Buyer’s guide to men’s formal & evening jackets

When the words ‘evening wear’ are mentioned, most men instantly think about a black dinner suit. But with so many interesting evening wear options that can be created using smoking jackets and evening jackets it seems a waste to limit yourself to the old standard dinner suit, even if it is a classic.

From velvet smoking jackets to damask evening jackets, there is a dazzling array of styles and fabrics to choose from. To help you find the perfect jacket for your next formal event, we’ve created a guide to take you through the fabrics, styles and details to look for when purchasing this very special item.

Before we start, we’ll clarify that evening jackets, formal jackets, dinner Jackets and tuxedo jackets are all really variations of the same thing.  At Alexandra Wood, we do however make a distinction between formal jackets and smoking jackets.

What are the origins of the evening jacket?
The first well-known instance of a jacket being created for evening use without tailswas in 1865 for the Prince of Wales (soon to be King Edward VII), who commissioned his tailors Henry Poole & Co. to make a blue silk jacket and trousers for informal dinner parties at Sandringham. At the time, shorter jackets were worn by men for riding and day wear, but tails were still mandated for the evening.

Others say it was Victorian Lord Dupplin who commissioned the jacket and wore it on the Prince of Wales (soon to be King Edward VII) yacht. The Prince adopted the style and then wore it during the London Season.

One theory of how the dinner jacket became popular is when a certain James Potter was invited to dine with the King at Sandringham during the London Season and was unsure what to wear, he was referred to Henry Poole & Co. to have a shorter evening suit made. He crossed the Atlantic with his new attire and wore it at the Tuxedo Park country club. Initially it was seen as too eccentric, but it soon took off as a summer suit and was titled the ‘Tuxedo’.

Either way, these shorter jackets soon replaced tails as standard dinner dress, worn with the usual formal accessories including a white bow tie, waistcoat and matching trousers, white wing collar shirt and black formal shoes. During the Edwardian era, black ties and waistcoats became popular for dinner, giving rise to the black and white dress codes. Eventually, dinner dress was reserved for special evenings with company, with tails reserved for only the most formal occasions.

What are the origins of the smoking jacket?
Smoking jackets, like those we see today, rose in popularity around the 17thcentury as trade with Asia, India and beyond brought tea, spices and tobacco to England. The smoking jacket was created as it was believed the thick fabric could absorb some of the smell and protected the clothes underneath. Originally it resembled a kind of fancy knee-length dressing robe.

By the 1850s, Turkish tobacco had become popular, in part due to supplies brough back from the Crimean war.  Men would retreat to their studies after dinner to smoke and drink, removing their tails and donning their smoking jackets. The Gentleman’s Magazine described the smoking jacket as: “A kind of short robe de chambre, of velvet, cashmere, plush, merino or printed flannel, lined with bright colours, ornamented with brandenbourgs, olives or large buttons.” The length of smoking jackets soon reflected the new shorter dinner jackets of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and eventually were made with finer fabrics so that men could wear them at home during dinner.

By the 20thcentury, they became an icon of glamour when worn by flamboyant stars like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Dean Martin for evenings on the town and then by Frank Sinatra on stage in Las Vegas. While their reputation was notoriously tarnished by Hugh Hefner, smoking jackets have made a come-back as an alternative to a black tux on the red-carpet and as a stylish choice for men visiting the most elegant bars in the world.

Who’s wearing smoking jackets now?
Choosing to wear a jewel-toned smoking jacket or a patterned formal jacket shows confidence and a wry sense of humour.

We’ve seen celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, David Beckham, Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Jackman and Kelvin Harrison Junior wear smoking jackets on the red carpet by Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton and, of course, Alexandra Wood.

Despite the naysayers, a statement jacket is definitely in.

Where do I wear an evening or smoking jacket?
These jackets are the epitome of class, elegance and sophistication and are designed purely for special nights attending a highly anticipated event or lounging at a supper club.

Formal events (galas, awards dinners, holiday parties, weddings)
It’s perfectly acceptable to wear a black, midnight blue or navy evening jacket or smoking jacket to a black-tie event – in fact, we encourage it!

However, they aren’t suitable for events that specify either white tie, tails or morning dress. These dress codes are rigid, so substitutions aren’t allowed.

Evenings out on the town
Cocktail parties, operas, swanky wine bars, European casinos, evening weddings and Michelin-starred restaurants are all perfect excuses to dress up and slip on a subtly patterned evening jacket or smoking jacket. Just follow our styling tips below so people don’t ask why you’re dressed like an extra from Downton Abbey.

White styles of formal or evening jackets are there?
There are a plethora of styles available, from classic jackets in vintage white or a single deep colour to more modern versions with patterns and sparkly metallic finishes.

Smoking jackets
Today’s smoking jackets are structured with a half or full canvas. They bare a closer resemblance to the dinner jacket but retain some of the fundamentals of the original – velvet or silk fabric, satin shawl collar and button fasteners. You’ll often find them called dinner jackets or tuxedos.

