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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

(continued from page 1)

The chesterfield is the most formal and classic town coat a gentleman can own. It was originally a variation of the basic Victorian frock coat, whose skirt descended straight to the bottom hem--in either a single- or a double-breasted version--but, unlike the frock, had no waist seam. It was named for the sixth Earl of Chesterfield (not the famous fourth earl, who wrote all those instructive letters to his bastard son), a leader of fashion among the Regency dandies who strolled Bond Street in the early years of the nineteenth century. He probably didn't invent the velvet collar--the coat's trademark. But he was certainly a great popularizer of the style, because when he died in 1866 his name had already become common coinage for the garment.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the chesterfield had assumed the classic lines and details it retains today: a full-length (which at the moment means to the calf) usually single-breasted coat with fly-front closure on the single-breasted version, shaped body, velvet collar, center back vent, two side pockets and set-in sleeves. As the dressiest of town coats, it's usually tailored in dark blue, dark gray or black patternless wool or cashmere. Variations, though limited, include patterns of self-striped wool and herringbone tweed in brown, as well as gray and blue. The most popular variation these days is the chesterfield done in fawn (a marled greenish tan) covert or whipcord twill, with either a bottle green or dark chestnut brown velvet collar. The velvet collar cover--whose color is intended to quietly complement rather than contrast with the coat's color--is not only a bit of discreet adornment, but was, in an age when men wore their hair longer, a practical way of dealing with soiled collars: it's easier and cheaper to replace the velvet cover than to dispense with the entire collar.

The covert coat is named for the cloth from which it is made. The term comes from the French couvert, meaning a shady place or thicket, and in English came to mean a hiding place for game birds. Covert cloth is a twill-woven fabric in which a combination of two threads of different tones of the same color are twisted together to form a marled effect--i.e., a slightly mottled look rather than a clear color. The cloth itself is fairly stout, closely woven, and has a certain elasticity--all of which makes for a very resistant and durable material and a very smart-looking, long-wearing garment. It is sometimes waterproofed for additional protection.

While covert cloth can be used for trousers, jackets and a variety of field coats, its most popular use is for topcoats. Originally made as a country outer coat, the classic straight-cut, single-breasted,fly-fronted covert is always fawn-colored, although dressier mid-gray versions are often seen. Characterized by its four rows of stitches on each sleeve cuff and on the bottom hem, which falls no lower than the knee, the classic covert coat has two side pockets and a ticket pocket, and it's acceptable to add a green velvet collar cover for a dressier look.

"The business about the signature stitching on the sleeve cuffs and hem," relates Hugh Holland, the managing director of the famed Savile Row tailoring firm Kilgour, French & Stanbury, "is a good example of how the practicality of one age becomes the stylish form of the next. It was found that, while riding through the scrub and gorse--the covert, as it were--the sleeve cuffs and hem of the jackets would abrade and tear. So this rib stitching was originally both for mending and reinforcement. The stitching then became a sort of badge of bravery: the more rows of stitches a man had, the more aggressive a rider he was thought to be."

The polo coat is one of many items in the masculine wardrobe that derive from the ancient sport brought to the West by British officers stationed in India during the nineteenth century. Among the other items, we might make note of the button-down collared shirt (buttoned down to keep the points from flapping in the face when riding fast), the polo sweater (which we call a turtleneck), the jodhpurs (named for the Maharaja of Jodhpur), chukka boots (a "chukker" is a period of play), the wide surcingle polo belt and the ubiquitous knit polo shirt (which, ironically, was made popular by a French tennis star).

And then there is that most aristo of outer coats: the double-breasted, set-in sleeve, patch-pocketed, half-belted, camel-hair polo coat. Perhaps its appeal derives from its ability to adapt to any mood, to dress up or down, and be equally at home with a chalk-striped flannel suit or a shetland sweater and chinos. Some men are even able to carry off a polo coat with evening wear, but this is a nameless grace that no method can teach.

The polo coat originally started out as a simple camel hair, blanket-like wrap coat--something players threw over their shoulders like a bathrobe while waiting to resume play. As such, it was initially called a wait coat. In the 1920s, when English polo players were first invited to matches on Long Island, the grand deshabille and swagger of these coats didn't go unnoticed, and they were soon seen on Eastern-establishment campuses. By 1930, polo coats outnumbered raccoon at the Yale-Princeton football game--a decided stamp of approval.

In case you were wondering, the camel hair doesn't come from just any old camel: only the bactrian (two-humped) camel native to central and southwest Asia will do. Its delicate underhair perfectly combines warmth, lightness and beauty with luxurious softness.

The raglan finds its origins, along with the balaclava cap and the cardigan sweater, in one of the most pointless of all modern conflicts, the Crimean War. Much of the blame for the mismanaged British campaign is laid at the feet of two principal commanding British officers, lords Raglan and Cardigan. It is one of history's greatest ironies that, after these men had been involved in so much senseless slaughter and destruction, they should be remembered only for what they wore. Huddled cold and exhausted on the inhospitably freezing battleground at Balaclava, Raglan's troops cut holes in their blankets and drew them over their heads to keep warm. Eventually, that shoulderless cape became the slanted swelled-seam, unpadded and easy-fitting shoulder style of a greatcoat bearing his name. His soldiers were probably not amused.


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