Playing by the rules

The story of morning dress by Eric Musgrave

It is the poshest equivalent of the sign outside a club stating “no jeans, no trainers, no football colours”. The dress code for men in the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot is in plain English: “Gentlemen are kindly reminded that it is a requirement to wear either black or grey morning dress which must include: a waistcoat and tie; a black or grey top hat; plain black shoes”.

No bow ties, no adornments such as coloured bands or feathers on top hats, and no cravats (which, oddly enough, are sometimes called ascots!) are permitted. Only on five days a year does the Berkshire racecourse become Royal Ascot. This year Royal Ascot will be held from Tuesday 14th to Saturday 18th June. During this festival of equine athleticism to be among the best, you have to dress like the best.

It is fitting that morning dress is required in the inner sanctum of this stellar gathering of fans of the turf. The distinctive outfit has its origins back in the 18th century in clothes cut for horse riding. Unlike their French counterparts, who lolled around Versailles waiting for a revolution to sweep them from power, the English court spent little time with the monarch, preferring to return to their estates. A principal pastime in the country was horse riding and this took place in the morning, hence the outfit worn became known as morning dress.

The cutaway coat is the defining element of the three-piece morning suit. In front the edge curves from just below the waist in a sweeping “cutaway” line to the tails. These long pieces originally were formed by splitting the back of a coat to make it easier to wear on horseback.

The front of the cutaway coat is closed with a single button, adding to the elegant and unfussy line. Peaked lapels are most popular but a regular notched lapel is acceptable. It is possible to have a morning suit, with coat, vest and trousers all in the same black or grey cloth, but a more adventurous dresser goes for a contrasting waistcoat (brightly coloured or soft and subtle) and finely-striped trousers.

Oddly, the grey- or black-striped pattern of the trousers are called cashmere stripes. This not a reference to the luxurious fibre but more likely a throwback to the late 1700s when cassimere or casimere fabrics were woven in England to emulate the cashmere twills imported from India.

By the middle of the 19th century, the morning suit was the everyday garb of the respectable gent, slightly less formal than the double- or single-breasted frock coat. Cut well, the coat could be worn open, allowing easy access to the waistcoat, or closed for a neater look.

In the genesis of menswear, the morning coat replaced the frock coat, but by the second decade of the 20th century the morning suit was superseded by what we would recognise as the modern lounge or business suit.

Apart from Royal Ascot, the morning suit these days makes an appearance at stylish weddings, on the backs of staff at very old-fashioned hotels and classically smart restaurants. Oh, and at Royal investitures when Her Majesty The Queen or another member of the family hands out awards like knighthoods or CBEs. If you are ambitious or hopeful in that direction, investing in a bespoke morning suit would represent good forward planning.