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  1. Wealth
March 1, 2007

Morning Glory

By Spear's

With morning dress a minefield of modern manners, it pays to dress properly, says Nick Foulkes

With morning dress a minefield of modern manners, it pays to dress properly, says Nick Foulkes

I love stories about getting dressed for the races. Take, for instance, the fate of Lord Harris, a man foolhardy enough to go to Ascot wearing tweeds and a brown Coke (bowler) hat some time during the reign of Edward VII.

‘Mornin’ Harris,’ came the monarch’s jovial greeting. ‘Goin’ rattin’?’ With that two-word put-down, he ended one man’s pretensions to being a leader of fashion. This early 20th-century vignette is repeated so frequently (an alternative wording is ‘Goin’ rattin’, ’Arris?’) and it is so typical of the merry monarch’s mordant wit that it is likely to be true.

Of course, turn up in tweeds at the Royal Meeting and you might have reason to feel a little self-conscious. I rather like tweeds, I had a lovely day at the Cheltenham Gold Cup and even though I lost rather more heavily than I wanted, my spirits were buoyed by a wonderful suit of dusty pink tweed with a brownish overcheck.

One of the things that I have always liked about the Derby is that I could probably just about get away with tweeds. As Conrad Free, the proprietor of Debrett’s, puts it: ‘There are different levels of dressing. If you are going to be out on the heath you can go as you want, the one thing about the Derby is that there is something for everyone.’ However, I would be inclined to advocate the use of a morning coat.

I often treat my wardrobe as a giant dressing-up box and, put simply, I have too many clothes for every occasion. As far as I know, I have one frock coat, three morning coats and I have lost count of how many formal waistcoats. The thing is I find it very hard to resist an item of clothing and I always become rather wistful when I see a morning coat being made.

For instance, I was in the Mount Street showroom of Neapolitan tailoring legend Mariano Rubinacci and I saw the lightweight morning suit he was preparing for the wedding of a society heart surgeon that was to take place in Kenya. I immediately felt that I had to have one exactly the same, just in case I was required to attend something similar at the drop of a (top) hat.

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The problem is, of course, that my life is not a succession of royal garden parties, diplomatic knees-ups, and other state occasions. Also, I happen to be at an age when it is more likely that my friends are getting divorced than married, and it will be sometime yet before I am roped in to attend the weddings of friends’ children: therefore nuptial use of the daytime tails is minimal. Which leaves me with the races… so I like to make the most of them.

One of my favourite works of art is the shamelessly narrative canvas Derby Day, by Frith. I have an engraving of it in my office and I often study it, losing myself in the lives of the different characters on display.

In particular, I like the style of a louche character leaning against a barouche and another character looking through binoculars, both men seem to have scarves tied around their top hats, scarves which have caught the breeze and are behaving like little pennants.

It is a whimsical touch that shows just how sedate the majority are in their choice of morning coat these days. Of course there are exceptions and many of these are customers of veteran tailor Edward Sexton, who would like to see a good deal more uniqueness when it comes to formal wear.

Sexton is a great proselytiser of the frock coat and he likes to steer people into interesting colours, but valiant though his efforts are, look at any race day crowd and the eau de nil frock coats, with their overtones of fin de siècle decadence, will tend to be outnumbered by the black coats.

The other day I called Terry Haste, who has made clothes for me for over fifteen years and he told me that although in the past he had made a denim morning coat, on the whole the taste in morning coats these days was woefully conservative: black coat, buff waistcoat and cashmere stripe trousers.

I prefer to wear spongebag trousers with my morning coats and asked him whether this was not a general taste. He replied that he had not made a pair of these delightful trousers with their tiny but distinctive check since mine, and that was about nine years ago.

I suppose the thing is that a morning coat is so expensive that people dislike taking risks with it. You will not get much change out of four grand from most Savile Row tailors, and some will charge you a good deal more, as it is such a difficult thing to make.

‘It is a very fitted garment and that is part of the reason more work goes into it,’ says Hugh Holland, managing director of Kilgour, ‘and that is why it pays to buy bespoke. The garment and the occasions for which it is worn merit the best, even if it is more expensive. Besides, they last, not just for mere years or decades, but generations, becoming part of their family’s history. In spite of their uniformity they are subtly unique.’

And if we have to content ourselves with subtlety, not a bad exercise from time to time, then you can at least do various things like put taped edges around your morning coat – I like that sort of thing; a little like subtly lowering the suspension on a sports car, it speaks of a racy attitude.

Tape is a little like the tinsel you wrap around the Christmas tree, and keeping the bauble count up, I like to string a chain across the front of my waistcoat – with a cigar cutter at one end and a pair of dice in an elegant little silver locket-like cage at the other.

The lighter – usually a Dupont, but for the Derby a blue-flame, shagreen-covered, windproof lighter from Dunhill – is tucked into a pocket at the waistband, while cigars are kept in a black, crocodile holder by Ducas slipped into one of the pockets in the tails of my morning coat.

In order to heighten the contrasting collar and shirt body combo, I like to impale my tie with a suitably noisy stickpin. My wife created something for me using sapphires and emeralds that does the job to perfection.

However, while I am all for interesting detail elsewhere (I can spend hours sifting through my encyclopaedic collection of Charvet pochettes), when it comes to footwear I like to maintain cleanliness of line.

There is so much going on with my morning coat that I believe in laceless shoes, but not moccasins: elastic sided ankle boots, slip-on punched Oxfords or buckled ‘Monk’ shoes do the trick admirably.

However, my morning-coat ensemble is very much a work in progress and I am always ready to learn, especially from a teacher as distinguished as the Prince of Wales.

I was chatting to John Hitchcock of Anderson & Sheppard, who believes that the Prince is a master of the morning coat, and is particularly impressed by such touches as the heir to the throne’s clever pairing of a blue shirt with, say, a cornflower in his buttonhole.

However, it is the Prince of Wales’s ‘slips’ that really demand closer study – these little strips of pale Marcella are buttoned inside the waistcoat to give the impression that the wearer is actually sporting a pair of waistcoats. I daresay that they once had some use, but their functionality today is something of a mystery.

Still, enigmatic or not, I have asked Anderson & Sheppard to run me up a set. You can never tell when they might come in handy.

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