Swellboy on… smoking jacket, no tie

Nick Foulkes delivers droll deliberations on modern takes on the dinner jacket. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

I have heard that it is now the height of chic to wear evening dress during daylight hours. It may be all the rage at Pitti Uomo, but here in fragrant Shepherd’s Bush the fashion for what I believe is called “daytime tux” has yet to arrive. This is not to say that I have not on occasion worn black tie in daylight hours: a couple of years ago when I won a backgammon tournament that finished at 7.30am, I took the children to school without changing out of my dinner jacket.

But, naïve and callow as I am, I always thought that the clue was in the name: “evening dress”, “dining suit” and “dinner jacket” – all suggestive of a sun-past-the-yardarm time of day.

Once upon a time, black tie was a straightforward matter, a set of overalls for nocturnal socialising in heavy black barathea to keep warm in draughty marquees pitched in the gardens of country houses. Nowadays, I have upgraded to evening gatherings that do not take place under canvas, and for much of the year one of my favourite black dining suits is a three-piece (£6,000) in black linen made by Rubinacci in the Neapolitan style, with silk-taped (rather than faced) lapels for extra lightness. It is a marvel.

While for those occasions that demand demonstrable care in dressing, but not overdressing, I have something my wife calls the “feminine”. It is a blazer-like garment made by Terry Haste in the sort of bouclé wool one might associate with a Chanel suit – which I then wear with a generously knotted dark blue knitted tie (£135) by Charvet. It is a work of genius, as comfortable as a cardigan but with a sense of occasion. Mine is 20 years old and I am quite tempted to commission a remake (about £3,700) in one of the new silk fabric bunches that Terry showed me: either in Marka or Kathmandu.

However, neither traditional black tie nor “the feminine” equip me for one of the most popular black-tie dress codes today: one that does not involve a tie and most of the time is not even black. I refer to “smoking jacket no tie”.

The original purpose in the 19th century of the velvet smoking jacket was to absorb cigar smoke so that it didn’t get into the rest of your clothes. It was worn at home, a social restriction now lifted – which is just as well, as supper in the Swellboy ancestral wattle-and-daub hut rarely, if ever, calls for anything more formal than a dressing gown.

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I have been known to enjoy the occasional cigar and velvet brings out the latent Victorian never far beneath my reluctantly 21st-century surface. I have a faiblesse for the multicoloured and tasselled smoking hats (£95) offered by New & Lingwood and I have fallen under the spell of a double-breasted burgundy-coloured velvet waistcoat (£200) at Ede & Ravenscroft: a relatively high-buttoning example that, when paired with something lower slung, would lend itself to that alas-abandoned early-Victorian fashion for wearing two or more waistcoats.

The “smoking jacket no tie” is, however, a dress code of today rather than the 1840s and requires special attention. In my opinion, SJ no T has to appear as though it has been intended rather than look like you are wearing a smoking jacket and have merely taken off the tie. There are two approaches: one is to wear a smoking jacket that is so busy and loud as to scream formal informality. The oeuvre of Signor Michele at Gucci springs to mind (there’s a particularly fine example embellished with marine motifs, £1,870).

However, my default SJ no T position is perhaps best articulated by a cherry-red velvet Gieves & Hawkes jacket (£595), admirably equipped with notched lapels that do not have a satin or silk facing – in other words it is essentially a normal sports coat or blazer that has been made out of velvet.

I wear this sort of thing with the most aggressively checked trousers I can find. Favourbrook comes out with a new tartan collection each winter or, if I am feeling particularly bold, I can look for something from Oscar Udeshi. On one memorable occasion Oscar tried – unsuccessfully – to get me to wear a pair of his signature red and white camouflage trousers with a stripe of corded silk down the side; his latest thing is flocked evening trousers (from £675).

It is the “no tie” part that troubles me. Eschewing a bow tie exposes the neck (which like that of any man of my years is not my best feature). I sometimes revert to a Charvet Ascot (£205) to fill the space below the chin. But when I learnt of the death of the 1st Earl of Snowdon earlier this year I thought that I might revive what at Turnbull & Asser is known as the Cossack blouse, which can, according to head of design Dean Gomilsek-Cole, be traced back to the costumes made by T&A for the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago.

About 20 years ago I wrote a short history of Turnbull & Asser and recounted how Lord Snowdon and David Frost were denied entrance to the Running Footman in New York for wearing T&A’s silk turtlenecks that fastened at the back of the neck – it made the shirt a must-wear in Swinging London and T&A sold thousands. Today, my slender volume has been superseded by a much more lavish and exhaustive edition. In addition to the “Snowdon collar”, it features Warren Beatty in a ruffle-fronted dress shirt with a sort of piecrust collar and gathered sleeves with frilled cuffs: T&A still makes frill-fronted dress shirts pret-à‑porter, but with normal collars (£225-£305), so the Beatty (£525) is a special order.

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Unarguably tieless, this look stylishly conceals the neck. The slight downside is it might look like I am auditioning for a part in a film adaptation of a novel by Henry Fielding, or a cameo in the next season of Poldark… I feel a column about tricorn hats coming on.

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