Black is safe option, but we love seeing men in rich tones like emerald, midnight blue, burgundy, bronze and olive with black satin trims.

You can still find more traditional unstructured smoking jackets with quilted collars, frogging (also called braiding), sashes and toggles made for the purpose of smoking. These are less common and look more like a dressing gown than an evening jacket. If you’re not a fan of Hugh Hefner, avoid them. 

Evening or dinner jackets
There are a number of different variations on evening or formal jackets that you can choose from, but some of the more common designs are:

  • White or cream: Historically, the classic white dinner jacket with white lapels was worn in warmer climates in place of a black jacket to deflect heat. Today, it can be worn for black tie events (with a black tie of course), and formal events that allow for a bit of flamboyance like opening night at the opera. You will be noticed in this one!
  • Black on black: Suave and sophisticated, you can’t go wrong with this combination. It works best when the jacket and lapels are different fabrics and looks equally good with and without a tie. Add a white pocket square for the finishing touch.
  • Navy or burgundy with black lapels:Less harsh than black, this combination popular as it allows you to add some colour to your evening attire without being too outlandish.
  • Jacquard with black lapels: The ‘go to’ fabric for men who want to make a statement. You’ll see celebrities rocking bright colours, patterns and metallics on the red carpet.

What fabrics are formal jackets made from?
The fabrics used for evening wear are generally more luxurious – think velvet and silk. They need to drape well and play with the light.

Smoking jackets:
These are traditionally made from a sumptuous silk or cotton velvet with a satin collar. You’ll also find versions insilk
with patterns like paisley, checks or diamonds.

Evening jackets:
The fabrics used for evening or formal jackets are more varied and include:

  • Wool: a barathea wool or a mix of wool with mohair or silk are the most popular choices due to their fine finish and drape.
  • Silk: this fine fabric is generally kept for the facings like lapels and pocket flaps.
  • Jacquard: a textured fabric that has the pattern woven into it, rather than printed on it and may feature multiple colours and metallic threads.
  • Damask: similar to jacquard but the fabric is reversable so that the colours on the back are inverse to the colours on the front.

What details should I look for on evening and smoking jackets?
Evening jackets and smoking jackets are traditionally quite minimal – one button, slim lines, and subtle pockets. Even so, it’s worth paying attention to the following:

Vents are the vertical slits that run vertically up from the bottom of your jacket to give you greater movement. Tradition says you shouldn’t put vents on an evening jacket, however it’s common to find double vents on many English-made jackets. The icon of suave evening wear himself, James Bond, favoured vents, so we think that’s permission enough. Single vents have been used by the Americans for years but aren’t as popular here.

Inside the jacket you’ll often find welted or jetted pockets sewn in for convenience to hide a handkerchief or credit card.

On the outside you’ll find either straight welted pockets or flap pockets at the hip. Often the flap pocket is made in the same fabric as the lapel. These pockets aren’t for use, just decoration, so please don’t put your phone and keys in them.

And of course, a jetted breast pocket for the all-important pocket square.

In keeping with the minimal tailoring style of evening wear, you’ll usually only find one button to close the jacket. Double-breasted evening jackets do exist, but can look quite cluttered.

On the cuffs you’ll find four buttons on either side, although this may vary on vintage designs. These are generally smaller than you’d find on a business suit or sports jacket and are often covered in the same fabric used for the lapels.

Evening jackets and smoking jackets will always have either a peak or shawl lapel. A notch lapel isn’t used for evening jackets as its far too casual.

The smoother shawl lapel evokes old-world glamour and sophistication, while the peak lapel gives a jacket an edge, particularly when the lapel and collar are made in different fabrics.

Lapels are often silk, but you’ll occasionally see grosgrain used.

How do I wear an evening or smoking jacket? 
How you wear an evening or smoking jacket depends entirely on the occasion. The following are good rules of thumb:

  • For very formal occasions that demand black tie or similar, pair a black or midnight blue jacket with a black or white dinner shirt, bow tie, black dinner suit trousers and black formal shoes.
  • If you’re heading to a party, cocktail bar or the theatre, pair a smoking jacket or jacquard jacket with a black shirt (without a tie) or a black roll neck with black trousers or the trousers of a dinner suit.
  • If you’re thinking about jacquard or damask, stick to a tonal colour palette (for example, tones of blue or deep red) for a look that isn’t too outrageous.
  • Depending on your personality and natural style, a smoking jacket can look cool with a smart pair of jeans and either a crisp shirt or roll neck (never a t-shirt).

A word on shoes – keep them black and formal. As our stylistic preferences are more Sean Connery than Snoop Dogg, we advise against the tuxedo and sneakers trend that celebrities in the music industry often favour.

Formal and evening jackets from Alexandra Wood
We adore evening wear and create exclusive ready to wear designs that will have you standing out for all the right reasons. If you’ve got something particular in mind, consider our made to measure and bespoke services for an evening jacket or smoking jacket that is unique to you.