From CR Fashion Book
Before we saw denim-on-denim on our favorite stars and before the trend was incorporated into some of the biggest shows during fashion week, the look was originally deemed the ultimate fashion faux pas. In celebration of National Denim Day today, CR looks at the history behind the creation of the “Canadian tuxedo,” which has given name to some of the iconic pop culture moments of all time, bridging the look from the butt of a joke to the fashion statement.
According to historian Lynn Downey, the Canadian tuxedo was born from an incident in 1951 at an upscale hotel in Vancouver, Canada. As the story goes, American singer Bing Crosby loved the city of Vancouver and visited often (he was even gifted a key to the city in 1948 by Mayor George Miller). Although Crosby had reached the peak of his career with international stardom, much of the world still didn’t recognize him. Upon checking into his hotel after concluding a hunting trip, Crosby was denied check-in due to the fact that he was underdressed, wearing a denim-on-denim outfit by famed American denim brand Levi Strauss & Co rather than a three-piece suit. The bellhop quickly realized what had happened and corrected the situation, making the concierge aware that the denim-clad man was no ordinary hotel guest. The concierge Art Cameron became famous in the situation. “[He] looked like a bum,” Cameron said in an interview. “Almost all of Bing’s fans wrote me wanting to know how dared I refuse him a room and how come I didn’t recognize ‘the most famous singer in the world?'”
Although the Canadian tuxedo was born in Canada, it was actually first created by Levi Strauss & Co in the U.S. Levi’s caught word of what had happened to Crosby in Vancouver and took advantage of the situation by designing Crosby a custom tuxedo made out of denim so no establishment could say he was too dressed down ever again. The jacket was manufactured from the same material used for Levi’s classic 501 jean with copper rivets. Inside the tuxedo jacket was a leather patch that read “Notice to All Hotel Men: a perfectly appropriate fabric and anyone wearing it should be allowed entrance into the finest hotels.” Levi’s eventually reproduced Crosby’s iconic jacket with a limited run of 200 Canadian tuxedo jackets identical to the original for its Spring/Summer 2014 collection.
Though the tuxedo jacket was more of a humorous commentary on Crosby’s situation, the idea accidentally sparked a new boundary-breaking concept in fashion. The rise of pop culture in a post-war environment moved denim away from its roots as a working class textile and closer to an innovative fashion statement. Denim was often associated with rebellion during the ’50s with greasers wearing denim-on-denim as part of their unofficial uniform. Elvis Presley’s iconic mugshot from 1956 pictured the future rockstar wearing a denim shirt and jeans, embodying the bad boy image of the time.
During the ’70s and ’80s, the Canadian tuxedo was slowly introduced into the fashion sphere as a defining cool-kid look across the eras. Other denim brands, including Jordache began to reinterpret the idea in new styles like acid wash for ’80s advertisements. As acid and light wash denim became a focal point in fashion, ’90s celebrities from Drew Barrymore to Tupac Shakur began popularizing their own versions of denim-on-denim as a unisex look, but the Canadian Tuxedo’s moment to shine was only yet to come.
Fifty years after Crosby’s original debacle at that hotel in Vancouver, celebrity couple Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake attended the 2001 American Music Awards wearing a matching Canadian tuxedo power look. Spears went for belted fitted gown made from sewn denim patchwork with a matching denim bag and diamond choker. Competing the corresponding look, JT opted for a denim suit, a denim cowboy hat, and ombré shades. The matching Canadian tuxedo look became a moment of vitality in pop culture history, before there was even social media to help it go viral. The look has sustained its fame throughout the years as a key reference from defining early 2000s fashion moments. The iconic look has even been recreated and relived by various celebrity couples on the red carpet.
In recent years, the Canadian tuxedo has stretched beyond the show-stopping red carpet moments and has been accepted as a runway friendly trend. For Maria Grazia Chiuri’s second collection for the house of Dior, she introduced denim into her Fall/Winter 2017 collection by incorporating a variety of denim-on-denim looks, a big step for a house traditionally associated with ultra-femininity. That same season, Virgil Abloh’s luxury streetwear brand Off-White showed a cropped Canadian tuxedo look befitting any trendy it-girl. Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was seen repping his country in a denim jacket and jeans while out in public.
The Canadian tuxedo goes to show that many trends start out as the ones you think you’ll never try. The cyclical nature of the fashion industry ensures that as the eras pass and seasons change, fashion faux pas are slowly adapted as experimental new trends or viral looks. Just as Crosby was turned away from that hotel, he accidentally created a fashion trend that surpassed his time from a look that others deemed inappropriate. So go forth and wear the look you’ve always been too afraid to try. You might just accidentally make fashion history.