The Smoking Suit: 1880s

red velvet smoking cap and smoking suit 1868

Red velvet smoking suit c. 1880

It is quite the thing now in English country houses, where the guests are on intimate terms, or where there are no ladies, for the men to come down to dinner in their smoking suits; but then these suits have more silk than smoke about them. In fact, they are more like what one sees on the stage, and in point of richness of material and beauty of color what belonged to the time of the cavaliers. At a country house in Yorkshire, the other day, one man came down in a richly stamped poplin, quilted with satin throughout; another in a suit of a new terra-cotta tint, with quilted black satin collar and cuffs; another, in scarlet plush, with black points; another, in Prussian blue, with orange facings; while another combined the Household Brigade colors of dark blue and red. It is said this style will shortly supersede the present funereal arrangement, and the blue and white and swallow-tail will be relegated to the waiters.

The Argonaut 20 January 1883: p. 2

Why, at Harborow’s they told me that they had just made for a gentleman who liked colour a smoking-suit of crimson plush, lined with yellow satin. Not many go to that length, however. Smoking-jackets are made of plush and silk in the same pattern they were fifteen years ago. Only the materials and the trimmings differ. Silk, plush, or a light cloth, lined with quilted satin, and with quilted satin cuffs and collars, are the best-known materials. The silk jackets cost about £10. Each.

Birmingham [West Midlands England] Daily Post, 25 October 1889: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Smoking suits, jackets, and caps were designed to keep the smell of tobacco, said to be offensive, particularly to the ladies, off the gentleman’s person. No doubt there were some households where smoking was forbidden and visiting smokers had to lie on their backs and smoke up the chimney, but it is also a fact that many ladies also enjoyed cigarettes in the privacy of their own boudoirs.

The code of the smoking suit was, according to this story, quite severely enforced by one’s peers. One suspects that the tale originated with the makers of such garments.

A Practical Joke.

London Letter to the San Francisco Argonaut. It is the custom at English country houses for the gentlemen who smoke to go to the smoking-room after the ladies have retired, and there, with the accompaniments of spirits and soda water, to smoke and chat as long as they like. On these occasions “smoking suits” are worn. Nearly every man who goes out much has his smoking suit, and some worn by heavy swells are very elaborate and costly. I have heard of one that cost its owner the modest sum of £40. It appears that a certain gentleman was making his first visit to Sandringham, and made his first appearance in the smoking-room in his evening clothes. He was hailed with shouts of derision by all the others, and informed that he must go and put on his smoking suit.

“But I don’t happen to have one,” he quietly replied.

“Not got a smoking suit? What rubbish!” exclaimed a little chap in the Blues; “the idea of a man not having a smoking suit. What shall we have next?”

“Haven’t all the same,” said the other, as he proceeded to fill a pipe and light it.

The others looked from one to the other, as much as to say: Shall we put him out?

“I’ll tell you what, ” said one, “we’ll let him off to-night, but if he comes down to-morrow night in these things, we’ll tear his coat off his back. Hear that old man?”

The man in the plain swallow-tail nodded and smoked on.

The next night he didn’t make his appearance, nor the next, and everybody thought, of course, he had sent up to town to his tailor for a smoking suit.

On the third night, after all the rest of the usual habitues of the tabagie had assembled in their accustomed chairs, in he walked. But deuce the bit of smoking suit had he on. He wore evening clothes as before.

With a shout like so many jackals, the others jumped from their seats, and in a jiffy his coat was split up the back from waist to collar, and dragged off. He stood it quietly without a word until the others sat down. Then, with the ruined coat clutched in his hand, he asked: “Are you quite done, gentlemen?”

There was a chorus of “quite,” embellished with loud and prolonged laughter.

“Because, if you are,” he went on, “I should like to say to you”–and he threw the coat into the lap of the man who had suggested the treatment he had received–“that this is your coat. I went into your room after you had changed your clothes to-night, and put it on. Mine is packed up in my portmanteau, upstairs, and the key is in my servant’s pocket. I dare say you may want a dress coat for dinner to-morrow; I shan’t. I’m going away in the morning; so I’ll advise you to telegraph to your tailor to send you down a ready-made  ‘stop-gap’ till he can make you another. Good-night, I’m on to bed.”

Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester NY] 14 December 1884: p. 8


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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