By Robin Dutt
I possess quite a few. Let me recollect – midnight blue silk velvet, claret red, a fine 1960’s Simpson’s example with an imposing silk grosgrain shawl lapel and, oh yes…one rather curious confection – a 1920’s luxurious midnight blue art silk, decorated with a vivid print of a variety of strange monsters playing tambourines and flutes. Coward couldn’t have wanted for better.
And although one can hear the ‘tisk-tisk’ of those wedded only to natural fabrics, so many 1920’s and 1930’s artificial fibres were revolutionary in their brilliance. They trapped colour better than the real deal and were easy to maintain.possess quite a few. Let me recollect – midnight blue silk velvet, claret red, a fine 1960’s Simpson’s example with an imposing silk grosgrain shawl lapel and, oh yes…one rather curious confection – a 1920’s luxurious midnight blue art silk, decorated with a vivid print of a variety of strange monsters playing tambourines and flutes. Coward couldn’t have wanted for better.
Do remember though, that artificial materials of the past were generally much superior to today’s poor efforts. But even today it is possible to source dead stock bolts of cloth which you can have whipped up into something unique. I came across some purple crepe which had been presumably left in the sun so much that it had the shadow of the window frame burnt onto it.
For a more robust winter gown, head to Guy Hill’s Dashing Tweeds near Savile Row for a range of surprising colour combinations. Tweed for a smoking jacket? You will be surprised.
The smoking jacket and dressing gown are what some might refer to as ‘undress.’ Some inspiration for such garments may be traced to the Oriental robes of the 1600s. But they have long been appropriated by English gentlemen, and are a staple of theatricals and thespians. Who can forget Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets, where along with his superb day time wardrobe, he sports a sculpted dressing gown? It was also the perfect partner to his mood and manner – and indeed, intent.
Worn with a certain insouciance, smoking jackets still possess a studied charm. And whilst it may look surprising to see a gentleman in a smoking jacket at Claridge’s or The Ritz now, it is more than appropriate.
There has been a timely rekindling of interest in this garment. It is no coincidence perhaps that this renewed fascination coincides with the popularity of the cocktail hour in general.
New & Lingwood is breaking twenty-first century ground with some exquisite examples of robes with unusual motifs – skull and crossbones, a shadowed, ancient frieze detail and a blaze of almost Beardsley-esque peacocks for starters. Turnbull & Asser offers timeless, elegant polka dot, divinely minimal and mathematic – or you might consider the clever jigsaw design instead. Favourbrook has long championed vividly printed, woven and even beaded fabrics for its evening garb and Hackett’s offerings are sentinels of pared down masculine chic. But do let us remember Scott Crolla, who over 30 years ago encouraged men into wearing exotica.
The smoking jacket, or gown, should ideally be partnered by a crisp (usually white) shirt and judiciously chosen cravat. A tie pin (never a clip) is a delightful addition. Perhaps for some a bow tie is acceptable but I often favour creating a bow out of a square of soft silk (Thai or Indian are best) to create that Charles Baudelaire chez moi elan – or in fact, anyone who understands the elan of the dandy. Of course, Terry-Thomas and Frank Muir with their bows could do no wrong.
There is something rather reassuring about tightly knotted frogging on a smoking jacket. I purchased one some years ago dating from the 1900’s from Belgium, the body an intense royal purple and the shawl and cuffs old champagne, the tactile frogs a clever mix of both hues. A sash, usually the same colour as the lapels, can look dashing but does have a tendency to slip and need attention between Martini sips and that tray of canapes.
This robe de chambre was originally made most popularly in velvet because the dense pile would ‘soak’ up the smoke that issued from pipe or cigar – quite apart from being a delicious fabric to the touch. Velvet is usually cut with an upward pile which intensifies the colour and also minimises damage to your clothes beneath by accidental ‘bruising’. Apparently, one tailor in the Row made up (by mistake) a smoking jacket with the pile reversed and made it their signature style rather than repeat the process, correctly. Innovation knows no bounds when it comes to damage limitation.
Although perhaps tradition might favour the traditional approach, the smoking jacket today could be a sartorial expression of evening experimentation. So obsessed was Fred Astaire that he went to meet his maker, buried in one. To possess a minimum of at least twelve, offers all kinds of monthly alternatives and yes, I did say at least.
There are so many questions to ask oneself about the material, the finishing details, the lining. Is a tasselled belt de rigeur or a mite too much? Quilted lapels? Why not? Patch pockets for sure and no vents, definitely. Other than that, there remains only one other question. What to drink?