I'm putting on my top hat

23 June 2023 Written by Kirstie Clements

Royal Ascot will once again be awash with morning suits. We take a look at the history of this sartorial symbol of distinction for gentleman racegoers, and where it fits at Flemington.

The exceedingly dashing morning suit dates from 19th-century Europe, a formal day suit featuring a long cutaway coat, waistcoat, and trousers, often worn with a top hat. The name originated from the practice of gentlemen riding a horse in the morning, and the necessity of having a coat cut to leave the knees clear. It quickly became, and remains in England, the traditional choice for men for formal daytime events including weddings, memorial, official or Parliamentary functions, royal events, and feature race meetings, especially at Ascot and Epsom.  

In Australia, much of the race-going fraternity adopted the wearing of a cutaway coat, grey-striped trousers and a top hat right up until 1939, when wartime concerns overshadowed any sense of formality or an outward show of wealth. Wartime Austerity measures severely impacted fashion with strict limitations on supply of textiles and haberdashery, and it would have been impossible to purchase a morning suit during this period. Those that did have them already would have had to “mend and make do”. The morning suit was put in mothballs. However, in 1947 the wearing of morning dress by committee members for the Melbourne Cup was reintroduced. “Advocates of its return felt it was necessary to assist in preserving the dignity and charm always associated with famous meetings at Flemington,” said Mr Keith Morrison, who was appointed secretary of the Victoria Racing Club in 1954. 

“Committee members of principal racing clubs in other States wear morning clothes at the Cup Carnival as a courtesy gesture.” On 27 February 1954, when the Royal couple visited Flemington Racecourse for the first time, His Royal Highness the Duke Of Edinburgh chose to wear a grey topper (the informal name for a top hat) and morning suit, and it was anticipated that members would follow his lead. (Interestingly, he chose to wear a lounge suit to Royal Randwick just three weeks prior). 

For decades now, the gentleman’s dress code for the VRC Committee Room guests on both Derby and Cup Day has been the morning suit, with service uniform an option for military personnel. 

While the donning of a morning suit does have connotations of traditional conservatism (indeed, it is still the uniform of the royal enclosure at Ascot).  

It's time to have fun with the concept again and incorporate a sense of history into a day at the races. Dressing to the nines is not something that is just reserved for the Members’ Enclosure.

The traditional morning suit – how to wear the look correctly

  • The morning coat is a formal knee-length coat, normally in black, with a notched or shawl lapel that sweeps into a long curve, designed to accentuate the waist, and reveal a matching or subtly contrasting waistcoat. The single-breasted coat does not have pockets, so it does not disrupt the smooth silhouette. The coat is traditionally worn with chalk-striped cashmere or wool trousers in a pale grey colour and with a top hat. 
  • Another variation of the morning suit is a three-piece suit in matching grey, considered slightly less formal than the black coat, and often seen at Royal Ascot (King Charles III is a fan). 
  • Waistcoats can be single- or double-breasted, with or without a lapel.
  • Shirting choices are generally white, pale blue, or a subtle blue stripe (with a spread starched collar) and French cuffs. 
  • For formal (or Royal) occasions, a black topper is correct, but for the races, grey is the preferred option. 
  • Accessories include a small, knotted silk tie or cravat, a tie pin, a pocket square, a floral button-hole in he lapel, silver or gold cufflinks, and grey suede gloves. 
  • Shoes should be lace-up or slip-ons in leather, not patent.