The Catalina Varsity Jacket

Catalina Varsity vs Derby of San Francisco (vs a Newcomer)

ABSENCE OF MALICE, Paul Newman, 1981, newspaper

In the past I’ve written about both the Catalina La Paz and the Derby of San Francisco bomber jackets. This time I’m focusing on the Catalina Varsity, a jacket closer in style and substance to the Derby version, along with a new copy from Oi Polloi.

My first encounter with this style of jacket came from my secondary school PE lost and found box. In the late 70s I I would regularly revisit the box where there were dozens of discarded sportswear items. Some of the stuff had probably been there for years. One day I discovered what I now know to be a Catalina knock off  – one of probably hundreds of copies* of the ‘rain cape shoulder’ windcheater. A light tan colour with no lining but with tan and navy striped elastic. I wore it until it fell apart and nobody ever claimed the thing.

*Rumour has it that the Ivy Shop in Richmond sold their own copies back in the day.

What are the differences?

The Catalina La Paz was a later lightweight version with a swing ‘action’ back that included nylon mesh vents to stop the wearer from overheating. It also had Baracuta style reverse pocket flaps, albeit without buttons. The La Paz also features the ‘rain cape shoulder’ the overall feature that makes these jackets instantly recognisable and much copied.

The Derby of San Francisco

The Derby of San Francisco version shares the rain cape shoulder but adds a beefiness by having the famous gold paisley lining in padded form. This gives a certain chunkiness to the wearer and the feeling of bulk that was no doubt part of its wider appeal to the disaffected youth.  Most versions featured a straight slash pockets with zipper fastening.

The reborn Derby can be found here

The Catalina Varsity

The Catalina Varsity version also features the padded lining and extra bulk, the lining this time with the wonderful Catalina sunbird logo. This model also mostly had slash zipper pockets rather than Baracuta styled reverse flaps.

You probably know by now the long and tortured story of the return of the Derby of San Francisco brand. It’s a shame that the reissues have remained so localised and really aimed at West Coast greaser/tattoo culture. In a similar way to the adoption of playboys by funky dudes in NY in the 1970s, the Derby/Catalina style jackets had their fans amongst varied  fashion tribes – often without seeming to come into contact one with another. Of course, we are primarily concerned with the ubiquitous wearing of these jackets in the 1960s to 1980s within the larger lvy Look sphere.

Which came first? That’s something I’d be interested to learn. Despite the propaganda from the Derby of San Francisco camp, my gut feeling is that the Catalina Varsity was the first version of this style. I suggest that because the Catalina brand can be found way back into the early 1930s as a maker of swim and beach wear, whereas I’ve not seen anything Derby branded earlier than mid 1960s. Both versions were of course originally Made in the USA and both companies continued the models long after their offshore move to places like Korea and Taiwan.

Cottonopolis from Oi Polloi

There’s also a new kid on the block on this side of the Atlantic – the Cottonopolis Catalina (sic) from the Oi Polloi house brand. As readers of this blog the powers at Oi Polloi may have been reinspired to produce a copy of the inconic rain cape shouldered bomber. Who knows? (Witness their description of the Paraboot history being somewhat close to what I wrote in this post)

One of the problems with the vintage Catalinas and the modern Derby versions are finding a fit that looks like the 1960s wearer would have sported. Most of the Catalina versions are incredibly short for modern man, at an average of 24 inches back length on a size 40! The Derby jackets were a tad longer in similar sizes but still relatively short and wide, whereas the modern ones seem to fit like 1990s hip hop wear – in XXXXL.

So how does the Oi Polloi version shape up?

Well it’s really good in most ways and somewhat disappointing in some others. The jacket is all cotton which is nice as it will get that cotton patina when it ages.

The dark navy (which I bought as soon as I saw their email newsletter) has a really nice classic plaid lining. Not padded, but enough for the British spring chill. The pockets are the reverse flap types with added buttons and the overall shape, fabric and quality is really well done. Until we get to the zip.

Now, no one is expecting deadstock Talon zippers or anything but the zipper on these jackets is truly appalling quality. It’s a two way zipper of a type that you would reject on a £5 anorak from your local version of Mr Buyrite.

From the off the jacket is near impossible to close without some real dexterity to manipulate the zipper parts and it looks and feels like its made from the same brittle alloy as 1970s die cast Matchbox cars. For those readers who believe that Made in England is somehow a magic panacea to all the alleged evils of offshore making… That someone put this zipper on such an otherwise well made jacket is just…well.

