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Return of the Smoking Jacket

The Venerable Old Smoking Jacket Has a Place in the Gentleman's Wardrobe
By G. Bruce Boyer | From John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Not so many years ago, the mention of the smoking jacket conjured up two vivid images: a brace of elderly fin-de-siècle gentlemen reading in their overstuffed easy chairs at the club, or a certain libidinous publisher, entertaining in pajamas at his mansion, pipe clenched in teeth and bunny-costumed ladies on either arm. The garment had become, variously, a curiosity from another age and a symbol of a sybaritic lifestyle.

But like anything that achieves a sublime marriage of form and function, the smoking jacket is back (not that it ever truly left us) as a quite useful part of a gentleman's wardrobe--an item that imparts casual stylishness to the wearer and, of course, protects his other apparel from the residual odors of smoking.

The Edwardian Age was the last period in which men dressed according to the occasion and the time of day with any scrupulousness. Witness all the morning coats, dinner jackets, evening coats, lounge jackets and suits, and day frock coats, not to mention all the special jackets for seaside wear, walking in the country, and a variety of sports. Unsurprising, then, that they would have had a whole range of garments for the popular pastime of smoking.

Today, the smoking jacket should more properly be considered a general, all-purpose, at-home entertaining jacket. With all the apparent choices about what to wear for at-home dinners, there seems to be a lot of confusion. Some men will wear a suit with a casual shirt or sweater in an attempt to soften its demeanor for the evening. Others will fall back on some sort of sports jacket or the trusty blazer. Even the cashmere cardigan has been brought into play.

But if a tuxedo is too formal and a suit too pedestrian, a sweater a bit too casual and a blazer a cliché, what to do? The smoking jacket is the perfect alternative. There's much more styling variety here than supposed. An at-home jacket of this type can first either be a buttoned or a sash style. The buttoned version is coat-shaped, either single-breasted with shawl lapels (usually self-faced) and one-button closure, or double-breasted with one-, two- or three-button closure (usually with braiding, called frogs). It's also ventless, with piped lapels, cuffs and pockets.

The concept of an elegantjacket for entertaining, naturally, has never been lost on the purveyors of better clothing.

"At Sulka we've got over a hundred-year history of making the finest at-home wear," Gary Wasserman, head designer for the firm, proudly states. "In our stores we've always had a separate section dedicated to loungewear. It continues to be an important part of our business, and I must say that smoking jackets have been selling nicely--for both men and women. Women will buy the men's jackets to wear as coats, over everything from party dresses to jeans. Men mostly wear them for personal at-home wear."

"They are at-home wear, of course," agrees Joseph Barrato, chief executive officer of Brioni USA, "but I think they should more properly be presented as an alternative type of formalwear. That way, a man can be made more aware of the possibilities of the garment, that it's really a jacket meant for entertaining."

"Well, what I see is that men like to wear these jackets for at-home dinners and entertaining," says Mr. Leonard Logsdail, a Savile Row tailor now based in New York. "They're comfortable, not as formal as a dinner jacket, and quite distinctive.

"We do them in the traditional cut velvet--most of our customers buy them in bottle green, dark blue or claret red--and in traditional styling: one-button single-breasted, with shawl lapels, frogging on the cuffs and pockets and around the lapels, and ventless. Very traditional."

Logsdail is quite correct to emphasize "traditional" in this context. There's an undeniably retro elegance to a smoking jacket that hearkens back to a time when personal pleasures were taken seriously. What we learn from C. Willett Cunnington's Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century is that the smoking jacket, which looked exactly as it does today, has been around for 150 years. Well, make that since 1852, since that's the year of Cunningham's first reference to the garment:

"A kind of short robe de chambre, of velvet, cashmere, plush, merino, or printed flannel; lined with bright colors, ornamented with brandenbourgs, olives, or large buttons." --The Gentleman's Magazine.

Brandenbourgs in this case are the braided loop closing (now called frogs), and olives are woven buttons so shaped.

The smoking jacket finds its antecedents in the robes de chambre (dressing gown, robe, housecoat, bathrobe--call it what you will) that wealthy Englishmen imported from the East to wear as at-home outfits.

