Formal Lapel Pins

2014_BrooksBrothers_3B_NL_crop

(Brooks Brothers)

There’s been a subtle yet noteworthy change to the tuxedo images on the Brooks Brothers site: a United States flag pin has been digitally added to the lapel of all but one of the jackets.  (It appears that the Great Gatsby model’s historical authenticity won out over national pride.)   Which begs the question, are lapel pins appropriate on formal attire?

I would argue that they are not.

Evening wear is intended to provide an understated simplicity and sense of uniformity.  These special traits can easily be eroded by the addition of accessories, which is why there are traditional restrictions on ornamental items such as boutonnieres, pocket squares, and jewelry.  It is also the reason behind formal wear’s very specific protocols for military and civilian decorations.

Obviously, we can rule out the typical lapel pin as a type of official decoration.  It is neither issued by historic national bodies nor is its receipt dependent upon candidates meeting a stated set of criteria.

Lapel pins are also not equivalent to the special case of the remembrance poppy that is expected to be worn day and night for a designated period of time.  (Symbols of more general social causes might be justified for wear by celebrities taking advantage of red-carpet media coverage but they can’t be similarly vindicated when worn by regular folk to regular black-tie events.)

Instead, these pins are typically just symbols of affiliation.  And if one type were to be allowed then fairness would dictate that all types be allowed, be they religious, political, vocational, fraternal or otherwise. Furthermore, we would have to permit them to all be worn at once because who’s to say which affiliation outranks another?   The inevitable result would be the loss of the elegant simplicity that separates formal wear from ordinary clothing and the trade-off of the harmonious unity of the male guests for potentially discordant separateness.

Obama’s flag pin: assuring American citizens that their president likes America.  (Glad we cleared that up.)

Obama’s flag pin: assuring American citizens that their president likes America. (Glad we cleared that up.)

In fact, this is exactly what happened with the most well-known formal lapel pin wearer, President Obama.  Like many other Americans, he began wearing a flag pin in 2001 as a sign of national unity and resolve following 9/11.  Then, as the pin became subverted into a symbol of support for the partisan war in Iraq, he made a conscious decision to put it aside and let his words speak for his patriotism instead.  Not surprisingly, the political expediency of wearing the pin to woo mainstream voters won out and Obama returned to the practice in 2008.  The transition to wearing it on his tuxedo was only natural considering that he sees little difference between a dinner jacket and a business suit jacket (witness the two-button, notched-lapel, centre-vented excuse for a tuxedo jacket that he has worn throughout his presidency.)

But the context of Brooks Brothers’ formal flag pins is by no means limited to political candidates: it is being suggested for all middle-class American men.  What’s more, by not adding the same pin to photographs of their regular suits, the company is implying that the practice is particularly appropriate for formal wear.

Of course, I recognize that American patriotism is a unique beast and that the near-religious fervour that many Americans have for symbols of their country is difficult for the rest of us to relate to.  Consequently, I would very much like to hear the thoughts of American themselves.   Do you feel that lapel pins (flag or otherwise) should be exempted from the traditional conventions?  And, if so, why?

________________________________________

Postscript

March 18, 2014

I’ve finally heard back from Brooks Brothers regarding the altered photos on their site.  A spokesperson has informed me that the flag pins indicate items that are made in America.

28 Comments

  1. Duncan Pike

    This raises a, mostly, academic question for me. Would my Chief Scout’s Award pin ever fee appropriate? Its receipt is dependent on meeting certain requirements, and it is awarded by Canada’s Chief Scout, who is normally the Governor General, or, recently, her husband. In my case, it was awarded by His Excellency Romeo Leblanc. I don’t think I would ever wear it, outside a scouting reeked event, and I can’t imagine the context of a black tie scouting event. Nonetheless, would it be acceptable at a black tie event that indicated decorations (including civilian) could be worn? I might consider it, if I were to happen to attend an event on February 22nd.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      I would agree that such awards would be fine in the context of an event organized by the issuer of the award. But in a general context I don’t think this kind of award would be appropriate (even on the associations’ Founder’s Day as you suggested) because it does not qualify as a national decoration. The Governor General may have awarded it but he was doing so on behalf of the Scouting organization, not as a representative of Canada’s head of state. If this pin were to be considered acceptable then so would an award of merit issued by any organization e.g. Freemasons, Lions Club, 4-H Clubs, etc.

