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While we are used to seeing the cummerbund worn as an accessory waistband in men’s formal wear, its origins are quite different. Cummerbunds were inspired by scarves worn around men’s clothing at the waist in India, and the first cummerbunds worn by Europeans were designed for the English military during their occupation of India. The word is on loan from the Persian language, expressing its Arabic origins. Band is a verb in Persian which means to close, and kamar translates as waist. This fully translates as to enclose the waist.
The style in India, as worn by its residents, was more utilitarian than dressy. It has a pleated front, which was normally worn facing upward, creating several overlapped areas of fabric suitable for holding small items. Today in men’s black tie dress, the cummerbund may be worn either pleat up or down, since it’s merely a dressy accessory instead of a purposeful garment.
Most commonly you’ll find this waist sash in black tie or semi-formal men’s suiting. It is usually not used with white tie formalwear, the most formal of men’s dress clothing. White tie wear tends to call for a special waistcoat instead, which would make cummerbunds awkward. For semi-formal events when men don a tuxedo coat, matching pants, tie and dress shirt, the cummerbund may be worn to add a little flash and flair to an outfit. It can also hide the faults of the rented suit that doesn’t fit perfectly. You’ll see many a cummerbund at events like proms.
The cummerbund can be a very simple pleated sash, with either a buckle attachment or an elasticized back. Some men choose a waist sash that has lots of color, patterns or design to individualize their wearing of semi-formal clothing. While it’s fine for a cummerbund to exhibit some color, this should coordinate with the color of your tie. In fact, matching cummerbunds and ties are quite common. For events like proms or weddings, young men may choose cummerbunds closely aligned to the dress colors of their dates, or to the wedding colors. Especially for proms, it’s fine to get a little creative with color and flair, and wear nontraditional fabrics and patterns.
If you must wear a cummerbund for a more formal event, it’s better to choose one that is subdued in colors or pattern. For the most conservative black tie events, the pleated waist sash should be silk, not the less expensive polyester satins frequently rented with tuxedos. A small corner of men’s formalwear fashion is devoted to introducing new styles of cummerbunds each year, but if you plan to purchase one, it’s a better idea to find one that is more traditional. A red, gray, or black sash is a better choice if you’re purchasing one for more formal occasions.
The cummerbund is not exclusive to Western formalwear. Both the Indian and Pakistani armies continue to wear them with their dress uniforms. This makes perfect sense since the concept of the colorful waist sash originates in these countries.
When I was first given one as a uniform issue, I was told that historically it was used to help soldiers with stomach issues such as dysentery, etc. It was wrapped around tightly when soldiers had these problems on the march. It was issued for such purposes rather than for its appearance. It later became part of our dress uniform.
The cummerbund is *never* correctly worn with white tie formal wear. With black tie it is worn as an alternative to a waistcoat.
While matching colored cummerbunds and bow ties are common at teenage proms they are considered gauche by more sophisticated dressers.
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