The morning coat is the style of coat most commonly worn with morning dress – also known as a ‘cutaway’ outside of the UK. You can read just about anywhere about the early 19th century equestrian origins of the morning coat but, while some accounts attribute morning constitutional rides as the term’s origin, morning dress appears to have been used with reference to smart day dress before the morning coat was considered anything like formal, so the precise etymology is uncertain. Several online reports of its origin date it as appearing during the 1890’s. This is somewhat questionable as it was already being worn by respectable London society by the 1860’s and was certainly being worn for equestrian purposes from the 1830’s at the latest.
Through the latter part of the 19th century the morning coat rose in acceptability, but remained subservient to the frock coat in terms of popularity and formality until the early 20th century. Many cite the signing of the treaty of Versailles in 1919 as the death knell of the frock coat, as Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd-George rocked up in majestic morning coats. It’s worth noting that Vittorio Orlando appeared in sack suit, thus opening the door to fascism in the East Mediterranean.
With that history behind it, the morning coat enjoyed its heyday between the 1920’s and ’50’s, though it still maintains its place as the touchstone of formal day dress. That is not to say that wearing the morning coat is nothing more than an act of conservation, though much can be learned from the past about how to pull off a morning coat with style.
There are really two features that make a morning coat a morning coat. The first, a feature that is also common to the frock coat and evening tailcoat, is the body-coat cut. Without going into unnecessary detail, this allows the coat to be tailored closely around the wearer’s waist, and is identifiable by a horizontal seam at the waist, and three seams at the back resembling an upside-down Atari logo, for those who grew up in the ’80’s and ’90’s.
The second feature, and that which distinguishes it from other body coats, is the cut away skirt (hence its alternative name) which creates an elegant curve from waist to hem:
Though all morning coats share these basic tailoring features, the overall shape can vary greatly. Traditionally, the body-coat pattern was used to create a highly supressed waist, that is the coat was much narrower at the waist than at the chest, and stiff, quilted linings were employed to maintain the ideal silhouette even when the coat was not buttoned up. Some morning coats even had a little padding just above the hip to accentuate the slim waist, much like an 18th century lady’s hip rolls. This style of cut is arguably the most elegant, though it is increasingly rare and it doesn’t suit many figures.
The modern cut is far less structured, with less waist suppression, and this is the style that is most likely to be found in hire shops and from more affordable ready-to-wear ranges such as Magee or Mark & Spencer. This style of morning coat also generally favours a lower waistline than the classic shape. Cynically speaking, this cut is much cheaper to produce, though it is also better suited to modern tastes and possibly more comfortable in the blazing sun of a summer wedding.
The most common morning coat configuration is black, usually herringbone weave, with a single button closure and peaked lapels (cumbersomely called a double-breasted lapel in the UK, for no good reason). This style was uncommon in the 19th century but reached the ‘peak’ of its popularity in the 1930’s and is arguably the most stylish and elegant of all. Edward VIII, fashion icon, abdicator and Nazi sympathiser, is wearing this configuration in virtually all photographs of him in morning dress. Indeed, it is the style which has persisted to the present day and, unfortunately, you will be hard pressed to find anything straying from this at any contemporary menswear retailers. That said, it does look bloody good:
Earlier morning coats generally varied much more, with different lapels, colours and button configurations, and many of these variations will be explored below.
Today, the most commonly seen divergence from the norm is the grey morning coat. A dark oxford grey can be worn as if black, with the appropriate accompanying waistcoat and trousers, though these are rarely encountered. The effect of oxford grey is to soften the overall appearance of the outfit when compared with true black:
Lighter grey morning coats are also available, and these are generally worn as a complete matching suit. In the vast majority of cases the trousers and waistcoat match, though it is not unheard of for a contrasting waistcoat to be worn. Supreme formalists may argue that only a full suit of grey is acceptable, but this shouldn’t matter if it’s pulled off well, and it is a style that has created a respectable pedigree for itself in recent decades:
Dark blue or navy is occasionally on offer from hire establishments, but it’s very rare to see this colour pulled off with any degree of success, and is therefore best avoided.
