A Brief History
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 1890s. This is somewhat questionable as it was already being worn by respectable London society by the 1860s and was certainly being worn for equestrian purposes from the 1830s at the latest.
Through the latter part of the 19th century the morning coat rose in acceptability, but remained subserviant 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 1920s and ’50s, 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 ’80s and ’90s:
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 supression, 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 1930s 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 divergeance 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, with the exception of best-dressed-man-of-the-millenium Hall Walker, MP., 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-1920s 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 warrent 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 to 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, but in several years of searching ebay and rumaging through literally hundreds of morning coats in vintage clothing shops, we have seen hardly any in the flesh. It is, however, an undeniably great look, and like a lot of things with morning dress, best illustrated by royalty.
Outside of the 1970s, 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 modelled by somebody unconnected with the royal family – but we didn’t pay £2 for Edward VIII, His Life and Reign for nothing:
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 and are therefore not particularly interesting to us. 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 posssible 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.
* expense can be in the form of money or, in our case, man hours spent searching every permutation of morning coat on eBay.