      Reply
      1. Duncan Pike

        That’s also what I’d have thought. I couldn’t really see it being appropriate, when others are wearing military decorations, or other honours. It could appear that the wearer considered his award equal to these others, which, at best is a bit self aggrandizing, and at worst is very disrespectful, especially toward military officers, men, and women.

        Of course, it is by the same argument that a poppy is, not only acceptable and appropriate, but de rigeur from November 1st to 11th. Speaking of which, is anyone aware of a guideline on the etiquette of when to begin wearing a poppy? The recently established practice of leaving the poppy on a cenotaph, after a remembrance ceremony has provided an answer to when to take it off. I’m quite glad that this convention has come about, since it eliminates the worry about appearing disrespectful by removing it too early after Remembrance Day. Perhaps I’m the only one that was ever worried, though.

        Reply
        1. Peter Marshall

          According to the Veterans Affairs Canada site, in this country the poppy should be worn from the last Friday in October until the end of the day on Remembrance Day or the end of a Remembrance Day ceremony, as you mentioned.

          Reply
  2. Hal

    I can’t see that it would ever be right to wear a badge on your lapel for anything vaguely formal. But then I don’t like them anyway.

    I understand that they often show support for worthwhile charities, but I still dislike them. The wearing of a poppy for Remembrance Day is the only exception I make.

    I’m not an American so I can’t comment on the appropriateness of wearing the flag within that cultural context, but it would certainly look odd if anyone wore the equivalent (whether the Union Jack, or national flags of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) in the UK.

    Reply
  3. Bob

    The lapel pin is the least of his sartorial mishaps, formal or otherwise. Why an American President, living the life of the ultra-wealthy is permitted to so badly botch the fundamentals of men’s formal dress is perplexing. As pointed out in past blogs The President routinely shows up at formal affairs looking more like an inexperienced prom king than a president, an appearance only reinforced by his pathetic attempts at dancing. One would think America’s first couple could be bothered to learn at least a simple waltz before thier inaugural ball.

    Reply
  4. omschiefslr

    I believe lapel pins would not be appropriate even for us Americans. It does throw off the simplicity of the DJ and Tuxedo Kit.

    I do believe a small boutonniere can be appropriate if given by the sponsors of the special gala. Recently, my wife and I were recognized as donors at a new school dedication this way.

    It was an understated white rose and it worked well with the Black Tie outfit.

    Reply
  5. CharlesM

    Lapel pins have always seemed to me a bit self-aggrandizing or, as was suggested here, politically expedient, especially with semi-formal wear.

    A boutonniere of special recognition is another matter altogether at the event at which one is being recognized, especially if the sponsors have taken care to assure it being appropriate to the occasion.

    I suppose we could always revert to the Victorian use of a fob on the center chain of the double albert in one’s waistcoat.

    Reply
  6. Stephen

    Do you think it would be appropriate to wear a realistic red silk poppy in place of a standard Remembrance Poppy? I don’t think they look quite right with evening clothing.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      While I think the symbolism of the regular poppy far outweighs any aesthetic consideration, I also don’t see anything wrong with wearing a fancier version for a special occasion.

      silk poppy

      Reply
  7. Jay

    I am American and the lapel pin is for Obama what the tiara is for Queen Elizabeth. It is simply a symbol that is uniquely representative of the nation the leader represents. (although, if that were more true, perhaps Obama should really wear an expanding waistline pin) Due to 9/11 and the desire to appear patriotic, several traditions began which Americans rarely question now (such as saying no to a TSA agent at an airport security checkpoint). In roughly 2008, Michelle Obama gave an interview where she said that for the first time she felt proud to be an American, and was roundly criticized from all corners for speaking a heartfelt opinion. As a result, all American politicians, regardless of party normally sport American flag lapel pins when acting in their official capacity whether formal or not.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks so much for the insight, Jay. The monarchist in me, though, can’t help clarifying that the Queen’s association with her realm is represented by her crown (and other crown jewels); her tiaras are simply decorative jewelry worn on formal occasions.

