James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States, is better remembered for winning the war with Mexico in 1848 than for his sense of style. The cigar-smoking Democrat leaned toward the dour, conservative suits preferred by fellow lawyers of his day. A closer look, though, reveals that Polk did own one trendy item of clothing: a smoking jacket. Made of figured satin damask with satin shawl collar and cuffs and frog closures (braided loops), Polk’s classic black jacket—his only surviving garment—would fit in perfectly at a celebration today. Polk’s jacket demonstrates how the silky garment has evolved from the utilitarian sartorial shield to a decidedly personal fashion statement.
The British are credited with popularizing the smoking jacket, which they created years before the Polk administration by shortening their silk lounging robes. Men wore the jackets (and, for a time, matching hats, pants, and slippers) to protect their clothes and hair from powerful tobacco odors and ash burns. Although English high society had been importing the robes from China for centuries, the growing popularity of cigar smoking during the latter half of the century made smoking jackets de rigueur in finer homes.
The smoking jacket, whose construction has remained unchanged for 150 years and has never fallen out of style, also served as the inspiration for the modern tuxedo. According to Savile Row’s Henry Poole & Co., in 1886 an American named James Potter was so impressed by the Prince of Wales’ smoking jacket that he had Poole, the Prince’s tailor, make him a similar garment. When Potter returned to the States, he wore it to a dinner at Tuxedo Park in New York and caused a sensation. Thus, the birth of the tuxedo. Indeed, to this day, the French refer to the tuxedo as le smoking.
The tuxedo proceeded to carve out its own place in society, but men continued to wear smoking jackets throughout the 20th century. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is rarely (never?) seen without one of his signature smoking jackets, which he has donned for the past 50 years. He understands that his attire exudes an air of casual elegance, and in that regard, Hef is not alone. French couturier Yves Saint Laurent has designed a smoking jacket—cut for a woman—for almost every show since 1966, and Gucci featured smoking jackets in its 2002 men’s fall fashion show.
Velvet velour, especially in burgundy, black, eggplant, and dark green, is the fabric of choice for smoking jackets, says James Sheed, director of luxury fabric maker Dormeuil in Manhattan. Brioni proffers ready-to-wear jackets in paisleys, solids, or contrasting colors, in black, burgundy, and bottle green. The velvet velour jackets, with shawl collar and frog closures, start at $1,800, with made-to-measure priced higher. Turnbull & Asser offers ready-to-wear velvet jackets in black, wine, and hunter green, with same-color cuffs and shawl collar and a frog front, for $1,650. The company also has bespoke jackets in about a dozen colors for $1,795, but expect to wait at least six weeks for one to be made.
If you are reluctant to wear a smoking jacket for fear that people will think you are padding around in pajamas, Scott Troia, clothing manager of Turnbull & Asser’s Manhattan shop, suggests pairing the jacket with gray flannel or tuxedo trousers and a formal shirt. “An ivory silk shirt is the best,” he says, “and an ascot, if so inclined.” Matching velvet evening slippers or leather slip-ons are also appropriate. “For a certain segment who does a lot of entertaining, it’s very popular.”
Although the smoking jacket’s original purpose may be less important in these abstemious times, its contributions to fashion have not been forgotten. “If you’re hosting a party,” says Brioni’s Michael Reslan, “a smoking jacket is an ideal thing to separate you from the rest.”
Brioni, 212.376.5777, www.brioni.com
Turnbull & Asser, 877.887.6285, 212.752.5700, www.turnbullandasser.com