Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… the chic dinner jacket

Our sartorial aficionado finds himself in the vanguard of fashion

Swellboy on… the chic dinner jacket

Image: Brijesh Patel

July 03 2011
Nick Foulkes

Seldom am I able to claim to be ahead of the trend. In fact, I positively abhor being fashion-forward, and yet from time to time it would appear that I find myself, through no fault of my own, in the vanguard of chic.

If you find yourself in that select and discriminating club of regular and close readers of Swellboy, then you will be aware of the pioneering work that I have been doing in bringing socklessness to our damp island off the north coast of Europe. If I recall correctly, a little over a year ago I recounted my gallant efforts at going sockless with a dinner jacket at the Cannes Film Festival and how I have adopted this practice, weather permitting, in the UK too.

Now it seems that the fashion establishment has caught up with me – but not for long, as this summer I pulled the wraps off my latest warm-weather formal wear: a linen dinner jacket. It is a move that I feel puts me comfortably beyond mere fashion. Actually it is not just a linen dinner jacket but an entire linen dining suit, the lapels deftly edged with a fine black silk tape. It is a work of genius, and I can say this because it is not a work of my own making, but was whipped up by Mariano Rubinacci.

Hitherto my excursions into seasonally-adjusted formal wear have limited themselves to a voile-backed and sleeved dress shirt which I bought from Messrs Budd about 20 years ago, and a slightly off-white slubbed silk dinner jacket made for me by Terry Haste way back in the mists of time during the 20th century when he was still running the bespoke department at Hackett.

I thought I had pushed the dining suit as far as it could be moved, especially as the modern dinner jacket is itself originally a climate-adjusted version of the more formal tailcoat and, as is usual for many modern garments, owes its popularity to the British monarchy; in this instance Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.

As well as cigars and women, Edward loved his clothes. In 1858 Queen Victoria wrote despairingly to her daughter of the 17-year-old heir to the throne: “Unfortunately he took no interest in anything but clothes, and again clothes. Even when out shooting he was more occupied with his trousers than with the game.” (Very sensible – as you will recall, I extolled the virtues of the tweed shooting trouser some months ago.) But the shooting field was not his only sphere of sartorial innovation; according to Christopher Hibbert’s biography of the sybaritic monarch, “His adoption of a short, dark-blue jacket with silk facings, worn with a black bow tie and black trousers, on the voyage out to India led to the general acceptance of the dinner jacket.”

And it is doubtless the warm-weather antecedence that made the dinner jacket become popular on the Riviera in the early 20th century, where it was apparently known as a Monte Carlo and where its comparative lightness made it especially agreeable for those enjoying the casinos and other amenities of the southern seaside resorts of the belle époque.

Of course the linen dining suit seems perfectly logical, and in truth Mariano had been trying to coax me into one for a couple of years, but my rather foolish adherence to what I believed to be traditional values made the linen after dark seem somehow wrong. Now, like all recent converts, I am in danger of becoming a zealot on the subject. I am already contemplating a set of both morning and evening tails in linen and, given any opportunity, I will deliver an encomium on the subject at the drop of a (top) hat.

My almost violent desire to have every formal garment of any description replicated in linen has been greeted by Mariano with horror: “Never morning or tail coats in linen,” he spluttered, adding that such garments were fit only for “clowns or low-cost singers”.

Instead he has started directing me down another primrose path of climatically-influenced formal wear. Apparently he has made a dinner jacket for Lapo Elkann in Bugatti blue military cotton with patch pockets and two pairs of matching trousers, one of which ends, rather scandalously, just below the knee. I was perplexed; after all, it is not as if young Master Elkann cannot afford to pay for a full-length pair of trousers. But then Mariano explained that the extra pair of evening Bermudas was in case Master Elkann was invited to any formal dinners held on the beach at high tide.

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People, Suits