The Art of the Semi-Formal
The rise and rise of the semi-formal, and its dumbed-down cousin, the smart casual
There was a time when men dressed for dinner, and then post-dinner would change into a rich velvet jacket (at times worn over the regular suit) for a smoke with the boys. The ladies meanwhile retired to the salon with hot beverages for company. Once the smoking and the boy banter was over, they changed again and re-joined the group. This tradition gave its name to the smoking jacket, a thick warm overcoat that both insulated against the cold and absorbed the tobacco smoke, thus keeping the gentlemen smelling not-entirely-repulsive as they rejoined their wives. Today people barely wear one jacket for a dinner.
Enter the semi-formal or the smart-casual and things were never the same again. Not surprisingly, it was an American who came up with the nifty idea of button-down shirts, that very balanced fine line between cutaway formal and sloppy flannel-y casual. The idea germinated when John E. Brooks, the grandson of the brand’s founder, happened to be at a polo match in London (circa 1896) and astutely observed that somehow the players managed to keep their collars stiff and upright even through the most daunting of chukkers. Upon closer observation he noticed that it wasn’t held in place with collar bones or pins (as they can be dangerous during a rugged game) but instead simply buttoned down upon themselves. Nifty little trick, but it did the job perfectly.
John Brooks returned to his bespoke brand back home in the States and decided to apply the idea to shirts and thus was born a neo-classic, a button-down shirt and a Brooks Brothers legacy. Although the brand has many other firsts to their credit (oldest cloth merchants, first to introduce Madras Checks and Harris Tweed in the US) their most prized claim-to-fame to date remains the fact that all American presidents wear these very same button-downs in office. And when the American president does something it becomes a sort of a world trend. For e.g., when John F. Kennedy decided to not wear his hat in public it spelt the death knell for the Fedoras and the Bowlers and just like that, all hats went out of style.
The semi-formal is pretty much a creation that originated on the newer side of that pond called the Atlantic and then went `viral’ (or whatever term was a la mode back then). Why? Well, mostly because it’s convenient and easy to adhere to. A versatile style statement that allows for variety and mixing, and is as much at home in a board room as in the local pub. So the next time you pair a button-down shirt with trousers, a dark jacket, rubber-soled wingtips, and maybe throw in a pocket kerchief for flair, you are doing the semi-formal.
The smart casual is a further dumbed-down version which does away with the jacket and leaves you looking like an oversized schoolboy. While one can always lament the passing of the era of smoking jackets and perfectly balanced bowlers, the thing about fashion is it has a way of reinventing itself by reinvigorating elements from yesteryears. Perhaps, even as you read this, another dressing code is being deconstructed, or being conveniently replaced with a new norm.