And then there’s the sizing. Oi Polloi are generally very good when it comes to giving correct measurements on garments so they give a heads up that the sizes are large, but I’m 6’2″ and the Small (the smallest size they sell) is larger than any other bomber I own. It’s at least a Medium to Large by normal standards. It actually fits like the vintage ones as worn by shorter guys in the 60s, but interested friends of a smaller stature would be swamped. God knows how big the L is. Still I’ve grown used to the slightly oversized look and it will look in the autumn sporting a Hardy Kruger style navy roll neck underneath (see below).

There are three colours – navy, natural and sky blue. I was tempted to buy the natural as well but really I think they missed a trick with this colour as the lining plaid is of a tediously brown 1970s grandad sponge nylon slippers check – where it could have been a glorious madras inspired fabric. Maybe that’s some northern terrace wear nod to some reference of which I’m blissfully unaware? The two blue colours have far more interesting contrasting plaid linings.

Overall though, it’s a really good alternative to the tombola that it is buying vintage on eBay – not least because the condition of used jackets is often far worse than eBay seller images show. It’s also neat enough to wear in a slightly smarter way a la James Coburn.

Back to the Source – Catalina Varsity in Mint Condition

Buying the Oi Polloi version has given me renewed interest in trying to find an original in natural. I’ve been through at least half a dozen over the years in the search. So many of the Catalina and Derby jackets on eBay have been worked to death – the first tell tale sign being a broken leather hanger tab in the neck. This time out I’m hoping I found one that that appears very little used.

I’m going mainly on the image of the washtag that the seller posted. It looks mint which means it won’t have been mullered by some hot rod kid’s Mom in the 60s twin tub. It’s also a Long so the body should be at least 26″ in length and more in line with modern body shapes.

We’ll see when it arrives from LA via my old Ivy pal, reader Fred.

 More Wearers of The Iconic Rain Cape Shoulder Jacket

Some Vintage Catalina Labels

(Source Vintage Fashion Guild)

Posted in Weejunisms.


  1. So do you think if I’m 6 foot 1, 13 stone and medium build the Small in the Cottonpolis would be the right size? That’s weird sizing, I’m normally a Large …..

    • Thanks Barrie – The measurements on the Oi Polloi site are pretty accurate. There’s also no difference in length between the S and M which is weird. I am a modern size M 99% of the time. They’re a friendly bunch at OP so maybe worth calling them.

  2. I agree 100% on the zipper. I ordered a navy one as well and it’s such a chore to put on at times. Seriously thinking about just taking it to my tailor and asking him to replace it.

    • I worked out that you have to lift the material under the bottom edge of the zipper when trying to connect the two way zip. It’s very annoying but it seems to work by lifting it away and stopping it from catching.
      Whoever authorised the prototype with a zip like that though?
      Jesus. It’s the sort of attitude that put paid to a lot of British manufacturing despite what the rose tinted glasses brigade might think about overseas makers.
      If it wasn’t such a good jacket otherwise then I’d have returned it the next day.

  3. Hi Weejun,
    I’ve been buying and selling Derby jackets for a few years now. Ok a couple of things. The little bird on the liner of Catalinas is actually a flying fish and not a bird. Catalina is an island off of Los Angeles. And when people would take a ferry there, lets say to go to the Avalon ballroom. The little flying fish would jump and fly by the boat. A part of the Catalina experience. It has been their logo since the 1920’s as well. The Catalina came first. They made the Varsity and LaPaz. Derby of San Francisco back about 50 years was actually a company that made knock offs.They made their own harringtons and catalinas. So Catalina was first. Too bad that the new DOSF is going thug. All they are doing is making t-shirts. Anyone can do that.

  4. I was able to get a vintage black catalina jacket off of EBAY a while ago…and I was comparing it my various derby jackets…The catalina fits heavier than the derbys. I’ve been waiting for a black catalina to come down the pike for a long time…the jacket is way cool

    My and my brothers are long derby jacket dudes from san francisco, so we are sill derby crazy over derby jackets, but this catalina is once nice jacket.

    Does anyone know where the “derby” catalina jacket were made?

  5. Please inform the location(s) of retailers or website(s) from which I can buy/order. I have been looking for this style of jacket for over 10 years in NYC-metro area and have been unsuccessful.

  6. Hi Weejun:

    Hey, bought the Catalina “La Paz” model at, of all places, Walmart in the the late 1990s. Great jacket…wore it until the knit cuffs became threadbare.

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