      Reply
    2. Duncan Pike

      I would disagree that it is the equivalent of the Crown. The Crown is a symbol of the sovereign, and can be worn, exclusively, by the sovereign. A flag pin can be worn by anyone, as a show of patriotism, solidarity, or simply identification when abroad. A pin bearing the Seal of the POTUS might be considered equivalent, but I would say a flag pin does not fall into that same category.

      Reply
      1. Peter Marshall

        Yes, I was going to mention that too but thought I’d leave it for someone else to point out ;)

        Reply
        1. Duncan Pike

          You just know I like to post in spurts.

          Reply
  8. Jay

    I agree with you gentlemen, but do not read too much into it. The lapel pin stuff is just a method for making sure that you do not appear unpatriotic, which of course is primarily important to slick talkers who need votes to keep the good flow of Congressional (or Presidential) benefits rolling along. From their point of view, at the next evening dress event they attend, there may be that one baby that needs kissing to secure a vote. That said, they do not belong at an evening dress or informal evening dress occasion.

    Reply
  9. wdwright77

    When I was younger, I literally ruined all of my tuxedo jackets by these of Lapel pins. Every organization that was an adjunct organization to the one I belonged to had pins, and then there were the buttons that we wore to campaign for people running for offices and these were no small feats. Plus the national organization had merit bars for all feats of accomplishment. In short, all of this made us look like walking side shows! I vowed that when I turned 21 and got a tux for choir or Lodge or whatever the next black one would be used for that none of that junk would allowed near it! I am very pleased to learn that these objects have no place in formal wear and I have indeed kept that vow that nothing (other than a flower for a boutenierre ) will be attached to the lapels of my tuxedos. Flag pins included. They can call me unpatriotic, but a formal night out at the Symphony or otherwise is not a place for those things that speaks politics or otherwise. Besides, nothing looks as good as a smooth satin lapel framed by a bow tie and cummerbund with that ‘v’ of white from the shirt.

    Reply
  10. David

    I was looking at Brooks Brothers’ website tonight and found why they flag pin has been inserted. “As a symbol of our dedication to American manufacturing, your Madison sport coat arrives with an American Flag pin fastened to the lapel.”

    http://www.brooksbrothers.com/Madison-Fit-Golden-Fleece%C2%AE-Saxxon%E2%84%A2-Wool-Reserve-Blazer/MM00084,default,pd.html?dwvar_MM00084_Color=NAVY&contentpos=32&cgid=

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Yes, I added that information in my postscript a few days after writing the post.

      Reply
    2. wdwright77

      I fully believe the choice of wearing the lapel pin should be the tuxedo owner’s. As a boy in my teens and twenties, I belonged to an organization that pushed lapel pins on everybody. And I, like every other guy, wanted to do the right thing so we pushed them in and wore them. Soon it became quite a site during stated meetings and conventions to see the lapels of our tuxedos take on this jewelry store like look. When you also added in our Merit Bar heads and the strings of Merit Bars we could earn for everything from Ritual proficiency to attendance, the tuxedo jacket became something far less formal than the tailors who mad sit ever intended. And since these days were the days of colored tuxedos, you had to transfer all the garbage from suit to suit, sometimes during a convention twice or three times a day. Since I left that time behind, frankly I’m proud of two things: 1. I gave up wearing colored tuxedo jackets (other than white for summer) so I no longer look like a clown. Black (or Midnight Blue) is the ONLY choice that is correct for Formal Wear and 2. I quit collecting (and sticking) useless pieces of metal for my lapel. The Lapel on a tuxedo should only be adorned in most cases by a boutinere. It really came home to me when one day, I looked at the lapel of my favorite Black tuxedo and realized it looked like a pin cushion. And I had paid big bucks for the suit ($500 was a lot for a kid 16-21 years of age). There was nothing that could be done to repair the suit at that stage, so I swore that never again would anything adorn my lapels. The idea that one should have to wear a flag in his lapel is a bit absurd. I’m no less patriotic than the next guy, but why ruing an expensive garment like a tuxedo to promote America. Just because Obama wears one, does not mean we all have to; just look at how the man dressed in Black Tie when he started-white bow tie and cummerbund-and then like all of us, he found out what was proper to wear. Besides, the pin talked away from the silkiest look a man will ever wear, a beautiful Black Tuxedo framed in satin with a very wide ‘v’ of white punctuated with Black studs running through the middle. And on the arm of the gent is hopefully a very well-dressed lady, so why should the gent want to show off?

