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Coats of Arms

From the Utilarian Apparel of Both War and Peace Comes Classic Outerwear
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Topcoats, as is true of most men's fashion of the modern world, had their beginnings in either battle or sport. This has clearly been in evidence for the past several seasons, as men have been wearing their casual coats to town. The Barbour jacket, parka, field coat or shooting coat over pinstripes--all exude a certain blithe nonchalance through mixed media, as it were.

Now, with the renaissance of a dressier business look--chalk-striped flannels, white Windsor-collared shirts and Macclesfield ties--comes the return of the classic overcoat. Or overcoats, we should say. The chesterfield, covert, raglan and polo are all making a resounding comeback. And, despite their elegance, these distinguished coats still have that pervasive sartorial connection with combat or play.

The male wardrobe has always had an outer covering to protect the body or other clothes from the inclemencies. In the Middle Ages that stout garment, the woolen, hooded cloak, kept the wearer warm, whether he was on foot or horseback. Next came the mantle (a hoodless, sleeveless covering), then the cape (a shorter version of the mantle). These outer garments were regularly worn throughout the medieval period in Europe, well into the Renaissance.

By the seventeenth century, however, the overcoat--meaning a fitted outer garment with sleeves and front closure--had begun to emerge. This garment came to be referred to generically as a "greatcoat," since it was both a heavier and a stouter wool than coats worn directly next to the shirt or vest, and was cut larger all the way round. It had a large collar, a fitted chest, a wide skirt that extended below the calf and usually commodious pockets. When the renowned author and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson joined James Boswell in Edinburgh at Boyd's Inn late in the evening of Aug. 14, 1773, to begin their famous tour of the Hebrides, Boswell described the great man's dress:

He wore a full suit of plain brown clothes, with twisted-hair-buttons of the same colour, a large bushy greyish wig, a plain shirt, black worsted stockings, and silver buckles. Upon this tour, when journeying, he wore boots, and a very wide brown cloth great coat, with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary; and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick.

--James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

During the next hundred years, the overcoat would assume a variety of shapes. Some of them are still with us, such as the raglan, the chesterfield and the covert. Others, like the ulster, the paletot, the inverness and the frock coat, have been left to molder in history's closet. This century has seen the addition of the macintosh, the polo and the British warm. All are the children of the greatcoat, but we should make one brief point of nomenclature here. By the turn of the twentieth century, the greatcoat had divided generically into two basic camps. There was a lighter-weight version, which was worn in the spring and fall of the year, and called a topcoat; since the 1940s this has been replaced by the ubiquitous raincoat in its various guises. The heavier version worn during the colder months of the year was called an overcoat. These terms still apply, and are worth keeping, although increasingly they are used interchangeably. Regardless of its weight and generic name, an outer garment must of course be both dolce et utile; it must offer both style and protection. Here are our annotated choices, contemporary versions of the classics, which we think admirably combine practicality with handsomeness:

The original British warm takes its fabric and styling from the greatcoats worn by officers during the First World War. Intended to go over khaki tunic and jodhpurs and be accompanied by high field boots and an officer's cap, the coat was standard-issue British army. There is a rather moving photo of the princes of Wales and York lamentedly contemplating the battle scene at Zeebrugge in 1918, both wearing their regulation British warms (York's was belted, a style that led to the "wrap coats" of civilian fashion that followed). These officers coats were slightly shaped and fell to just above the knee, always double-breasted in style, with six buttons (three of which are buttoned), with peaked lapels and epaulets on the shoulders.

The most characteristic aspect of the British warm is the fabric itself: a heavy, taupe-colored, slightly fleecy melton cloth. The name comes from Melton Mowbray, a town in Leicestershire, England, where this thick, tightly woven, napped cloth was first woven for riding and hunting garments. "The authentic melton cloth weighs in at 34 ounces," the custom tailor Leonard Logsdail informs us, "and perhaps a bit of body-building boot camp is necessary to wear it."

The redoubtable British warm saw duty in the Second World War and is still worn by officers in the British army, with metal regimental buttons. The civilian-adapted model takes woven leather buttons, may dispense with the epaulets and may be worn slightly longer. Wrap coats--the double-breasted versions with a belt--partake of elements from both the British warm and the polo coat.


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