Not so long ago, the velvet jacket was actually something of a cult item; wearing one made you feel part of a small club who understood its louche appeal. That was before a certain breed of middle-aged celebrity—or their stylists, more accurately—got their mitts on the elegant eveningwear staple. It’s one thing when Mickey Rourke adopts the plush as his red carpet uniform—the man has always had his own idiosyncratic style, and besides, he’s Mickey Rourke, he can wear what the hell he wants. But when David Hasselhoff or David Caruso or some other D-list David starts accessorizing his over-whiskered boot-cut jeans with velvet, well, that club doesn’t feel quite as exclusive or louche anymore. Like that Miami condo you bought at the height of the boom, this smartest of jackets became an undesirable asset that you couldn’t offload at any price.
Then, suddenly this spring, signs of recovery: a beautiful dark blue number on the Gucci runway; a whole shoot dedicated to the look in British GQ; a trend piece in the Times’ Sunday Styles section (oh wait, sorry, that last one’s not coming for another three months). Some of you will be crying “Too soon!” as you read this, but I’m here to say the velvet jacket is back, and here to stay. Which goes to show you can’t keep a good classic down.
Today’s version is a close cousin of the 19th Century smoking jacket, itself a descendant of the silk robes 17th Century English gentlemen wore as souvenirs of their travels in the East. The loungewear heritage is reflected in the soft nap of the velvet, which is woven preferably from cotton or wool on a special loom to produce its distinctive pile.
The style’s true heyday, though, was the nineteen seventies. Imagine you’re Jack Nicholson at Cannes, circa 1974. You wake up in your suite at the Hotel Du Cap. Things are a little hazy. There are a few elements in the room you don’t immediately recognize, perhaps one or two female guests whose names you can’t seem to recall. You’re late for a press conference. You throw on a pair of jeans, a rumpled shirt, a quick splash of Guerlain… and the velvet jacket you wore to last night’s premiere. You are ready to face the world.