When, in 2005, bar owner Audrey Saunders began considering what the bartending staff would wear at her soon-to-open cocktail temple, Pegu Club, she was certain at least what she didn’t want to see them in. “I was sick of going to a club and seeing a bartender in a black-colored shirt,” she told me back in 2014.
Surely, her remark was an oversimplification of typical bartender apparel prior to the dawn of the cocktail renaissance. Or was it?
This past September, veteran New York bartender Tim Cooper posted an old photo of himself on Instagram, captioned: “Bartending back in 1998 when the mandatory bar attire consisted of different variations of a black T-shirt.” He added the hashtag #BlackShirtBartending.
Within hours, many other longtime bartenders were posting pictures of themselves bartending in black T-shirts, along with the hashtag, including bar-world luminaries like Simon Ford, Dominic Venegas, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Charles Hardwick, Philip Duff, Jim Meehan, Derek Brown and Toby Maloney. By November, there were more than 70 posts.
Turns out, bartending in a black T-shirt was a thing in the United States once upon a time, informed by a 1990s bar and club world that valued slimming and dirt-hiding apparel over bartending skills. Think of the poster for the 1988 film Cocktail. What is Tom Cruise wearing? Yeah, that’s right.
“I felt every bar job I had, or every bar I ever went to, it was just a variation of a black shirt,” recalls Cooper. “A black T-shirt or a black button-down.”
Hardwick can’t count the number of bars he worked at where he was required to don black shirts. He estimates it’s somewhere around 70 percent of his bar jobs, from the time he began bartending in the late 1990s to until about 2006. “I still have had a few that called for it since then,” he says. “Usually in the Meatpacking District.”
Sometimes the noir look went beyond the shirt. At Stars in San Francisco, in 1999, Venegas wore black from head to toe. The only places where he saw a different uniform were traditional joints—bars where the old-fashioned, white-jacket-and-bow-tie uniform was still in effect. “I used to hit up Ross for their selection of black shirts,” remembers Venegas. “I know at one time I preferred the Kenneth Cole shirts and had about four in rotation.”
So why were all the nation’s young bartenders once draped in the color of night? Theories vary. The most common is based on the same line of thinking that prevents most people from buying white carpeting.
“I think the premise behind it was, if you got dirty behind the bar, it would hide the dirt,” says Cooper. To Derek Brown, this attitude never made sense, as aprons perform the same practical duty. Plus, if you’re a decent bartender, you should be able to stay stain-free through a shift. He suggested another, less kind reason that employers put their bartenders in black: anonymity.
“You blend into the background at a dark bar,” says Brown. “Nice, if your goal is to have servants. But bartenders aren’t servants. In fact, their personality is often what brings people to the bar.”
Others conjecture that the style was rooted in more superficial concerns. Black was slimming; black was sexy; black was what the bartenders in the hot clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Miami were wearing. “I think there was this environment where there was a lot of vanity involved,” posits Cooper. “Many of the bar owners were looking for this model look. If you were a guy, you had to be clean-shaven and well put-together. The same with the women.” (An inadvertent irony of this hiring bias, Cooper suggested, is that bartenders with facial hair and tattoos—basically, the archetypal mixologist look—went to work at cocktail bars because they couldn’t get a job elsewhere.)
If there was a single club or bar or restaurant in the United States that launched the black-shirt bartending aesthetic, the bartenders interviewed for this article couldn’t name it. But everyone was certain what did the uniform in. At the dawn of the craft cocktail revival, bars and bartenders started taking their trade more seriously and looking to the past for guidance. Bartenders in the 1890s didn’t wear black T-shirts—they wore crisp white shirts and ties, arm garters and vests, and they kept themselves spotless. A few of the early craft cocktail bars, such as Flatiron Lounge in New York and Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, still leaned on the black-shirt look in their early years. But things started to change soon after.
“It took a minute for bars to define their own images and trust their bartenders to dress accordingly,” says Venegas.
Hardwick still sees the residue of the trend in genre bars that are a little slower on the uptake, such as pubs and sports bars. But in cocktail dens, black has not come back. You may see a T-shirt in today’s more casual era of cocktail bartending, but if it’s opaque, it’s probably the bartender’s personal choice.
For Brown, who regarded black-shirt bartending as “multiple levels of failure” style-wise, the garment’s banishment from the bar is just fine, and he hopes it continues that way. After all, he needs more time to recover.
“I own a few black shirts that I wear out casually,” he says, “and still have a little PTSD when I put one on.”