Classic White Tie Evening Tailcoat (or Dress Coat)

“With an evening coat and a white tie, […] anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized.”

— Oscar Wilde[1]

  “I’m just a hoofer with a spare set of tails.”

— Fred Astaire

[caption id="attachment_252" align="aligncenter" width="383"]Caricature of Mr John Delacour in Formal Attire Caricature of Mr John Delacour in Formal Attire[/caption]       Even the most traditional black-tie attire brings with it with a variety of choices: lapel style, breastedness, number of buttons, color (to some extent), dress shirt and collar style, type of waist-covering, cufflink style and color, (etc., etc.). Traditional white tie (or full dress) attire, on the other hand, leaves very little (if any) room for variation: “All that was needed was to tailor its established proportions to the wearer’s frame, and presto: its debonair magic turned average men into movie stars.”[2]   In fact, the white-tie “uniform” itself has barely changed in the past 200 years; the one exception being when its front was altered so as not to be worn closed.[3]   Of course, the fact that full-dress attire requires very few decisions on your part makes pulling off the look both easier and more difficult. No, you don’t have to worry about choosing the right dress shirt to go with the right lapel style, or whether your bow tie matches your cummerbund. Instead, the cut and fit of your full dress suit must be impeccable, as there are absolutely no distractions to cover up any little piece of the outfit that’s not quite right. (Not to mention the fact that, at a highly formal event, you’ll be surrounded by identically dressed men—at least some of whom are able to pull off white tie with elegant perfection!)    


The tailcoat is without question the star of your white-tie ensemble—the “king of all male civilian garments”[4]—meaning that it’s extra-important to capture its requirements and proper measurements in order to ensure perfect fit.

Dress Coat vs. Morning Coat

First, I must note that, when I’ve used the word “tailcoat” thus far (the way it’s typically used in the US), I’ve done so intending to refer to the evening tailcoat, or dress coat. In fact, there are actually two types of tailcoats still worn today (making the generic term “tailcoat” potentially ambiguous): the dress coat and the morning coat (or “cutaway coat”). While we rarely see morning coats in the US today, they are still worn (on occasion) in Britain at formal and semi-formal events such as daytime weddings or the races at Ascot.[5] [caption id="attachment_251" align="aligncenter" width="332"]Morning Coat Sketch (Drawing made by David Ring, commissioned by Europeana Fashion, scanned by team of MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp) Morning Coat Sketch (By David Ring, commissioned by Europeana Fashion, scanned by team of MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp)[/caption]   The most important difference between the dress coat and the morning coat—in fact, what separated them into two separate garments (other than color) in the first place—is the cut of the garments’ front. While the double-breasted dress coat was altered so that it must be worn without buttoning, the single-breasted morning coat retained the original tailcoat button stance.[6] Keep this in mind just in case you ever find yourself considering a single-breasted dress coat for your next white-tie affair: don’t do it! there’s no such thing![7]  

Dress Coat Specifications

“Tailcoats were once akin to Fords: it was a point of pride that the model seldom changed.” — Alan Flusser[8]   Unlike dinner jackets, which are made with a variety of lapel styles—shawl collars, peaked lapels, and (depending on whom you ask) notched lapels—the tailcoat’s lapels are always peaked. However, like the dinner jacket, a tailcoat’s lapels may be faced in either satin or grosgrain silk. Finally, your tailcoat’s lapels should be quite substantial in breadth[9]—though not quite to the extent of the super-wide lapels popularized by the US 1950s “Bold Look”!   As mentioned previously, the modern tailcoat is always double-breasted and never buttons in front. Despite their obsolescence, though, you’ll still find buttons at the front of your tailcoat (three on each side). In addition, tailcoats are always constructed with two buttons and a single vent in back (just before the fitted upper part of the coat ends and the tails begin). These decorations are said to be left over from the tailcoat’s earliest days as a riding coat: when one might attach a sword to the back of one’s coat or button back the long tails for ease of riding, for example.[10]   Finally, like the dinner jacket, the tailcoat’s sleeves are tapered and cut just long enough for 1/2 - 3/4 inches of cuff to show. Like the dinner jacket, there are always four closely set buttons at the sleeve’s end, usually covered in the same kind of silk as the lapel facing.  

Fitting the Dress Coat

Because the dress coat is such a perfectly tailored garment meant for only the most important occasions, it absolutely must fit correctly. Fortunately, Alan Flusser provides helpful specifications[11] for ensuring your tailcoat’s proper fit—whether you’ve chosen to rent or buy.  
  1. The tailcoat is always cut on a straight line to the knee; its front points should finish at the hipbone (or thereabouts).
  2. The properly fitted tailcoat is somewhat snug across the chest (though you should be able to move!): the fit should be as close as if the coat were buttoned.
  3. The buttons at the back of the coat should sit just above your hips; the coat’s tails should fall straight down the legs and end just below the back of the knee.
  4. The collar should be high enough to completely cover both the stud at the back of your dress shirt’s collar and your bowtie—while leaving at least 3/4 inch of wing collar exposed. (Note: if this is impossible, you probably need a higher wing collar!)
  5. The tailcoat’s front must sit low enough so that when moving around, dancing, lifting your arms, etc., the sides of your waistcoat aren’t accidentally revealed!
  6. Finally, the front points of the dress waistcoat must never, ever be lower than the front points of the tailcoat.
  According to Flusser, you should remember #3 and #6 above all else. After all, “The only dressing errors egregious enough to scuttle [the tailcoat’s] perfection were if a waistcoat’s points extended below those of the tailcoat’s front (a common occurrence today) or if the length of the coat’s tails were not resting exactly in line with the back of the man’s knees.”[12]       Though there are rather a lot of guidelines—or, in the case of white tie apparel, very strict rules!—to keep in mind when selecting your tailcoat, this actually makes the white-tie code significantly easier to imitate. All you have to do is follow the rules precisely, and you’re guaranteed a look that clearly surpasses all other menswear styles when it comes to sheer elegance and class. [1] Wilde, from The Picture of Dorian Gray. [2] Flusser (1996), 73. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Though noted, I will continue to use the term “tailcoat” to refer to the evening coat, as has become common practice in the US. To avoid confusion, I’ll always use the term “morning coat” in full. [6] Flusser (1996), 73. [7] I don’t mean to suggest that a morning coat isn’t acceptable as a non-traditional formalwear option: it’s just not an acceptable white tie or full dress option. (In fact, morning coats are discussed further in our “Formal Wear Variations” section.) [8] Flusser (2002), 234. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] All fitting information to follow comes from Flusser (2002), 234-5. [12] Flusser (1996) 73-4.