such seemingly insignificant details as a double-breasted jacket or gold instead of diamond studs make a tuxedo seem casual.
He says the newest trend he sees among conservative men in formal wear is a preference for the double-breasted jacket to the single-breasted style. His explanation for it is that "double-breasted suits for day are very popular now."
Haft, who is credited with navigating the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Nicholas Nickleby" to the Music Center this spring, says he gives many black-tie dinner parties at home because "it makes for a more festive occasion."
And he finds more black-tie invitations in his mail these days. If the invitation advises that black tie is optional, however, he, like most men, opts out.
"I don't want to look as if I work there," he says.
Andelson, a self-professed "starchy guy," wears classic black and white for about half the dinner parties he gives at home, as well as for other social events.
Despite his conservative style, he isn't above admiring such variations as tuxedos with tennis shoes, with antique brooches on the lapels, with red or paisley or striped bow ties instead of traditional black. And he likes the vintage tuxedo look.
Given his youthful fashion bent, Andelson is inclined to relax the black-tie rules for himself as well. He wears shirts with buttons, not studs, for example. "Studs are awkward, and right now, they're out," he says.
He gets a charge out of choosing flamboyant linings for his custom-made formal wear. His jackets are lined in red, in Glen plaid and in black and white.
He attributes some of the enthusiasm for black-tie invitations to President Reagan's many formal-dress occasions at the White House. And he's developed his own definition of hip formal wear; it's classic black and white with something unusual added. Or, in his words: "traditional garb with a zing."
For men on the verge of buying their first tuxedo, a conventionalist's list of designer-label choices is long. But every list carries certain names among the top five: Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and Calvin Klein.
The "Dynasty" tuxedo, made by After Six, is named for the smooth-styled Blake Carrington (John Forsythe), who often wears a tux on the nighttime soap. Actor Robert Wagner has a tux named for him, made by Raffinati. And the most recent addition to the celebrity suit list, by After Six, is the "Miami Vice" tuxedo with colored jackets of flamingo pink and fiesta blue.
For men who might want to try a few variations before making a purchase, tuxedo rental stores can be a useful first step.
At the six Tuxedo Center rental shops around Los Angeles, general manager Ernie Johnson says the taste goes something like this:
"Kids on their way to proms this spring wanted to look different. They rented tails and white or black ties.
"Young executives, yuppies, mix conservative with flair. They might wear a metallic tie. Something that states they're not wearing their father's tuxedo.
"With an older man, I seldom even ask what color he wants. It is almost always all black and white."
Johnson says the new fashionableness of formal weddings has increased his business in the past five years.
"Tuxedo rentals for wedding parties are up about 25% to 30%," he explains. Traditional cutaways, with a dark gray jacket and pin stripe pants, are most in demand for that occasion.
The recent return to formal events and the tuxedos (with or without zing) that go with them has given Robert Beaty, president of the American Formalwear Assn., to expect quite an occasion in September when the group's 400-plus members gather to celebrate the tuxedo's 100th birthday at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
"Some of us," he says, "will arrive in horse and buggy."