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.
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.
Today, the raglan overcoat is usually seen in both solid-hued and patterned tweed, loden cloth, cashmere or, for topcoat versions, in gabardine. Its shape is not only characterized by the natural, padless shoulder but by a capelike fullness in the body. Pockets may be either set-in slanted or patch; and collars and lapels slightly rounded (called a bal collar, which is short for "Balmacaan," an estate near Inverness, Scotland), notched or peaked. The coat comes with or without a fly front to its single-breasted cut; sleeves take cuffs, straps or button tabs.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado on the subject of fashion, G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).
From Sprezzatura to Sublime: the Duffle and the Vicuña
The duffle coat has, as they say in the music business, spread across the charts and become a crossover hit. The original term, Duffel, refers to a town of that name in Belgium, just south of Antwerp, where a heavy woolen overcoating woven in a twill weave with a thick, spongy nap has been made since the seventeenth century. Since it is both heavy and warm, and need not be made with expensive wool, it came to be used for soldiers' garments, as well as for the bags named for them. The most notable garment made from Duffel cloth was the loose, hooded coat worn by British sailors during the Second World War that Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery made famous as his standard outerwear. As war surplus, this garment (along with khaki trousers and other leftover accoutrements) became popular in the United Kingdom and abroad on college campuses during the 1950s and '60s and was known (and spelled) as the duffle coat.
Now simply called a duffle, this comfy and utilitarian single-breasted coat is enjoying a fashion resurgence, made in its original cloth as well as some finer fabric versions, and even leathers. Characterized by a straight-cut body and an attached hood, patch pockets and toggle closures of wood or horn or even leather, this isn't the sort of coat you'd want to wear with pinstripes, of course. But the English have long worn it as cozy country attire, and the Italians have made it a point of considerable style to wear this casual coat with tweedy tailoring in the studied nonchalant way (the Italian word is sprezzatura) for which they are legendary. With a tweed suit or sports jacket and odd trousers, the duffle coat is as perfectly at ease in town as it is in the country with a turtleneck sweater and corduroys.
The authentic model is unlined wool, with attached hood, patch pockets, shoulder yoke and toggle closures of wood or horn. Originally done in tan and navy blue, the color spectrum is today bounded only by imagination and one's personal sense of propriety, which is just another measure of the coat's enduring appeal.
At the complete other, shall we say ethereal, end of the coat spectrum is the vicuña overcoat. Vicuña clothing of any sort has long been unavailable, because the animals that provide the material were almost hunted to extinction by mid-century, and were saved only by their placement on the Endangered Species List. But due to a controlled breeding program designed to enlarge the Peruvian herds, the vicuña is now a "returning" species, and new techniques now allow the animals to be sheared of their pelts without harm to them. So the future looks bright both for them and for lovers of the world's most luxurious fabric.
The place to go for the world's most luxurious coat is Harrison James, in New York City. "It certainly wouldn't pay anyone to stock such a garment," says the president, Alan Katzman, "but we've made several in our custom shop. We prefer classic town styling in a coat like this, because it's something you'd want to keep for a long time. The fabric is so handsome it speaks for itself, and so simplicity in styling is a virtue." Mr. Katzman would be happy to run up one of these handsome coats for you, in either single- or double-breasted styling, with your choice of black, navy or natural vicuña, in about six weeks' time. It's priced at $35,000. It's a Wrap
Phone the following for the address of your nearest vendor of fine topcoats:
British warm: Luciano Barbera (212) 315-9500
Chesterfield coat: Bergdorf Goodman Men (212) 753-7300
Covert coat: Greenwich International (800) 435-5232
Duffle coat: Greenwich International (800) 435-5232, George G. Graham (212) 582-7750
Polo coat:Polo/Ralph Lauren (212) 318-7281
Raglan: Bergdorf Goodman Men (Mimmo Spano, custom department, 212/339-3350), Ermenegildo Zegna (212) 751-3468
Vicuña coat: Harrison James (212) 541-6870