Lapels & Buttons
Generally speaking, a peaked lapel is an indicator of formality. Notched (or step, or single-breasted) lapels do exist on morning coats, though they were much more common when frock coats were still in circulation, as they were considered a less formal alternative. Now that the frock coat has been supplanted, the peaked lapel is de rigueur, but a notched lapel ought to not be entirely ruled out.
Often, especially when considering vintage options, a notched lapel may be found accompanied by a 2 or even 3 button closure. This is a quintessentially historic look but looks excellent on the right figure, and can flatter those who are more bounteous around the middle.
Most pre-1920’s morning coats have buttons covered with a geometrically patterned damask silk fabric, a feature which can now only be found on top end bespoke garments.
Even rarer than notched lapel morning coats are those with a shawl lapel. This is a look which has never ‘had its day,’ like its peaked and notched brothers, and seems to have hovered on the fringe of obscurity, the exclusive preserve of the sartorially adventurous rather than the common man.
Another lapel option which is really never seen nowadays, and which is very much a hangover from the days of the frock coat, is the slightly fancy addition of silk facings. It’s not worth saying much about these as they are so rare and don’t look good enough to warrant resurrection.
Equally obscure is the double breasted morning coat, a garment that virtually never appears on ebay, or indeed, anywhere. However, the Duke of Marlborough was kind enough to wear one, or at least be caricatured wearing one, in Vanity Fair magazine, 1898.
Edging, or piping , basically consists of covering all of the of a morning coat with grossgrain silk ribbon and is a feature that you are unlikely to be able to find outside of modern day or vintage Savile Row (with the exception of Favourbrook, who seem to live for edged morning coats). Old photographs will lead you to believe that this was a common feature of morning coats.
Outside of the 1970’s, this feature is only really ever seen on black morning coats and in combination with a similarly taped single or double breasted matching waistcoat. This is merely an observation, not a rule – there are instances of it being paired with a contrasting waistcoat – most notably by Prince Charles yet again, at his second wedding. It would be nice to show this style of morning coat modeled by somebody unconnected with the royal family.
As mentioned above, probably the most commonly used cloth for morning coats is a fine wool herringbone. In the past, heavier weight cloths appear to have been favoured, but now, as almost all morning-dress wearing opportunities occur during the summer months (weddings, races etc.) lighter weight fabrics are favoured. In our opinion, thicker cloths hang better and look better under daylight.
There are other details, such as number of cuff buttons, how the coat is lined, and whether it has a breast pocket (most, post 1930, do), but these are generally issues of personal taste rather than a question of style. Going bespoke just to get a scarlet sleeve-lining and five kissing buttons on the cuff will not make a blind bit of difference to how you look to other people, and are, in fact, often used as red herrings by the lower end of the made-to-measure and bespoke tailoring industry to lure in customers who haven’t read this guide.
Straying from what is easily obtainable is an expensive* business and indulging in some of the above details falls into that category. Having an edged morning coat will avail you nothing if it doesn’t fit you. Fit is everything – all else must come secondary. Admittedly, it is possible to have the fit altered by a tailor, but this alone can be costly and in this particular example it would be cheaper to have a tailor add the edging than start unpicking seams etc. Find a morning coat that fits you and go from there – nobody deserves to look like Edward VIII from the start.
Trousers are of utmost importance when wearing morning dress. Forgetting a morning coat or waistcoat is nothing next to the shame of being turned away from your KBE investiture for forgetting your trousers, and making sure your legs are covered is just the first step on the exciting road to choosing the right morning dress trousers for you.
There are basically two principal areas of choice in trousers: Cloth and cut. We’ll cover cloth first as it’s a bit more interesting.
There is a tremendous variety of acceptable trousering cloth for morning dress. The most immediately recognisable is a particular kind of stripe called.
The actual pattern can vary quite significantly when inspected closely, but the effect to most onlookers remains much the same. Some sources seem to refer to any appropriate design of cloth as cashmere trousering, but for the sake of clarity we will reserve it for these kind of stripes. Here are a few examples of other interesting cashmere stripes, demonstrating the range of designs.
