When Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey in New York City at the end of 1999, it wasn’t just Prohibition-era cocktails that he reintroduced to drinkers; it was an entire culture with its own rules of conduct and a distinct sense of fashion. In the decade that followed, that speakeasy wardrobe—suspenders, vests and the optional mustache—would be replicated a thousand times over, so much so that the “hipster bartender” became a humorous trope.
Today, as cocktail culture becomes ever-more relaxed and genre-defying, bartenders have lost a button or two, let their hair down and started wearing whatever the hell they want. (I’m particularly a fan of the Hawaiian shirt trend.) But there’s still something to be said for a thoughtful, stylish bar uniform, so long as it’s authentic to the identity of the bar and doesn’t distract from the overall experience. If you’re serving Tiki drinks, you can stay on-brand with a tropical print. If you’re a fancy Japanese bar, why not rock those super-sharp blazers? And of course, if your bar is a classic 1920s speakeasy, forget the haters and go for the suspenders if that’s what you like.
But don’t feel like you have to choose any of the traditional styles associated with bars. Many of the best cocktail bars today are creating all-new uniforms that function as a visual calling card for their brand—case in point, the straw fedoras and orange guayaberas at the Havana-inspired BlackTail in NYC.
So how does a bar create a uniform, or even just a general theme for employee attire, that speaks to its concept? We spoke to restaurateurs, bartenders and bar managers around the world to get some insight.
1. Revamp a Classic
At the new Silver Lining Diner in Southampton, N.Y., the bar staff adopts a modern take on the classic jumpsuit. M.T. Carney, a partner in the diner and founder of marketing firm Untitled Worldwide, says she chose the outfits as a way to update the traditional diner uniform while also speaking to current trends.
“Many designers from Dior to Heron Preston are showing jumpsuits in their collections,” says Carney. “We wanted to reflect what’s happening in fashion now in a fun way. It also plays on the theme of the rest of the restaurant—elevating a classic diner with a more modern feel.”
2. Offer a Sense of Place
Some bars tap into their genre, while others tap into their geography. At Charleston, S.C.’s Citrus Club, perched atop the stunning midcentury-inspired Dewberry hotel, bartenders can be found wearing orange-sherbet-colored seersucker button-ups with matching vests. Designed by hotel founder John Dewberry, the outfits’ pastel hues recall those that define Charleston’s downtown cityscape, while its material speaks to the Southern climate.
“The light color and fabric nod both to the color of citrus fruits found in many of our cocktails, as well as the hot and humid summers of Charleston,” says director of food and beverage Kate Killoran. “The uniforms add playfulness and whimsy, which matches the menu itself. They also offer a contrast to the hotel’s lobby-level bar, which includes formal white jackets.”
The location-based principle applies even if your establishment is channeling a faraway destination—or an abstract ideal. At Il Dandy, a new Calabrian restaurant in San Diego, bar uniforms are meant to help transport patrons to Italy’s seaside region. The uniform—which includes a dress shirt, suspenders or vest, dress pants, tie or ascot, and Superga shoes—also evokes the concept of the “dandy” and “dandyism,” that is, the Italian philosophy that a man should place satisfaction on his cultural passions.
“The Il Dandy uniforms make a nod to the maritime lifestyle of Calabria; our bartenders wear fresh white or light blue shirts over navy blue pants as if they were going to spend the day on the water,” says co-founder Dario Gallo. “Server assistants wear a striped white-and-blue three-quarter T-shirt, reminiscent of a cabin boy ensuring smooth sails ahead. While in uniform, our staff takes on the character of a dandy, well-groomed and well-dressed, with an air of nonchalance. Though dapper, the Il Dandy uniform feels relaxed when paired with ‘Italy’s people’s shoe,’ the Superga sneakers.”
3. Accent and Accessorize
Even with a more conservative or traditional uniform, accents and accessories can provide subtle visual cues to your establishment’s brand. At Clockwork Champagne & Cocktails, at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto, bartenders are fitted in a modern take on the classic tuxedo with white blazers. Here, it’s more subtle accents, such as a gold lapel and custom tie, that speak to the bar’s identity.
“We chose this style as a nod to our past and the grandeur of our lobby but with added hints of new traditions, like unique patterns and accessories,” says general manager Grant Nelson. “We added the gold lapel to bring out the Clockwork gold branding and paired it with a bespoke clock pattern tie that features the same design as our hostess dresses. All are designed to look sleek and sophisticated with a young, vibrant feel.”
4. Consider an Ununiform Uniform
Chicago Tiki bar Three Dots and Dash riffs on the Hawaiian shirt with custom-made floral uniforms by Stock Mfg. Co., a workwear design company. But rather than stick to a single design and silhouette, the bar provides team members with options. This creates a loose collage-like theme that maintains a few constants while offering some stylistic freedom.
“Each team member is given five different uniforms that reflect the Tiki theme created with bright colors and florals,” says beverage director Kevin Beary. “We schedule which is worn on each particular day of the week for uniformity, but the dresses and outfits come in a few different styles and patterns, so each server can wear the design that’s most comfortable for them.”
5. Don’t Get Too Complicated
In the same spirit, Austin’s Emmer & Rye sources custom aprons from a local purveyor, Savilino, which bartenders wear atop simple white shirts and jeans. The staff are allowed to wear any white shirt and jeans they have, giving the team a cohesive look and feel without having an exact uniform.
“When we first opened the restaurant, we spent hours on Pinterest looking at restaurant uniforms. We wanted something simple and consistent,” says chef Kevin Fink. “White shirts and jeans seemed like a good option to fit our decor and showcase the aprons. We have no brand requirements, just style guidelines. Our team has done a great job of taking something simple like a white shirt and allowing their own style to show.”
6. Keep It Fun and Functional
No matter how stylish your concept may be, it doesn’t work as a bar uniform if it’s not functional. Avoid attire that’s too loose and can get caught on edges, but also avoid attire that’s too tight to allow mobility. If you have a budget for custom uniforms, consider some of the great aforementioned brands that are creating fashion-forward attire specifically for the restaurant and bar industry. Another standout among these is Tilit, a hospitality workwear brand that has worked with the likes of Momofuku’s Bar Wayō and Death & Co in NYC.
“We try to make bar uniforms functional to the specific role while still capturing the theme of the restaurant,” say Tilit co-founders Jenny Goodman and Alex McCrery. “For example, the bar team at Bar Wayō wears our worker jacket in the same hue as the service team’s aprons. The cut of the jackets, pocket placement and size versatility offer the bar team a modern look with functional utility.”