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Dress Code Guide: What Does Morning Dress Mean?

Downton Abbey actors in formal morning dress
BBC

As you’ve probably guessed, the last stop on our Dress Code Guide journey will be the ultra-formal white tie. But we have one more stop before we get there: morning dress.

Morning dress is a rare dress code in the modern day and the chances that you’ll someday get a morning dress invitation are about as low as the chances that you’ll get a white tie one. Most people don’t get invited to morning dress or white tie events unless they’re wealthy, royalty, or somehow find themselves in the company of folks who are. But if you do happen to get one of these invitations, you won’t want to be unprepared.

Whether you’re expecting ultra-formal event invitations in your future, you’re just curious, or you’re prepping to win a Downton Abbey costume contest, let’s take a look at what morning dress means.

Morning Dress: A Definition

Morning dress is to daytime what white tie is to nighttime: it’s as formal as it possibly gets for that time of day.

The name comes from the men’s morning coat, which was designed to suit horseback riding. You can see a variety of different long-tailed and morning coats in the mid-19th-century image below:

Lithograph from L'Elegant: Journal des Tailleurs de Paris, 1857
Lithograph from L’Elegant: Journal des Tailleurs de Paris, 1857 Public Domain

Like most formal dress codes, it started as a more casual option in the 1800s, but gradually became associated with formal events over the years.

Today, men’s morning suits pose a particular challenge, since their horseback-friendly cuts must be impeccably tailored to not look awkward when you’re not on a horse. But when done well, morning dress creates a sharp, formal look for both men and women.

When to Dress in Morning Dress Attire

Morning dress functions are rare, but it’s not impossible that you might find yourself at one. They include:

  • Horse races
  • Formal daytime weddings
  • Formal memorials
  • Royal functions

Morning dress is reserved for formal events starting before 6 p.m. Any later and the dress code will switch to white tie.

Like white and black tie attire, morning dress is generally specified on the invitation—it’s not something you’ll have to guess at. However, if you’re attending an event like a big horse race, you might choose to wear morning dress to participate in the tradition. Morning dress is also more common in England than in the U.S.

Morning Dress Ideas for Women

Although many people assume women spend more on clothes than men, this isn’t always the case—and definitely not when it comes to formal wear. The right dresses or gowns can often work well for different formal events. Morning dress for women includes these familiar choices:

  • Classy skirt- or pantsuits
  • Mid-length to long dresses
  • Tailored jackets
  • Fancy jumpsuits

Morning dress is similar to lounge attire for women but elevated in formality. Your dress or skirt should be no shorter than just above the knee, and for highly formal morning dress events, always worn with a jacket. If the event is less formal, you can wear a wrap or shrug instead.

Avoid spaghetti straps (look for straps an inch wide or more), strapless, one-shoulder, off-shoulder, halter, and low-backed designs. These cuts work well for formal eveningwear but aren’t acceptable for daytime.

You can wear modest heels or low wedges, and pantyhose are generally expected. Hats are optional, except for some royal events, but can make your look more fun (think of Kentucky Derby attire). Classic jewelry, like pearls or diamond studs, is a good choice.

Your hair and makeup should be kept polished and demure. The type of event that requires morning dress is all about tradition and following the rules, so there’s not much room for creativity and trendsetting here.

Morning Dress Ideas for Men

Unlike women, men can’t repurpose many items for different formal events. If you get an invitation that says “morning dress,” you get to wear:

  • Morning coats
  • Trousers
  • Waistcoats
  • Dress shirts

These pieces make up the “morning suit.” And unlike tuxedos, these suits don’t leave much room for personal expression.

The morning suit starts with a morning coat. These single-breasted coats are distinguished by their curved fronts that lead into tails in the back. The short cut in front is what initially made men’s morning dress suitable for horseback riding.

Black and gray is traditional, but if you go for black, add interest by looking for a subtly patterned weave. Pair the jacket with gray or gray-and-black-striped trousers. You can also choose houndstooth trousers for a twist on the usual striped pattern. Hold them up with suspenders—no belts allowed here.

Choose a dress shirt in white or a light, neutral color, with French cuffs and cufflinks. You’ll need a waistcoat in a neutral shade like beige, blue, or gray. Pull the look together with a silk tie. The tie can be colored or patterned, but not loud.

Not all morning dress occasions require a hat, but when they do, you’ll need a top hat in black or gray. If you want to accessorize, this is the perfect time to break out a pocket watch or tie pin. Make sure to wear polished (but not patent) black leather dress shoes—oxfords work well. Add a boutonnière in the buttonhole of your lapel, and consider a handkerchief in the chest pocket.

The key to men’s morning dress is the tailoring. If it’s not fitted correctly to your body, your morning suit will look clumsy and awkward, thanks to the unusual cut of the jacket. If you plan to attend a morning dress event, try to make room in your budget to buy (not rent) your suit and get it appropriately tailored.

Morning dress is all about details and following tradition. Although this isn’t a dress code where you get to veer off into creative territory, dressing up differently can still be fun. If you get invited to a morning dress event, try to attend it—you probably won’t get many chances to try out this rare and formal dress code.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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