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Sold Archive: Costume

Silk velvet and taffeta smoking suit
French or English, ca. 1870
Devoid of applied trimming, the brilliant peacock-blue silk velvet of this custom-tailored smoking suit commands full attention. An iridescent effect results from the golden-yellow silk ground weave, just visible along the center-front edges and the top of the slit pockets. The coordinating blue-andblack changeant silk taffeta roll collar and cuffs complement the light-reflective qualities of the lustrous pile. In its cut and construction, this suit is similar to the loose-fitting lounge suit introduced in the mid-nineteenth century as an informal alternative to the tightly buttoned frock coat. The slightly dropped placement of the jacket's shoulder seams and the full, tapered trousers date the suit to about 1870. At the back of the waist, the metal buckle stamped "Paris" securing the half self-belt may indicate a French attribution, although nineteenth-century British tailors used imported fastenings and notions. By the 1880s, in the more "democratized" American clothing industry, ready-made silk smoking jackets at different price points were available at department stores and through mail-order manufacturers for middle-class consumers who wanted to emulate the lifestyle of their social superiors.

Men's fashion magazines from the late 1860s and early 1870s attest to the popularity for velvet faced with taffeta or satin for at-home jackets. A February 1867 illustration from Le Progrès includes a male figure holding a pipe and wearing a double-breasted velvet jacket with a diamond-quilted silk roll collar, decorated with braid frogging. The March 1873 issue of The West End Gazette illustrates "an elegant breakfast jacket," similar to this one in its overall shape and lack of closure. Identified by the editor as "a very useful adjunct to a gentleman's wardrobe," it was made of "black Genoa velveteen or silk velvet" with roll collar and cuffs of "blue silk, quilted in diamonds."

References to smoking suits in late nineteenth-century British fiction convey the vogue for velvet among fashionable swells and the strict etiquette that demarcated public and private dress. In an 1883 short story titled "The Eve of St. Partridge," a self-important, mustachioed "lady killer" wagers his friends that he will win the affections of a female guest at their house party: "And very good-looking he certainly was in his blue velvet smoking suit with its ruffles of old point." The 1887 novel Nant Olchfa by E. A. Dillwyn describes the discomfort of a young man who makes a hurried nighttime departure from a house in the Welsh countryside in "an elegant velvet smoking suit with silk facings and linings." Approaching a nearby town the following morning, he realizes the necessity "to take speedy measures to get rid of or modify the peculiarities of his costume so as to make it less conspicuous." And even within the highly codified, function-specific rooms of leisure-class homes, a smoking suit could be provocative. In a story published in 1900, a dandy appears at dinner in "a beautiful smoking suit of silver-grey plush" to the displeasure of his father, who "was old-fashioned enough to consider that dining in smoking clothes was a slovenly and disrespectful habit."

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