      Reply
  11. Mike Kelley

    I think that it would depend on the function you are attending. For example, I am a member of the Knights of Columbus, and as a 4th Degree member, we wear Dinner Jackets to our social events, and regalia with Dinner Jackets when serving in an honor guard. Our regulations state that miniature medals, representing offices held be worn above the breast pocket. It also requires that a lapel pin consisting of the emblem of the Fourth Degree combined with the flag of the members nation (the Fourth Degree is focused on Patriotism) be worn. If you are currently holding office, a Jewel is worn around the neck (neck decoration). I imagine there are many other fraternal organizations that have similar protocols.

    http://issuu.com/knightsofcolumbus/docs/dm-general

    As a veteran of the US Marine Corps, I normally wear my miniature medals and breast insignia, if the situation is appropriate.

    As a side note, I have never seen a US President wear the Seal of the President. Those military personnel who are assigned duties to the White House or Camp David, wear the Presidential Service Badge on the right breast pocket. A lapel pin of this is available and can be worn in civilian clothing.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_Service_Badge

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      As I said in a reply to an earlier comment, wearing association lapel pins at association events is obviously acceptable. It’s the wearing of those pins at public events that’s inappropriate.

      Reply
  12. Erik Grimsgaard

    Hi, I will be attending my first Black Tie event this weekend, 13 Sep. It is a civilian event honoring America’s Medal of Honor recipients and a select few political figures/celebrities who have done great things for Veterans and Service Members. I am a Veteran and a former Green Beret. Although I do not like to wear military awards or dress, i have a question and would like your feedback…

    I am considering wearing an American Flag lapel pin and or an Army Special Forces Crest to show my veteran status at the event. There will be many military members at the event in Mess Dress with awards.

    What are your thoughts?

    Thanks,

    Erik

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Indicating your veteran status at a formal veterans’ affair seems perfectly appropriate. I suggest that the Army Special Forces Crest would be the most effective way to do this, versus the much more generic American flag lapel pin.

      Reply
  13. Erik Grimsgaard

    Peter, thanks for the reply. Another question is that I am not planning on wearing a vest or cummerbund with my peaked lapel tux.

    From your site that looks to be a major faux pas…comments?

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      If the Guide hasn’t convinced you of the pitfalls of going bare waisted, check out the this blog’s red carpet reviews for more glaring evidence.

      Reply
    2. wdwright77

      If it were me, I’d avoid the lapel decoration altogether. You can read my comments as to why. As to going bare waisted, no cummerbund or waist coat (vest), if Peter has not convinced you otherwise in his Black Tie Guide section, then something is wrong. You should wear one or the other unless of course you wear a double-breasted tuxedo coat. If you do have a comfortable one button tuxedo coat, you could wear it buttoned all night I suppose, but there will be times when the waist will be exposed and that’s why you need to wear a waist covering.

      Reply
  14. Erik Grimsgaard

    Thanks! I did get a waistcoat, very classic one too :). You should have seen the looks when I asked (purposefully) for a waistcoat…”Uh, you mean a vest??” It was pretty funny.

    I am going to bring the lapel pin and see what others are doing. If most have flags and things I will partake, if not I won’t. The one thing about the SF Crest is it is black and silver so it would actually match the overall outfit…

    Reply

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