Formal Lapel Pins

Posted on March 13, 2014


(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?



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.

Posted in: Etiquette