Among menswear enthusiasts there are those with a special affinity for morning dress; I count myself one of this group. At age 22, years before I truly understood what formal wear was, I wore a morning coat instead of a suit or tuxedo for my Las Vegas wedding—in 100-degree weather no less—because it somehow felt right. A challenge often shared by morning dress aficionados, though, is finding occasions to wear it.
Sartorial Travel: The Queen’s Garden Party
North Americans generally have very few chances to put on morning dress compared to their brethren in the UK and Europe, where it’s more common at ceremonies and events taking place before 6 PM. Living in the Midwestern United States, I have barely an opportunity for a tuxedo let alone its daytime equivalent. Most American weddings don’t feature morning dress, so you couldn’t attend dressed this way unless you are intent upon upstaging the groom and the whole wedding party. Thus, fulfilling the desire to put on morning wear really requires “sartorial travel”: combining a vacation with events in which such dress would be appropriate. This usually means attending Royal Ascot in England, where morning dress is welcome whether or not you get into the Royal Enclosure. However, there’s another overlooked possibility for morning dress: the Queen’s Garden Parties.
Each year in May and June, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, assisted by members of the British Royal Family, hosts four afternoon parties where the gardens of Buckingham Palace and Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh are opened to 30,000 guests by invitation only. Citizens of Commonwealth countries–Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, for example–are eligible to enter a lottery for pairs of tickets through their nation’s High Commission. Applications are taken in the first few months of each year via the Commissions’ websites. Not many people know about this, so Gentleman’s Gazette readers have a decent shot at tickets provided you or the applicant is a citizen of the aforementioned countries. I scored tickets on my first try, so I’d say the odds aren’t bad.
Dress code for men at the Garden Party is not as strict as at the infamous Royal Enclosure at Ascot—a “lounge suit” (the antiquated term for a business suit, specifically in darker colors according to the authoritative Debrett’s guide) and morning dress are both permitted. Yet, since the goal is sartorial travel, the choice is obvious. Having gotten an invitation, I consulted the Gentleman’s Gazette Morning Dress Guide and set out to document my experience with the choices surrounding morning wear and at the party itself.
Finding Morning Wear
Those who expect to pursue future opportunities to wear morning dress should consider purchasing. When preparing for the Queen’s Garden Party, I was surprised how easy it was to find purveyors of morning dress in the UK; unlike in North America, almost all menswear stores from the big chains, like Moss Bros, Hackett, and Charles Tyrwhitt, to smaller tailors, like Oliver Brown and Neal and Palmer, stock them. Even Suitsupply UK had a morning coat available, though the US site does not. Given these options, it’s recommended that you purchase from the country that invented morning wear. Prices range from £399 to around £1000 ($500-$1300) for coat, trousers, and waistcoat.
A budget-friendly alternative is to go vintage, like Gentleman’s Gazette founder Sven Raphael Schneider, whose 1920’s morning coat remains a prized possession. A search on eBay (again, the UK version) reveals a range of morning coats for sale from the 1920’s and later for $80-$229. Be sure to check items for damage or particularly dated features like unusual lapels, and remember to budget for necessary alterations. The end cost of a full outfit may come close to the lower end of buying new, but the quality of vintage morning wear will likely surpass the offerings of the chain stores.
I ultimately opted to try a rental to determine how a UK hire would compare to my wedding experience of renting from an American mall where I ended up with clothes at least a size too large. If renting, my recommendation is to search for a reputable small tailor in London, of which there are a number on Jermyn Street and in the Picadilly Arcade, rather than going with a chain. I elected to use Neal and Palmer, trusting a British bespoke tailor would have familiarity with morning dress as well as better quality items. The result was good; only the sleeves of my morning coat were a little too long, something not unexpected off the rack.
Traditional British Style Required
An important lesson I learned during my preparations is that morning dress requires you to embrace British style. If your personal taste tends toward the Italian, like mine does, be prepared to accept something different. Morning wear doesn’t admit sprezzatura like a crooked tie knot or a double-cuff shirt without cufflinks. Instead, it’s all about order and regulation, and therein lies the essential difference between the two great European tailoring traditions.
Since dressing to match the occasion is a basic tenet of being properly and well dressed, I yielded to the demands of the setting. I usually wear monk straps or loafers for the panache and casualness they bring to an outfit but purchased a pair of black captoe oxfords without broguing because that’s what morning dress demands. A willingness to follow the requirements and try something different makes for an optimal learning experience.
This is not to say there aren’t opportunities for individuality and personality with morning dress. If you like greater color variety and the complexity of sport coat/trouser combinations, for example, you might choose a black morning coat with gray striped trousers and a waistcoat in sky blue instead of the matching gray tailcoat, waistcoat, and trousers of a “Morning Grey” suit, preferred by Prince Charles.