Penelope Byrde, in The Male Image: Men's Fashion in England 1300-1970, traces this attire to the beginning of the sixteenth century, when trade with the East began to bring luxuries to northern Europe. Tobacco (both Virginian and Turkish), coffee, tea, chocolate, silks and spices were all flowing north. By the mid-seventeenth century, these robes, made of fine silk, were held in such high esteem that it was fashionable to have one's picture painted wearing one. Samuel Pepys, famous for his wonderfully informative diary, was only a civil servant and could not afford one, so he rented one to sit for his portrait:

Thence home and eat one mouthful, and so to Hale's and there sat till almost quite dark upon working my gowne, which I hired to be drawn [in] it--an Indian gown, and I do see all the reason to expect a most excellent picture of it. --Diary, 30 March 1666

This tradition of wearing a comfortable robe at home--usually with a soft dressing cap and Persian slippers--was observed until the 1850s, when the smoking jacket took its place. Smoking, Byrde tells us, became very popular during the Crimean War (1853-1856), when Turkish tobacco became readily available in Europe.

The well-decorated Victorian house now often contained a moking room. This was a convenient place for a gentleman and his friends (males only) to retire for good cigars, brandy, political talk, and perhaps a little risqué banter. The Edwardian novelist and biographer E. F. Benson recalled such an evening at a country house party:

After the hostess and the other ladies had bid goodnight to their husbands, most of the men changed their evening coats for smoking jackets, though one or two did not bother to do this, but went as they were into the smoking room, where presently the others joined them, wearing their braided and frogged habiliments. Lord Buryan made a more complete change and appeared in a suit of ruby-coloured velvet. --As We Are

That Lord Buryan had a complete smoking suit surprises us, but in the second half of the nineteenth century the smoking wardrobe was considerable. To quote costume and social historian Pearl Binder:

Now that [men] had a room to smoke in, the question of what costume to smoke in became of deep concern, and all the fashion-books of the nineteenth century devote pages to fancy designs for smoking-peignoirs for modish gentlemen, smoking-jackets, smoking-waistcoats, smoking slippers, and especially smoking-caps. A smoking-cap was the perfect present for a young lady to embroider for her financé or intimate relation of the male sex, or even for the curate. --The Peacock's Tail

Smoking waistcoats--not to mention the more unusual smoking peignoirs--are no longer with us, but certainly velvet slippers are, as well as smoking caps. "At Turnbull & Asser we still do the traditional velvet smoking cap with tassel to match our velvet smoking jackets," says Gregg de Vaney, chief executive officer of the firm in the United States. This is the same pork-pie design worn by Victorian gentlemen.

The other style of smoking attire, which remains with us, resembles a truncated gown, loosely cut and sashed, with shawl lapels (either self-faced or satin-covered), patch-style pockets and cuffs to match the lapels. Sashes are generally tasseled. This is the style that Robert Talbott specializes in. "With black trousers, fine shirt, and ascot, we find the sash-style smoking jacket is comfortable, practical and beautiful," says Susan Benson, a spokesperson for the firm. "We just made two handsome silk ones for pianist Michael Feinstein. I'm assuming that he'll wear them to perform in, as well as for at-home entertaining."

Once one has decided to take up the practice of wearing the time-honored smoking jacket, the question becomes, how to accessorize it? The simplest way to wear it is as though it were a dinner jacket--that is, with evening trousers (black or midnight blue) and shirt, as well as bow tie. The other possibility is with gray flannel trousers--almost any shade works, but light gray is particularly jaunty--and either an evening shirt and a bow tie or a less formal shirt with a scarf at the neck.

Shoes follow the dinner-jacket model--plain or patent-leather black oxford or slip-on--or the house-slipper model: velvet, tweed or leather thin-soled slippers in any complementary color.

Women wear wonderfully glamorous pajama-style outfits for at-home entertaining. Why can't men add a little sophistication--not to say sexiness--to their wardrobes with a cut-velvet or silk jacket that looks more elegant than a sports coat? *

G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable.