This Simple Equation Always Tells You What to Tip the Coat Check
As surely as they sweep golden leaves into the gutter, fall winds have you pulling on your coat right about now. Which raises a swirling, annually forgotten conundrum: How much do you tip the coat check attendant?
This is one of the more vexing problems in all of gratuity etiquette. The world’s foremost expert on tipping is Cornell University’s Michael Lynn, a Ph.D. who publishes in such places as the Journal of Economic Psychology, The Sociological Quarterly, and the Journal of Foodservice Business Research. When I asked him about the coat check matter, the superlatively knowledgeable professor declined comment, pleading ignorance.
The experts are stumped, despite and because of the fact that coatrooms have been sites of social anxiety since the ancient days when they were all cloakrooms and the women who worked there were girls. No major arbiter of taste has addressed the issue with any degree of thoroughness since Vogue’s Book of Etiquette came out in 1948. Its author, the great Millicent Fenwick, lay down the law like so: “Hat-check girls: In expensive night clubs, 25 cents; in inexpensive night clubs, 10 cents or 15 cents for a hat; 15 to 25 cents for a hat and coat.”
Using Fenwick as a guide—adjusting for the inflation of the U.S. dollar and also for the general decline of U.S. decorum—I hereby propose that the minimum, correct coat check tip is $2.
Now, to be clear, I am not proposing a universal law of $2 per checked item. That standard should apply only in major metropolitan areas and at small-town restaurants with big-city pretensions and Hudson Valley Foie Gras on the menu. In other places with differing cost-of-living standards—let’s say Buffalo, home of the revered men’s shop, O’Connell’s—a tip of $2 will cover two items handsomely.
The correct tip for checking three items is $5. That is what to tip, whether stowing your stuff at a dance club or classical concert, or at any halfway swanky restaurant. If you are somewhere such as Clement at New York’s Peninsula Hotel, where the attendant presents your numbered ticket in a 2-by-3.5-inch envelope, maybe throw an extra buck or two into that envelope when you return it to him. (And daydream a bit about how such an envelope might figure in a film about high-level espionage, or a novel about small-time drug deals.)
The correct tip for an extremely expensive coat is $10—no arguing. If a Loro Piana coat is within your means, it is certainly not worth your time to debate. It’s perfectly acceptable to slip the Hamilton to the coat check person at the start of the evening. Although this is a fine way to engage the attendant’s attention, there are no guarantees that the Dutch door won’t be breached by thieves. As the legalese printed on the Peninsula’s envelope puts it, “Whilst we make every effort to safeguard your property, [we] will not be held responsible for the loss or damage of any item.”
You can, however, protect yourself against the loss or damage of dignity by hewing to the standards described above. I am aware that some will publicly object to these rules—including members of the coat check-clerk community. But they’re just being gracious. Last night, picking up my coat and holding only $20 bills, I asked an attendant if she could make change so that I could tip her. She declined to make change. “It’s the thought that counts,” she lied.
The only thing worse than skimping on the coat check tip is skipping the coat check altogether. For one thing, there is a long tradition of trying to sidestep the issue by wearing one’s coat to the table; it is accompanied by the tradition of headwaiters discreetly rolling their eyes as their dining rooms are defiled by parkas bunched around chairs like packing materials. If that’s your style, then stick to those (increasingly many) good restaurants where the best seats are at counters sporting helpful coat hooks.
For another, there are always a few people around who—blessed with a sense of propriety but cursed with light wallets—risk catching cold for the sake of saving a little dough. Look at the struggling publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) leaving the 21 Club in the classic film, Sweet Smell of Success. Burt Lancaster’s Walter Winchellesque gossip columnist directs many cutting remarks at Falco, none so cruel as this: “Where's your coat, Sidney? Saving tips?”