Another opportunity for variety involves choosing between a double- or single-breasted waistcoat. Single-breasted waistcoats tend to elongate the physique. Similar to the way peak lapels on a suit draw sight lines outward and broaden the chest, the open V formed by the points at the bottom of a single-breasted waistcoat provide the impression of extended torso length while the horizontal waistline of a double-breasted truncates, strongly separating the torso from the legs. This can create a sense of stockiness. However, the double-breasted has a more historic and more formal appearance; it is, frankly, more traditional. And, it competes less with the cutaway front of a morning coat than the sharp angles that form the bottom of a single-breasted waistcoat. Colors are usually light gray, buff or sky blue. Gray creates a series of monochrome gradations from the black tailcoat to the charcoal trousers to the lighter gray waistcoat. Blue would add a splash of spring color. For versatility in choosing a tie, and to add more warmth to the ensemble, buff might be the choice.
The selection of tie is another way to work individuality into a morning wear ensemble. A more formal silk print business tie, such as one with stripes or dots, is safe; solids tend to fade back and a pattern is definitely needed here to bring the tie forward under the waistcoat. As someone who prefers textures and different fabrics, like shantungs and linens for my ties I experimented with a beige and brown striped silk and linen tie that I already owned and found it successful in complementing the buff waistcoat while adding visual pop. And in this way, I got to sneak in nod to my more casual style.
Pocket Square and Boutonniere
Accessorizing morning wear needs to be done carefully. Continuing the overall theme of restraint, a plain white linen pocket square is most common, in a simple TV fold. At his wedding, Sven Raphael Schneider wore a fold that complements the floral theme of his white boutonniere flower, which is a unique possibility.
The boutonniere is itself sometimes overlooked in morning dress. A Fort Belvedere carnation would have been a perfect addition, either in white to duplicate the pocket square or in a different hue to add a splash of color. Overall, the flower should be small, not the large spray that is all too common during weddings.
An item that one often sees in internet photos of morning dress is a walking stick with a ball knob. While these may be appropriate at a wedding, the comparable item for formal British outdoor events is a tightly rolled black umbrella, a dual-purpose item that also suits the variable and often wet climate of England. Attending an event like the Queen’s Garden Party can be the perfect excuse to purchase a handmade “brolly” from either Mario Talarico in Naples or Francesco Maglia in Milan, the world’s foremost artisans. Of course, you can use such a work of quality craftsmanship for the rest of your life, whether or not you ever attend another formal event.
Perhaps the most important morning dress accessory, though an optional one, is a properly fitted top hat. Whereas men from all social classes wore one daily in the nineteenth century, it goes without saying that you would be stared at for wearing a top hat on the street today. Therefore, morning dress is an occasion to indulge. Since I had neither a light gray waistcoat nor a gray suit, I opted for black given the choice between gray and black. Among seasoned wearers of morning dress, including the Queen’s staff, I spotted a number of antique top hats, either in silk or beaver felt, obvious by their beautiful sheen and matted nap. I was envious!
Men’s Style at the Garden Party
At the Garden Parties and events like Royal Ascot, women tend to get more notice (witness the famous “Ladies Day”) for the attention-getting dresses and hats. However, I directed my attention to men’s style. While queueing up to enter Buckingham Palace, and, later, on the garden lawn, I noted some stylish gents as well as some faux pas. One man stood out in the queue for wearing a flannel windowpane sport coat with light trousers, directly contravening the dress code. I also saw some light-colored suits that did not strictly fit the definition of “lounge suit,” including those in more casual fabrics like cotton. Sadly, I also saw several pairs of trainers or sneakers and tie/pocket square sets that matched exactly.
For the most part, though, the gents looked sharp. The weather was clear, but attendees who brought umbrellas with their morning dress seemed to look more dapper, and I would include one as an accessory myself should I attend a similar event in the future. Hooking the umbrella handle over one’s forearm while strolling the gardens certainly looked elegant. When I came to the party, I was also not a fan of contrast-collar shirts, though I was aware that many gentlemen prefer them to white while in morning dress. However, seeing in person the added dimension and depth of color provided by a light-blue striped shirt with contrasting white collar I knew that it was something I would seek to emulate.
The most important lesson I learned from the experience, though, is not to take dressing up too seriously at the expense of enjoying the experience. When I realized it was sufficient to be dressed well enough, I was able to remember the purpose of attending the event in the first place: to relax, to eat some cucumber sandwiches, to enjoy the general splendor and to socialize.
Where do you find the opportunity to wear morning dress? Would you attend the Queen’s Garden Party?