In the history of 20th Century menswear there are some items that are simply iconic and transcend both fashion and geography. These days most of those items would probably be American – sweatshirts, trainers, jeans just as examples. However, there are a few items that are considered intrinsically British wherever in the world they are encountered. The irony is that most of these designs were commandeered by the British from other cultures. The desert boot for example, linked forever to the late Nathan Clark, was in reality already a staple of Cairo shoemakers as well having a parallel history (albeit in less attractive form) in the Dutch Veldt of South Africa.
The Duffle Coat (or Duffel Coat, Convoy Coat) is another such example. Belgian in origin, the boiled wool cape with hood which protected farmers in all weathers was the logical choice for some bright spark at the Admiralty who, during the First World War, decided that it would be the perfect wear for the Royal Navy’s constant encounter with inclement weather.
Like many an icon, there is a modern trend towards the few (or last) remaining purveyors of garments to claim ownership of the whole concept and none more so than the English company Gloverall. Arguably, Gloverall did most to maintain the position of the duffle coat through thick and thin, and the duffle fashion’s waxing and waning fortunes. But, they didn’t invent the duffle coat.
What seems to have been their greatest contribution was to restyle the military issue coats (which were giant in size to fit over all that uniform gear and made of material as thick as coir doormats) to make them effective and wearable by civilians in peacetime.
The first duffle coat I owned as a conscious adult (forgetting the Marks & Spencer dung brown ‘back to school’ version circa 1975) was a Size 2 monster original Naval issue from the old Silvermans store at the junction of Fortess Rd in Kentish Town. This was back in 1982. I paid £12 for it and it was so huge and heavy that my arms ached after wearing it for a few hours. I was going for that full-on war movie style of brylcreemed hair and submariners roll neck (and a long lost pair of Allison crepe soled natural suede chukkas) and remember clearly accompanying a friend (under great protest from me) who had free tickets to a gig by the Birthday Party at the Zig Zag club in Ladbroke Grove. This was before the term Goth was used, but suffice to say that in a sea of thousands wearing black I was the only one dressed like Trevor Howard in the Third Man. I don’t know who was more ridiculous looking the goths or me.
In its heyday the military duffle was worn by ex-servicemen, beatniks, pre-Mod scooter riders, CND marchers and academics. In movies we had Carl Boehm on his scooter in Rathbone Place in Peeping Tom (Weejun factoid, John Rushton of shoes fame was Asst Editor on that movie!), Dirk Bogarde as Dr Sparrow, Field Marshall Montgomery, Trevor of course, Jack Hawkins and his stoic naval chums, Chet Baker in Italy (see the Marsh – Gaul book) even the chap who returned the stolen Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington in the late 60s was described as ‘scruffy, wearing a duffle coat’. Most of them ablsporting the naval version in camel. Michael Foot was one of the few wearers of the darker shades, black most probably.
In the 1970s it was more likely to be seen on those kids on Grange Hill that were beaten up by Snorkel Parka wearers or the ever ubiquitous Paddington Bear (Weejun factoid John Rushton of shoes fame was Editor on the 70s TV series!)
The civilian versions permeated all walks of life and rare was the schoolchild who didn’t have at least one duffle coat throughout their school years. Colours and fashions came and went, wooden toggles, horn toggles, check linings, corduroy and pile linings (the rare Gloverall ‘Snowdon’ model from the 60s sells for big bucks now). The original coat was of course a camel colour, but followed closely in later popularity by navy blue, loden green, dark brown and for women and kids any rainbow colour.
For years afterwards the only duffle coats that were easy to find were the ones that morphed out of the 70s slimming and shortening of the classic models. With buffalo horn toggles and leather frogging rather than wood and sisal, tartan backed wool/nylon mix and pancake hoods instead of the baggy center seamed naval ones, these are the models that are now so imitated by those reissuing or ‘re-imagining’ (horrible word) the duffle for the Indie crowd. Fred Perry, Baracuta, Gabicci, have all had a pop at the 70s schoolboy shortie model and there are right now endless, mostly hideous, variations on the classic duffle available to the un-discerning masses.
But what of the classic knee length wide bodied, wood & rope number? Well, Gloverall have had their Monty reissue on sale for a number of years now. It’s not like me to say this, but if anything these are too close to the Naval originals in that they are somewhat unwieldy giant sized rigid blankets.
Now, if Gloverall had invented the Duffle Coat, I know myself well enough to say that I probably would have to be a snob about it and get the original. However, post World War Two, the duffle became an icon around the world and reinterpreted in many different subtly different guises.
The main appropriation, and the reason for its appearance here on this site, was of course as an Ivy League style staple. Along the Clarks Desert Boot and Hutton’s Original Playboy chukkas, the duffle coat was the quintessentially English addition to the growing canon of what we now consider to be traditional American clothing.
In my travels I’ve seen some beautiful examples of wearable classics. In Milan and Bologna, in Tokyo and even this year in the beautiful menswear store Branley in Buenos Aires. But they were always pretty expensive and not at the top of the priority list either due to season or otherwise.
However, I’ve just picked up a real beauty, Made in England and what I think is a perfect cross between the two styles, and very close indeed to this 1962 American made model from Baxter Clothing (image courtesy of Ivy League Style blog read their duffle article here)
Below are just a few of the adverts for different models, showing the wide variety of detailing and even provenance. Those boiled wool experts in the Tirol even got into the act. Why not? Loden and horn buttons were long ago a staple of Austro-Italian tailoring.
I’ll soon be posting a ‘One That You Can Buy’ feature for the duffle coat mentioned above, which in my opinion bridges the gap very nicely between Gloverall Monty industrial weight and the 60s/70s tartan lined models.
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Just found this for Peter – an alternative shot of Chet in Italy wearing his non-pancake hooded duffle…