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The Smoking Jacket: Old Fashioned-Elegance Meets Modern Day

Jan 18, 2008
The smoking jacket: like the cigar itself, it's a timeless emblem of leisure, idleness, "the good life." First widely worn in England during the Victorian period, the smoking jacket has undergone a bit of a resurgence in recent years, as younger consumers turn to it - as they have to, again, the cigar - for a touch of old-fashioned elegance.

Though the term is sometimes used to mean "any old jacket you do most of your smoking in," a proper smoking jacket is a considerably more formal affair. Typically, they're made from velvet or silk of a rich color - not a plain black but, perhaps, bottle green, dark blue, or claret red. A classic smoking jacket features a shawl collar, turned-up cuffs, rich colors (burgundy and green, bottle green, dark blue, claret).

They're ventless, and come in either coat-shaped or sashed form. Coat-shaped smoking jackets can be single-breasted with shawl lapels, or double-breasted with braided closures - usually called, no kidding, "frogs."

We don't know precisely who was the first to wear one, but many sartorial historians trace the smoking jacket back to the same moment in history that brought smoking to the West - the beginning of the sixteenth century, when trade opened up between England and the countries then known to Europeans as the Far East, especially Turkey and India. (It was, of course, this same trade, along with tobacco farming in the New World, that introduced the English to tobacco.)

Silk and velvet robes de chambre, designed for indoor wear by a wealthy and leisured minority, made a great status symbol and comfortable daywear. This fashion development was so intimately bound up with trade and colonialism that when famous seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys rented one to sit for his portrait, he refers to it, in his journal entry for that day, as an "Indian gown."

During the Crimean War (1853-1856) Turkish tobacco - the lusty, semi-sweet, full-flavored tobacco that makes Middle Eastern travel such a joy for the nonallergic - was made generally available to Europeans for the first time, and smoking swept England, becoming as universal a pastime for Victorian gentlemen as cricket and grouse-hunting.

But these Victorian gentlemen worried that their new hobby posed certain problems for the Victorian lady - who was generally imagined as an infinitely delicate creature barely hardy enough to breathe on her own. (Ironically, this assumption was most widespread at the very moment when industrialism, combined with barbaric social policy and the popularity of social-Darwinist ideas that forbade charity to the poor, forced many working-class Englishwomen not only to work while pregnant but to actually give birth on the factory floor.)

Tobacco, these gentlemen reasoned, has a strong scent, perhaps offensive to the nostrils of proper ladies. Therefore, well-equipped Victorian homes began sporting smoking rooms, parlors designed specifically for masculine inhalation and conversation. That kept the fumes out of the lady's boudoir, but what about the smell?

As even casual smokers know, the odor of tobacco settles on furniture, hair, clothes - it's impossible to segregate. "Indian gowns," now rechristened and repurposed as "smoking jackets," came to the rescue - along with caps, slippers, even waistcoats specially designed for smoking. The entry for "smoking jacket" first turns up in Cunningham's Handbook of English Costume, a standard reference, in 1852 - the beginning of a long love affair between the smoker and his (always his) jacket.

In the twentieth century, as dress became less an art form (with an entire wardrobe for every occasion) than a matter of convenience, and as tobacco went from being a social ritual to a private addiction, the smoking jacket disappeared along with the occasion that gave rise to it, relegated to old movies and certain flamboyant TV personalities (Liberace, Hugh Hefner).

During the 1990s, though, an overstressed, overdriven American workforce began turning to such old-fashioned pleasures as the coffee house, the tea room, and the fine-tobacco store to restore a sense of specialness and ritual to the pressure-chamber of postmodern life. Smoking jackets, like smoking, made a comeback. Today they're considered a perfect alternative for social occasions when a suit-and-sweater won't do but a tuxedo's too formal. They're more distinctive than dinner jackets, and their rich colors and romantic connotations make them perfect for entertaining. Women are turning to them, too, as a form of brisk-weather outerwear.
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CigarFox provides the finest cigars that include cigar brands like cohiba, gurkha and many more. Other cigar products include cigar humidors, cigar boxes, and cigar accessories like Zippo Lighters.
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