Men’s fashion is an ever changing thing. Actually that’s not true. Its very rare that you see something new in menswear, it is a very cyclical thing, for example skinny fit jeans were a thing in the 80’s and unfortunately have been back in style for the last few years. Another example is double breasted jackets, they come and they go and then suddenly a few years later they’re back.
One of the few unchanging things throughout the last hundred years has been black tie. Since it became popular in the 1920’s as a slightly less formal alternative to white tie, very little has changed except fastening (double or single breasted), lapel size, and material the only real change we saw was from waistcoats to cummerbunds, and this is one of those things that goes round and round and round, one year waistcoats are in fashion for black tie, and the next its cummerbunds.
Now as a gentleman with a fairly substantial gut I have been put off wearing a cummerbund as it seems like tying something around my waist would only extenuate this fact, but two weeks ago I gave in, faced my fear and bought my first cummerbund. Admittedly I only got it because I wanted the bow tie that it came with, it was a vintage (that is to say secondhand so therefore cheap) maroon velvet number from the 1970’s that came with a matching bow tie.
It did however make me think, what the hell is point of a cummerbund, they don’t offer any practicality like a waistcoat, but then neither do most of the fundamentals of black tie and men’s formal wear in general, in fact they’re designed to mask practicality. For example buttons on jackets and waistcoats will have a satin facing, shirt buttons are replaced by cuff links and shirt studs, and even trouser lining is covered with a satin stripe. So in that vain a cummerbund is designed to conceal the point where your trousers meet your shirt.
This is where cummerbunds differ from a lot of black tie, because it actually serves a purpose, the garment dates back to the British occupation of India, where the officers needed a cooler (temperature wise, not fashion wise) alternative to the waistcoat. Due to the massive temperature difference from the UK you could see why waistcoats wouldn’t work out too well, and the higher ranking Indian officials used to wear sashes at their waists so the British officers adopted them, and so by the end of the British Occupation of India in the 1950’s the trend has spread around the world.
As well as being a cooler alternative to the formal vest the cummerbund serves to hide the bunching that often occurs where you tuck your shirt in at the waist. And thanks to its pleated design acts as a crumb catcher when eating, thus avoiding any crumbs winding up on your trouser leg, and this is why the correct way to wear a cummerbund is with the pleats facing upward.
Possibly the most important feature, at least from my point of view, is that it makes men look a lot thinner, aesthetically it makes men look thinner and taller, but from my own experience I had it cinched so tight it was like some sort of velvet man girdle.
Now I don’t see them making a comeback for at least a few years, as waistcoats are most definitely “in” at the moment, but I have a few formal things coming over the summer months (a couple of weddings and most likely a few civic things as well) so I think I will be going with a cummerbund, at least until the summer is over.