Prom-bound young men find transformation in tuxedos A Dash of Debonair

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A high school kid in white socks steps out of the dressing room and looks down at the black jacket sleeves, shaking his arms. He seems confused. Whose clothes are these anyway?

He walked in wearing his own clothes: baggy blue jeans, white T-shirt, white sneakers. Next thing he's standing at the three-sided mirror peering at a trio of guys with whom he is vaguely acquainted, all wearing this black costume. Joseph Marshall meet Joseph Marshall -- he's the tall, blond crew cut standing on the right, the center and the left. He's the one in the tuxedo. Joseph Marshall meet your tuxedo, the first one of your life.

"It feels tight, like around the arms, around the shoulders," says Joseph, a junior at Southern Senior High School with a Friday night date for the junior prom at the downtown Holiday Inn. "I think it's because I'm not used to it."

Kid, you never get used to it. Not unless you grow up to be Belgian ambassador or conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. At least a maitre d'. The point is to not get used to it. Slip into a tux, slip into a limousine; both bear you away. Yeah, yeah, a rite of passage. But mostly a Halloween party. You step out as Fred Astaire or James Bond or Noel Coward or Humphrey Bogart.

In a few minutes, Joseph Marshall walks out of S. Hiken Formal Wear in Highlandtown carrying his alter ego on a wire hanger.

It's prom season, and guys are streaming into tuxedo stores, guys with nose rings and earrings and uncuffed jeans frayed from dragging the pavement. Guys with bad attitudes and skull tattoos and hats on backward who approach a tux pickup with the sort of enthusiasm usually reserved for gum surgery.

Suddenly these fellows who go around looking like laundry with eyes are grappling with the choice of single-breasted vs. double, cummerbund vs. vest, shawl collar vs. notch lapel, pleated shirt vs. plain.

So many details, so many questions. Consider the shawl collar's graceful descent from the shoulder. Contemplate your body lines. Do the peg pants cut a more --ing silhouette? Is the cummerbund doing anything for your profile? How does that cummerbund thing work, anyway? Vents up or down? Hooks in the back? Why suddenly does this feel like cross-dressing?

Jason Glass, 18, a slim, 6-foot-6 senior at John Carroll High School looks like he was born to wear a tuxedo. He's picking up a black single-breasted Pierre Cardin with a red cummerbund, red tie -- the second tux of his life. The first one, he says, made him feel different "like, older." Brian Krug of Dundalk: "I felt rich."

Pick your illusion: maturity, wealth, noblesse oblige. No wonder magicians wear tuxedos. Into the booth goes a schlump. POOF -- out comes Dom Perignon, striding glass in hand across the casino to the baccarat table.

Pick your illusion, says the International Formalwear Association. Two years ago the organization based in Chicago did a telephone survey of 501 men, trying to figure how guys feel when they put on a tuxedo. About six in 10 said "handsome" and "sophisticated." One in three said "special," whatever that means. A quarter of the men surveyed picked this illusion: "sexy." John Bridges, 19, of Towson offers a different adjective: "geeky."

He remembers his first tux: last year at the Lutheran High School senior prom. He hated it. Says he found his style utterly cramped.

Imagine, the tuxedo was apparently born of an urge to cut loose. Over a century ago it seemed daring.

The most commonly told story traces the origins of the American tuxedo to a 3,000-acre hunting club in Tuxedo Park, N.Y. Built in the 1880s by tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV, the Tuxedo Park Club included such members as William Waldorf Astor, Grenville Kane, director of the Erie Railroad, and Allen T. Rice, editor of the North American Review.

Blame it on the prince

Also a fellow named James Brown Potter, who in the summer of 1886 was invited to England by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. The prince by then had taken to wearing a short, black jacket for dinner rather than the full tail coat. Apparently he found tails too stuffy, too confining. Potter saw the short jacket, liked it and had one made for himself.

When Potter returned to the United States, he wore the black jacket around the Tuxedo Club, and it caught on. So much so that a few younger members felt the need to lampoon the new fashion. Griswold Lorillard, Pierre's youngest son, got a group of friends to lop the tails off their formal black coats, slip the coats on over scarlet waistcoats and saunter into the Tuxedo Club Ball in autumn 1886. Guests were stunned.

Young Griswold, wrote the gossip sheet Town Topics, looked "like a royal footman." Onlookers felt that "the boys ought to have been put in straitjackets long ago."

The tuxedo had arrived.

S. Rudofker's Sons formal wear opened in Philadelphia in 1903, later to be known as After Six, the biggest tux maker in the world. The company manufactured the midnight blue jacket in the 1920s, based on a color introduced by Edward VII's grandson, the new Prince of Wales. In the late 1950s, apparently without consulting British royalty, After Six produced a jacket the color of Pepto-Bismol. That was just the beginning of something even the rambunctious Griswold could never have imagined, horrors that make men wince with the memory.

Some men forget their first tuxedo. Some only wish they could, especially if they wore it in the 1960s or 1970s. In those days, tux makers were apparently working to discredit the old saw that says any bozo looks good in a tux. What were they up to? Winged tuxedos. Cummerbunds on peyote. Tuxedos the color of fruit sherbet. "Edwardian" jackets with parabolic velvet collars and shirts poofed like meringue. Stanley Hiken can laugh about it now, so many years after his Brilliant Idea.

He's the son of Sam Hiken, who nearly 70 years ago started on Baltimore Street and Broadway what is now Maryland's largest chain of formal wear stores. Mr. Hiken, 67, has been running the business since his father died in 1948 and was a seasoned salesman the day he walked into the After Six factory showroom to peruse the new spring line.

As he recalls, it was the late 1970s, the tail of a decade when taste took a holiday. Perhaps Mr. Hiken was humming something by the Captain and Tennille when he walked in and saw the checkered tuxedos with the loopy Barnum & Bailey lapels. The Check Windsor, they called it.

"You ever see in an Italian restaurant, the red and white check? . . . That's what it was," says Mr. Hiken. They were yellow, green, red, blue, pink, lavender, gray -- 11 colors in all. He bought the whole spectrum, 1,500 tuxedos.

"I loved them," Mr. Hiken says, laughing. He was not completely alone in this view, but close. "I became the laughing stock of the East Coast."

He insists, however, that he rented some, meaning people actually wore them in public. But then, people also wore the pink tuxedos. And the Nehru tuxedos that were in style for about eight weeks in the late 1960s, that strange interlude in America when every formal occasion looked like Gandhi's funeral.

Where did all the Nehru jackets go? Where do all the tuxedos go?

The party tux

By closing time the next business day, the tux goes back to the store. You go home and revert to the unenhanced version of yourself, rent a movie and settle in with Doritos. The tux moves on to another life. The tux is always moving on, always dancing, drinking, dining. What a life -- the Buddhist cycle of existence with catering. If a tux could talk, it would have strong opinions about hors d'oeuvres.

Silently, the tuxedo draws young men into another level of experience. Steadily, the prom crowd streams into formal wear shops to slip into hyper-self. They feel rich, odd, weird, adult. No problem, says Derrell Gilchrist, an 18-year-old from Baltimore City. He says he never acts differently in a tuxedo. His black shawl collar model will merely bring out his cosmopolitan core, his inner tux, as it were.

"I think it's a part of my character," he says, "being distinctive."

He eases the black jacket over his husky frame, tugs the lapels and stands before a three-way mirror. Consider the three sides of Derrell Gilchrist. Each in a tux. Each in a two-tone baseball cap. Perfect.

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