"I'm puttin' on my top hat, tyin' up my white tie, brushin' off my tails . . ." copyright (c) 1935 Irving Berlin copyright (c) renewed 1962 Irving Berlin Reprinted by permission of Irving Berlin Music Corp.
President-elect Ronald Reagan's shift to a more formal inaugural celebration, a sharp contrast to the informal tone of the Carter administration has revved up a citywide search for long white gloves and other formal accoutrements for women. But the real bonus has fallen to the renters of formal men's clothing in this town and elsewhere.
"I guess we all took the position that if anyone other than Carter was elected things were bound to pick up," said Leonard Maites of Royal Formal & Bridal, one of the largest purveyors of formal garb in this area.Maites said he never expected quite the boom the incoming administration has provided, but figured that being from California "Reagan might be into more glamor."
Months before the election he started freshening up his stock in a huge warehouse in Bladensburg. There, 10,164 jackets hang on double-stacked racks; 16,241 trousers, 20 dozen of 21 styles of shirts, 5,378 vests and 6,649 ties, mostly the tie 'em yourself kind, are piled ceiling high; and 1,241 pairs of shoes are shined and ready to be rented through Royal's 10 stores.
On the chance Reagan might win, Maites ordered 102 more than the usual 100 white ties that wear out each year, boosting his total stock of rental white tie to 652. With the new rental black tuxedos, he built his stock up to 2,177. ("The ones in color don't count for the inaugural," says Maites, who has 8,000 more tuxedos in four shades of blue and ivory.
Maites had counted on white tie for the ball, and had an early clue on the big surprise in the suggested inaugural clothing lineup: the stroller, a charcoal-gray jacket, dove-gray vest, gray striped trousers, pleated-front shirt and four-in-hand tie, which Reagan will wear to the inaugural ceremony. He got the first call from the office of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), chairman of the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, asking about the feasibility of suggesting "black club coat." Maites said there was no problem with availability, but clarified Oxford gray and also known as a club coat, a semi-formal day outfit. He already had more than 200 new strollers on order for spring weddings, so he only had to move ahead the delivery date. (Even the kids who have been wearing strollers in colors, particularly brown, have started asking for the safer, more traditional gray tones. "It is just the safety of something traditional versus a costume look that kids seem to want now," says Maites.)
Instantly, Maites was on the phone to a fellow formal-wear dealer in Detroit asking him to set aside his stock of 400 strollers -- with delivery promised overnight if necessary. Reserve was put on similar suits in New Jersey. And from the manufacturer, Lord West, Maites got a listing of just which cities were getting their latest cutting of 2,000 strollers. "Everyone is anxious to rent their merchandise. In fact they would be thrilled if I called them," says Maites. Nothing romantic like wanting to have their goods shown off at the inaugural, but strictly good business.
So far there has been no stampede of the rental stores. Ignacy Kunin of Art Custom Tailors in Georgetown says he has the rental business he expected plus an increase in the sales of white tie -- $400 for off-the-rack models, $1,500 if custom made. At M. Stein, according to store manager Dan Frederick, the phone is ringing off the hook with questions about proper that black was really dark charcoal or dress. So far they have booked orders on about 100 white ties, more than three times the number of tuxedos ordered, but only a few strollers. At Scogna Formal Wear, where the inaugural committee members booked their own garb far in advance, they've rented about 50 strollers, several hundred black tie and white tie, evenly divided. At least one gentlemen ordered one of each of the three outfits possible to wear for the festivities. Royal Formal has booked 67 strollers, 151 tuxes and 97 sets of tails.
Maites is gearing up for a last-minute rush. His 11 alterations people will be standing by, mostly in his downtown store. "That should do it easily," he says, "If alterations are major then we have the wrong size and we can give them another size." he says. In most items he stocks 53 sizes, enough to cover little kids to extra tall men.
Some congressmen are passing on the stroller as elitest or expensive -- with rentals starting at $40 each for the tuxedo and stroller. $45 for white tie. Others consider it an unnecessary expense, particularly when the strollers are likely to be hidden under winter coats. "I'm not sure that is the way to start fighting inflation," says Sen. Don Riegle (D-Mich.). "We'll all be in topcoats so what is underneath really is less important."
Were the coats chosen according to protocol, they would be black or Oxford gray, worn with black homburg, gray gloves, white or gray formal scarf. Even the biggest companies aren't renting coats. "Most men own them. And besides they would be too expensive to rent," says Maites.
Jan Stephen Walker, staff director for the American Formalwear Association, thinks the inaugural garb is only a hint of increased business to come. "Formal clothes suggest something special, something elegant," he says. And that's why formal dress is showing up more frequently in car and liquor ads, even women's shoe ads. "The whole idea is that if you want to feel elegant, you wear formal wear."
Clearly Reagan has no plans to mothball his formal garb after the inaugural. Invitations are now being readied for his first big reception as president -- the diplomatic reception on Jan. 27. They say: "White tie."