Morning Dress Etiquette

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Mark Twain

Traditional morning dress is obligatory for gentlemen in the Royal Enclosure but it is increasingly popular in the public enclosures too. A black morning suit is generally considered de rigueur at Royal Ascot, although a grey morning suit is perfectly acceptable.

The Top Hat

The top hat’s place in society fashion was assured when Prince Albert started wearing one in 1850. The first top hats were made with felt, most commonly being beaver fur pelt. Later, they would be made of silk. The structure underneath the felt or silk was made of a material called goss. The nineteenth century is sometimes known as the Century of the Top Hat.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the top hat gradually fell out of fashion, with the middle classes adopting bowler hats and soft felt hats such as fedoras, which were more convenient for city life, as well as being suitable for mass production. In comparison, a top hat needed to be handmade by a skilled hatter, with few young people willing to take up what was obviously a dying trade.

By the end of World War I it had become a rarity in everyday life. It continued to be used for formal wear, with a morning suit in the daytime and with evening clothes (tuxedo or tailcoat) until the late 1930s.

In the present day, the top hat is only worn with a morning suit for such occasions as Derby Day, Royal Ascot and weddings. You would no more expect to see a polar bear in the Royal Enclosure than a male patron without morning dress but that doesn’t mean that their attire is stale or stuffy or prevents an expression of their personality. There are all sorts of acceptable ways to personalise Royal Enclosure attire, starting with the tie.

The Tie

The tie as we know it today has been around since the 1920s and, rather than keeping the neck warm, this style of neck wear was simply a fashion statement and an opportunity to display individuality. Ties are a must for Royal Ascot, as opposed to cravats which, along with bow ties, were worn with morning dress up to about the 1920s but are now for weddings. A tie of any colour is acceptable and this is an opportunity for the male racegoer to display his individuality and express his character. Tie pins are optional.

The Waistcoat

Once a virtually mandatory piece of men’s clothing, the waistcoat has become uncommon in contemporary dress with the exception of its partnership with the morning suit.

The waistcoat is one of the few pieces of clothing whose origin historians can date precisely. King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland introduced the waistcoat as a part of correct dress during the Restoration of the British monarchy in the 1600s.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men often wore incredibly elaborate and brightly-coloured, even garish, waistcoats, until fashion in the nineteenth century restricted them in formal wear. The development of the suit dictated that informal waistcoats become the same colour as the rest of a man’s outfit.

Popular opinion once claimed that a man could be identified as a “real gentleman” if he left the lowest button on his waistcoat unbuttoned. This anecdotally originated from the habits of King Edward VII whilst still Prince of Wales when his ballooning waistline caused him to leave the bottom button of his waistcoat undone. The story goes that his subjects took this as a style indicator and started doing it themselves. Others consider the practice to derive from the habit of undoing the lower button to stop the waistcoat riding up when on horseback – possibly a more likely, if a little less interesting explanation!

Again, the colour options open to the male racegoer are wide and varied. A waistcoat in silk, satin or a lightweight wool is acceptable and it is quite common for the man to echo the colours that his female partner has chosen so that as a couple, their appearance complements each other.


Cufflinks, whether they’re cuff buttons, flats, chain links, snappers, kumaparts or onepiece links, are elegant accessories that lend a sparkle to formal wear.

It is not certain when the cufflink arrived. Its first mention in writing was in 1788, but for sometime before that, buttons had ceased to be decorative and cuff-fastening slits were being cut into clothing. The ribbons or tape ties of the past were replaced with luxurious items, often made with gold or silver and set with gemstones. These were an extravagance reserved for the wealthy classes and were all handmade.

It wasn’t until the mid 18th century and the invention of the steam-driven stamping machine, electro-metallurgy and the Tour a’ Guilloche machine, which could mass produce enamel cufflinks, that men’s jewellery really took off amongst a wider audience.

By the 1840s the double-cuff shirt became popular and unlike most fashions it has remained so since. The middle classes adopted cufflinks, but unable to afford the silver or enamel versions they used replicas such as fake diamonds and gold-coloured alloys with foil backing.

The Handkerchief

Like cufflinks, the handkerchief is optional with morning dress. Amazingly, perhaps, the handkerchief is only about 400 years old. Its origin is in Italy, where a Venetian lady invented it from pure flax, decorated with lace.

Only a silk handkerchief is up to the mark in the Royal Enclosure, a cotton one simply won’t do. The handkerchief provides another smattering of colour in the male racegoer’s attire as a triangular shape, neatly folded and pressed.


Lace-up shoes are the only suitable style with a morning suit. Slip-on shoes are not really the done thing in the Royal Enclosure.

Photograph by Rachel Groom.

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