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What is a Tailcoat?

By Mandi R. Hall
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Though often referred to as an all-encompassing type of mens' formal wear, a tailcoat is technically a specific kind of formal jacket. Given their name because of the two signifying “tails” that trail below the coat, these jackets remained in style over a century after their inception in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Also called by other names, such as the swallowtail or claw hammer jacket, the coat may also be referred to as simply one’s “tails.” Generally made with black fabric, these suit coats constitute full evening dress for men and also conform to white tie dress codes.

In the early 19th century, tailcoats were made for men who needed to both ride a horse and wear formal dress without it getting in the way. So, while such a jacket was originally manufactured out of necessity, it is now regarded as one of the most elegant, yet somewhat useless articles of clothing. Rarely worn in the 21st century outside of the theater or celebrity or royal circles, tailcoats may never fully go out of style due to their sophistication and historical significance.

Worn primarily for white tie functions — generally after 6pm, though it’s not a steadfast rule — tails indicate formality and are therefore often donned by members of high society or the government. Though they are most often worn in the evening, these coats may also be worn during the day, at which point they would then constitute “morning dress,” which is daytime’s equivalent to evening dress. There are subtle differences between the evening and the morning jacket.

Though there are many forms of tailcoats, many fashion designers and tailors still refer to them as “dress coats” to differentiate between the swallowtail and either the standard suit or tux coat. The tailcoat is much longer in the back than the front. From the neck down, it only reaches the waist in the front and on the sides. There is typically a space between the bottom of the coat and the top of the trousers meant to display the vest worn beneath the jacket.

The jacket is meant to be extremely fitted and is most always tailored specifically to the wearer to accommodate every body’s intricacies. It is worn high on the neck, and the lapel has what is known as “M” notches, which were quite popular in the 19th century. In the back of the jacket, the tails generally reach just below the knees.

Occasionally, pockets are sewn to the inside or outside of the jacket, as are other intricate designs. The tailcoat may or may not be buttoned. Some coats are sewn specifically so that, while it is fitted to the wearer, he is physically unable to fasten it closed.

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Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On Nov 30, 2012

I've seen a butler on television wearing a white tailcoat. Is this something that servants usually wear, or do members of royalty wear the white version as well?

By DylanB — On Nov 29, 2012

I had a friend who had the men in her wedding wear black tailcoats. This gave the event a really royal feel.

The whole wedding was very regal and expensive. Her parents were rich, and they pulled out all the stops to make a good impression on the guests. The tailcoats were a big part of this.

By wavy58 — On Nov 28, 2012

@Kristee – The majority of women's tailcoats I have seen for sale have been part of ringmaster costumes for Halloween. However, there are a few tailcoats for women out there that are highly stylish.

The high price would indicate that they can be worn on formal occasions, though I must admit I've never seen a women in a tailcoat at a prestigious event. The coats button all the way up to the neck, have a straight waistline, and have long tails in the back.

If I could find a cheap knockoff, I wouldn't mind wearing a tailcoat to work. I think they are unique and fashionable.

By Kristee — On Nov 28, 2012

Do ladies ever wear tailcoats? I've seen women wearing tuxedos before, so I just wondered if there were any sort of occasion to which a woman might wear a tailcoat as a fashion statement.

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