In terms of figure flattery, the morning coat is a very elegant garment with a unique, softly accented shape that stands apart from other formal garments.
This ‘tailcoat’ is cut away on a curving line from the front of the body to the back, and hence it is often referred to as Cutaway, especially in countries outside the UK. Don’t get confused about the terminology here: Generally people refer to an evening tailcoat when they say tailcoat. However, both the morning coat – which is the subject under discussion – and the evening tailcoat- which is not – are technically both tailcoats because both have tails.
Before expounding on the details of this singular coat, let’s look at the history of this particular garment.
Proper Morning Coat
The Morning Coat in the 18th Century
Some claim that the design of the tailcoat was strongly influenced by the coat patterns of British naval officers in 1748. In fact, it seems more likely to me that the morning coat evolved on the back of horses in the 18th and early 19th century.
Philippe Egalite Orleans 1788 in Cutaway Coat
It is very similar to a riding coat or a Redingdote, which was split in the back to accommodate the horse while keeping the rider covered. Horseback riding was a morning activity, and hence the term “morning coat” followed. Initially it was referred to as a Newmarket coat, and if cut a little fuller, it was also referred to as a Doncaster coat.
Take a look at the Louis Philippe Joseph (also known as Louis Philippe II), the Duke of Orléans (1747 – 1793) as he was painted in 1788. His bright red riding coat is single breasted and cut away in the front, but it does not quite have the shape as we know it today.
The Morning Coat in the 19th Century
Vanity Fair 19th Century Morning Dress
By the mid 19th century, the morning coat developed into a garment for daywear that was less formal than the frock coat. It was certainly considered to be a less elegant garment than it is today. In 1841, the magazine Punch described the morning coat as follows: “So cut that the waistcoat may be of easy access. It has only one button in use”. Nearly 60 years after the Duke of Orléans wore his red morning coat, the Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion observed an ensemble of a “dark green riding coat [i.e. Newmarket], white drill pleated trousers fastened by broad straps, waistcoat of primrose cashmere.“ The German tailor magazine Europäische Herren u. Damenmoden (European Men’s and Women’s Fashion) also explains that the cutaway was once disrespected and even described as a second class garment for day wear.
Henry Herbert in Morning Coat Vanity Fair 1869-09-11
Despite it’s somewhat lowbrow roots, a few years later, the morning coat had evolved into a garment that was now part of most gentleman’s wardrobes as The Habits of Good Society suggests: “There are four kinds of coats which a well-dressed man must have: a morning coat, a frock coat, a dress-coat, and an overcoat.
Around the same time, the British Prime Minister (1874-80) and eccentric dandy Benjamin Disraeli had always been known for his eloquence as well as his flashy clothes. For example, he was occasionally spotted in a bottle green tailcoat with a glittering waistcoat and colorful pantaloons. During a speech about Darwin and his theories, Disraeli wore a black velvet morning coat. The morning coat had arrived.
George V. in Frock Coat with Slip
Throughout the 19th century, The Tailor & Cutter magazine was essentially the bible for tailors in Great Britain. Whatever they wrote or observed had considerable weight and authority. From the 1860s to the 1890s, they regularly emphasized that morning coat and shooting coat could be used interchangeably.
As the Victorian age progressed, the morning coat slowly but surely replaced the frock coat beginning among the professional class in the 1880s. The Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion reported in 1887 that “solicitors and doctors hardly ever were frock coats, always morning coats.” At around that time, the morning coat was seen for the first time with an outer chest pocket as well as pockets on the inside.
Vincent E in MorningCoat – Vanity Fair 4. April 1899
Christian IX King of Denmark in Morning Coat with Piping & Notched Lapels
On July 6, 1893, the wedding day of the Duke of York, the future King George V, arrived, and Christian IX King of Denmark wore a morning coat ensemble. Clearly, the morning coat had finally gained acceptance as a formal garment among the highest classes of society.
However, among England’s social elite consisting of Royals, politicians and diplomats, the frock coat remained the number one formal garment. According to The Tailor & Cutter in 1899, the frock coat was still the correct coat for weddings, while the morning coat was considered to be the appropriate coat for dressy, yet informal events such as a day in town. This is illustrated perfectly a painting depicting Edward VII, the future King George VI, ice skating in a cutaway morning coat.
At the end of the 19th century, one of the writers for The Tailor & Cutter was stationed at London’s Charing Cross, where he observed the men on the street and their dress. After a few hours, he had counted 530 gentlemen in lounge suits, 320 in morning coats and just 150 gentlemen in frock coats. By then the morning coat had replaced the frock coat, while it was also in the process of being replaced by the lounge suit.
Morning Dress 1901 With Partial Silk Facings
The Morning Coat in the 20th Century
Plaid Morning Suit 1900
Around 1900, a black morning coat was often combined with pants in black and grey striped wool or cashmere. Several years earlier, the morning suit with matching trousers was still the combination of choice for most gentlemen. In particular, morning suits in brown or grey in plaid or windowpane fabrics looked quite dandyish.
While most striped morning trousers generally had no cuffs, I found a number of photographs and a pair of Henry Poole morning trousers from the era with a cuff! There always seems to be an exception to the rule.
Unlike the frock coat, the morning coat was never really worn with partial half silk lined lapels.
For detail, the morning coat was sometimes tailored with an elegant silk piping along the
Morning Coat Trousers with Cuffs
edges of the lapel (also known as ribbon edging) and the cuffs.
In English, the name “morning coat” already implies that this garment is to be worn before noon or at least, not after dark. In continental Europe, however, people used to refer to this garment as a Rockjackett or Cutaway and so it was sometimes worn in the evening or later up until the 1920’s. While this changed in the 30’s, according to a number of Belgian aristocrats, the cutaway is apparently acceptable at evening weddings in Belgium even today! I would certainly like to find out more about the origins of that habit.
Morning Coats in Versailles 1919
While the morning coat and especially the lounge coat gained in popularity, the frock coat lost support even from the elite.
Frock Coats in Versailles 1919
(Left to right) The “Big Four”: Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States, the principal architects of the Treaty of Versailles.
Morning Coats at the Treaty of Versailles
During the creation of the Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919, three of the Big Four leaders- David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States – wore a morning coat, while Vittorio Orlando of Italy wore a lounge suit. As you can see, the hey-days of the frock coat were long gone.
In 1926, the Chelsea Flower show became a perfect exhibit of how influential the royals were upon the fashion of the day. George V, in attendance of the show, decided not to wear a frock coat for the first time and rather wore a morning coat without spats. As a consequence, many of the men there shed their spats on the spot, leaving the surrounding bushes full of the discarded accessory. They never regained popularity. Just 10 years later, King Edward VIII abolished the frock coat as court dress and replaced it with the morning coat. Now the frock coat was well and truly dead.
As a consequence, the morning coat became the garment for formal occasions. While it formerly had notched or peaked lapels, and one, two or more buttons, the morning coat now appeared most frequently in a single button version with a peak lapel silhouette.
Moss Bros Morning Coat Ad
After the war, the morning coat slowly fell out of fashion and only members of the upper classes or a groom at a wedding continued to wear this elegant garment. Since most grooms had no further use for the garment other than on their wedding day, they began renting the ensemble at places like Moss Bros.
Wedding of JBK & JFK in Morning Dress
In the 50’s and 60’s, the decline of the morning coat continued, and today it is only required at royal or formal weddings or in the royal enclosure at the Royal Ascot Horse Race. In England, there is still quite a large number of men who chooses to wear a morning coat for their wedding day, whereas this widespread appeal to men has almost vanished completely in the rest of the world.