The Essence of Cool

Posted by Cardell Philips on 12th Jul 2014

They are cool in a James Bond sort of way.

Made with elegant designs, expensive materials, intricate patterns, rich colors – and with a mystique all its own, smoking jackets are an unmistakable symbol of success, wealth and leisure.

In 1852, the Gentlemen’s Magazine of London described the smoking jacket as A kind of short robe de chamber, of velvet, cashmere, plush, merino, or printed flannel; lined with bright colors, ornamental with brandengourgs, olives, or large buttons. Excuse me, a velvet robe de chamber? One can just imagine a gathering of the titans of the day, sitting in high backed chairs around a fireplace, wearing their smoking jackets, sipping brandy and smoking cigars, debating politics and boasting about their conquests.

Since its heyday during England’s Victorian Age, the smoking jacket has had its ups and downs. They were popular among the great entertainment stars of the 50’s and 60’s. Cary Grant wore them, so did Frank Sinatra and his pal Dean Martin. The look fit in perfectly with Liberace’s act along with his candelabra and grand piano. Fred Astaire was buried in one. And no conversation about the smoking jacket would complete without mentioning the uber suave, pipe smoking, young at heart, founder of playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner.

Alas, the elegant stars of yesteryear have departed leaving Hef to carry the torch. Because of or in spite of that, the smoking jacket has made a comeback. It’s gained a retro status that appeals to today’s generation that works hard and plays hard.

The classic smoking jacket is a coat shaped jacket, single-breasted with a shawl collar and turned up cuffs and toggle or button fastenings, or it may be simply closed with a tie belt. It’s ventless, with piped lapels, cuffs and pockets. Typically made from velvet or silk of rich color such as bottle green, dark blue or claret red, their very boldness conveys a sense of confidence to the wearer.

The origin of the smoking jacket is obscured in, well, smoke. Many historians say its genesis began in the sixteenth century, when trade opened up between England and what was known then as the Far East. That trade, and trade with New World, introduced the English to luxuries such as coffee, tea, spices, tobacco and silk. By the mid-seventeenth century, silk and velvet robes de chamber had become a status symbol.

During the Crimean War (1853-1856) Turkish tobacco became generally available to Europeans for the first time and smoking became a popular pastime in England.

But as any smoker will tell you, the odor of smoke seeps into you’re your hair, furniture, clothes, everything. Enter the smoking jacket, an update of the velvet or silk robe. Its rich materials were comfortable yet elegant and most important they absorbed the odor of the smoke in the jacket instead of the clothing underneath. Now a gentleman could retire to his parlor to smoke and commiserate with his fellows and not have to worry about offending the lady of the house with the tell of his rakish behavior. Needless to say, smoking jackets became a de rigueur addition to any self respecting, English gentleman’s wardrobe.

Today the smoking jacket is seen as the perfect alternative for social occasions when a sport jacket is too casual but a tuxedo’s too formal. They have a real funky look when worn with jeans. Women too, are turning to smoking jackets as a sexy option for a night out.

In the end, the smoking jacket has survived and reemerged as a retro fashion because of the allure that surrounds it. They make you look and feel casually elegant, the essence of cool.