To Cummerbund or Not to Cummberbund

In today’s world of formal affairs, a tuxedo is a staple. Whether you are attending a black tie gala or an elegant wedding, it goes without saying that a tuxedo beats a two piece suit in terms of dressiness and formality. The one question that many tux purchasers have is “Do I need to wear a cummerbund?” Here we will define exactly what a cummerbund is, its purpose, history, and the pros and cons of wearing one.

While fashion today is straying away from strict conservative rules in favor of more modern approaches to dress, some people refuse to part with tradition. Recently, we have seen the rise of midnight navy tuxedos and notched lapels, which add a contemporary spin to a strict black tuxedo. Some men are also choosing to forgo traditional satin stripes on their tuxedo pants. With the surge of fashion reinvention and novelty, there is something completely refreshing about seeing a classic style unfettered with.

A Little History

The cummerbund stands as an homage to the gentleman’s fashion rule book and black tie purity. While we often associate the cummerbund with European aristocracy, the waist covering actually originated in Persian and Indian cultures centuries before the British adopted the accessory in the late nineteenth century. When the British military personnel landed in India around 1850, they noticed that the natives wore bright sashes around their waists, which they called “kamarbands” (kamar means ‘waist’).

As a custom, British army members wore waistcoats underneath their jackets during formal dinners. Being subjected to higher temperatures than they were used to, however, the British sought a solution to gain some kind of relief from the scorching heat in India. At that moment, they looked to the Indians for inspiration and replaced their heavy vests with lighter sashes. Eventually the sashes turned into a pleated covering and thus, the European cummerbund was born. source 1

British officers of the East India Company wearing red and white sashes in 1792.

In addition to importing Asian goods back to London, the British sent home their newly discovered fashions. The cummerbund became an instant hit in Victorian England and soon became a formal attire necessity. By the early 20th century, the cummerbund made its way over to the United States, debuting in Tuxedo Park, New York, where the “Black Tie” dress code originated. Elite New Yorkers sought for ways to distinguish themselves during formal events and chose to incorporate a waist covering and black bow tie along with their tuxedos. source 2

The Whys and Hows

One of the mandates of proper Black Tie attire is the ruling principle that “the working parts of one’s ensemble must be covered or dressed” ( source 2).  For this reason, tuxedo jackets have satin facing, standard shirt buttons are replaced by studs and/or cuff links, and tuxedo pants are adorned with a satin stripe on their outer seams. A waistband covering is a necessity in Black Tie attire as well and it streamlines one’s formal outfit by eliminating shirt bunching.

The Right way to wear a cummerbund
The Right way to wear a cummerbund

The correct way to wear a cummerbund is with its pleats facing upwards (we outline the reasons for this in the next section) around the the natural waist line. While wearing a cummerbund, trousers should sit at the navel. Half of the cummerbund should cover one’s shirt and half should cover one’s trousers. Finally, a bow tie (preferably in a matching fabric) should accompany a cummerbund.

Fashion Meets Practicality

The term “crumb-catchers” is often pinned to the cummerbund. A cummerbund’s upward facing pleats lend several advantages: first, they literally catch crumbs while a diner eats, secondly, they serve as clever ticket holders–a practice, which the aristocracy used during symphony outings.

Asides from having unexpected utility purpose, cummerbunds also tend to slim a man’s silhouette and lengthen his torso. Furthermore, a cummerbund’s wearer stays cooler than someone who wears a vest under his jacket. Hence, they are an attractive option during warm-weather months.

Cummerbund vs Vest

According to tuxedosonline.com, one of the advantages to wearing a vest underneath a tuxedo jacket for a formal event is that one has the option to take off their jacket and still look put together. Of course one can also take off their jacket, while wearing a cummerbund, but the look seems a bit undone. Meanwhile, an advantage to wearing a cummerbund with a bowtie is that the wearer can select special cufflinks and studs that dress up their tuxedo.

Generally, a cummerbund is a more traditional option for a Black Tie event, while a vest can be modernized. For those men, who prefer wearing a bowtie over a long tie, we would advise choosing a vest for a formal occasion, since a cummerbund mandates a matching bowtie.  In terms of comfort, the cummerbund can be perceived as a more comfortable option since the wearer stays cooler and has more “wiggle room” than a vest wearer.

A splash of burgundy adds subtle drama
A splash of burgundy adds subtle drama

As formal dress codes become less strict, selecting cummerbunds in colors other than black and patterns becomes more common. Today, cummerbunds can be made in various colors; popular options are deep burgundy, midnight navy, or amethyst (for White Tie events, white cummerbunds are readily available). With a splash of color around the waist, a formal ensemble becomes more unique and personalized to its wearer.

The battle of the cummerbund vs vest is an old one, but we know who the winner is in James Bond’s book!