King of the Dudes

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The New York Sun

“Dude” was first used in the city around 1883 as a pejorative for a man who affected excessive refinement in dress. But one New Yorker embraced the insult as an honorific. E. Berry Wall was King of the Dudes, beau ideal of masculine fashion, whose life was a pursuit of pleasure, and who was probably the first American to wear a dinner jacket, commonly known as a tuxedo, in public.

Wall was born in 1860. His father and grandfather each left him more than $1 million between his 18th and 22nd birthdays, which enabled a certain grandeur. Thereafter, Wall never drank water – only champagne – and sported a walrus mustache, gleaming monocle, and high, stiff collars encircled by one of his 5,000 flamboyant neckties. Wall eventually owned a wardrobe of 500 complete changes, useful for someone who completely changed his clothing at least six times daily.

Unlike the classic dandy Beau Brummell, who aspired to quiet sartorial perfection, Wall liked color, in not only his neckties but his waistcoats of “tropical … pattern,” loud checked suits, lavender spats, and at least one outfit described as “an amazement of tweeds.” His explanation: “People should wear what suits them.”

Wall was renowned for his patronage of Henry Poole & Co., a Saville Row tailor so select that would-be customers were not received without references. Wall believed a man not dressed by Poole to be the sartorial equivalent of Happy Hooligan. Yet he insisted Poole had caused his single lapse from sartorial propriety. Until the early 1880s, the only acceptable men’s evening wear featured a tailcoat. Then the Prince of Wales and his coterie adopted tailless coats for formal resort wear.

Poole sent one to Wall, suggesting it “might be worn for a quiet dinner at home or at an evening’s entertainment at (a) summer resort.” One sultry August evening in Saratoga, Wall escorted a pretty girl to a ball at the Grand Union Hotel while wearing what was the first dinner jacket publicly seen in the Americas. An incandescent manager immediately ordered him off the floor. Sixty years later, Wall recalled: “I was … only readmitted to grace after I had gone to my room and changed into an acceptable evening coat with tails.” Yet by 1889 gentlemen were permitted to wear dinner jackets in the Metropolitan Opera’s dress circle.

Wall became famous after meeting Blakely Hall, a reporter hungry for good copy. Thereafter, every week or so, Hall’s articles publicizing Wall’s adventures in clothing appeared in newspapers across the country. Then one of Hall’s competitors set up a rival, actor Robert “Bob” Hilliard, another flashy dresser. Thus began the Battle of the Dudes, in which each sought to eclipse the other in sartorial extremes. According to the Times, Wall finally won when, during the Great Blizzard of 1888, he strode into the Hoffman House bar clad in gleaming boots of black patent leather that went to his hips. (Nonetheless, some social historians claim Hilliard won with the high boots, supposedly part of his Western gambler’s costume from a play in which he was then appearing).

Wall won another contest in Saratoga when daredevil financier John “Bet-A-Million” Gates wagered that he could not wear 40 changes of clothes between breakfast and dinner. On the appointed day, Wall repeatedly appeared at the racetrack in one flashy ensemble after another until, exhausted but victorious, he at last entered the ballroom of the United States Hotel in faultless evening attire to wild applause.

As early as 1885, however, he had bounced a check to a tailor, and an ill-conceived Wall Street career ended in an 1899 bankruptcy. Although family money enabled him to continue living in his accustomed manner, these embarrassments and his sense that New York “had become fit only for businessmen” compelled his departure for Paris in 1912.

By 1921, when newspaper columnist Lucius Beebe, something of a dude himself, met Wall, the old dandy and his beloved wife (of their marriage, he wrote that their honeymoon had never ended) lived in a vast apartment in the Hotel Meurice, near Charvet, Sulka, and other haberdashers whose best customer he was. Charvet’s atelier boasted a caricature by Zem depicting Wall in one of his high, stiff collars, having an exact duplicate fitted to his chow.

The Walls dined out every night. He was reportedly among the best dancers in Paris, not excepting professionals. The couple was seldom home before daylight. Wall ascribed his longevity to having nothing to do with physicians, claiming: “There are more old drunkards than there are old doctors.” His self-indulgent life brought him great happiness, and he remained a fixture of fashionable life, whether in Paris, Deauville, Biarritz, or Aix-les-Bains, until his death in Monte Carlo on May 5, 1940. Wall’s timing was impeccable: He left only $12,608, having squandered nearly every cent on pleasure.

The New York Sun

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