Cashmere stripes are the easiest style of morning dress trousers to acquire by far, being the only design offered by the majority of retailers. However , should one desire to step outside the cashmere box and explore the trousering hinterlands beyond, there are several other patterns that one could choose, though these were far easier to acquire in the past than they are today.
Black and white (or pale grey) hound’s-tooth check trousers are the second most common style of trouser worn with morning dress and are available from a few men’s clothiers that carry a specialist morning dress range. In our opinion, they are a particularly elegant alternative and well worth considering if you can find them. Though occasionally considered to be somewhat ‘less formal’ than stripes, there is almost no such thing as a morning dress occasion where they would not be formal enough. Because of their slightly lighter appearance, they are especially recommended for wear with a dark (esp. black) waistcoat.
Herringbone cloth (or cheviot) trousers with a mixture of grey, white or black yarn seem to have been a popular choice in years gone by, though they are not often (or really ever) seen today. Sometimes hire shops will offer herringbone trousers, but these are more often than not in a plain black or oxford grey to match the coat, and ought to be steered clear of. The most useful thing you can do is put these out of your mind entirely unless you are in a position to have a pair made for you.
Grey Flannel or Twill
You may hear men’s clothing aficionados extolling the virtues of grey flannel trousers as the most versatile item of clothing that a man can own. This is demonstrably true in the case of morning dress, where there is some precedent for the wearing of plain grey trousers with a morning coat. It’s certainly not an exciting choice, and it may prove controversial among hardcore morning-dress zealots, but it can work if pulled off with a measure of with sense and humility.
Finally, and indeed probably least, are checked trousers. There is in fact a very long tradition of wearing checked trousers with formal wear.
I think it is safe to say that the tradition has long since died out, but in theory, it would be ‘acceptable’ and indeed would probably look quite nice. However, it would probably be best to stick to a muted Prince of Wales check or similar.
The cut of one’s trousers is generally a matter of personal taste. Some people prefer flat fronted trousers, with slimmer legs, and some prefer pleated trousers with wider legs. Decisions like this are generally made for you, whether buying vintage or new, so it’s probably best to just take what comes, unless your body is of a shape incompatible with a particular cut. Most sources hold that, as with evening dress, turn ups (or cuffs) are not acceptable for morning dress. If you’re wearing a black lounge jacket, however, you may feel that turnups are a suitable option.
There is one area of trouser cut that we, among others, do have strong feelings about, and that is the height of the waist in relation to the length of the waistcoat. The waistcoat should always overlap the waistband of the trousers such that no shirt, tie, or worst of all flesh, can be seen between. The literal point of a waistcoat is that it covers the waist. This is true regardless of whether one is wearing classically-cut high waisted trousers, or more modern, lower-waisted trousers. High waisted trousers may fulfill the ideal of the golden age of morning dress, but as we’ve stated elsewhere, they simply aren’t to everybody’s taste – just make sure that wherever your waistline, you waistcoat is long enough to cover it.
Winchester shirts are distinguished a solid coloured or patterned body with contrasting white collar (always) and cuffs (not always).
When it comes to shirts, the colour blue is a perennial classic and the mainstay of even the most eccentric dresser’s wardrobe. It will come as no surprise therefore, that blue Winchesters are the most common. Luckily blue goes extremely well with light grey which is conveniently the most readily found colour of morning dress waistcoat. Wite, yellow, pink and even stripes are quite expectable.
Detach or not to detach?
The purists will say that wearing a detachable collar is a pre-requisite with morning dress and that wearing a Winchester with a fused collar is like wearing a pre-tied bow tie – plain wrong! In our minds, there is no question that wearing a detachable collar is an excellent look and in many ways superior to the fused collar. However, detachable collars are, in the main, impractical – they’re relatively expensive to buy new and to have laundered, fiddly to put on, and, if done badly can make morning dress look dated.
Basically, we would love it if you wore detachable collars, but if the very idea of purchasing your shirt and collars separately terrifies you and, moreover, you want to be able to wear your shirts for other purposes as well, then there is absolutely no shame in wearing shirts with fused collars.