G. Bruce Boyer on the Peacoat

G. Bruce Boyer on the Peacoat

 

Menswear authority and friend of the brand G. Bruce Boyer turns his expert eye to that most steadfast piece of seafaring outerwear: the peacoat.

 

A while back I’d written about the watch cap, an icon that returned to urban wardrobes about a decade or two ago as a decidedly chic and practical winter accessory. Knitted skull caps have been around forever in one form or another, but its contemporary use derives directly from sailors on warship duty in the North Atlantic during World War II. A specific headgear for doing a specific job, the watch cap kept sailors warm on those long, dark, cold nights on deck. Drake’s has had a colourful range of such hats in stock for several years now. 

But I trust I wasn’t alone in waiting impatiently for the Drake’s team to reintroduce the watch cap’s redoubtable counterpart: the peacoat. This garment has been around for a good long time as well, the modern version of the British Navy’s trusty reefer jacket. The reefer – named after the sailors who took in the reefs, or sails – became standard naval issue for sailors during the second-half of the 19th century and an exemplar of utilitarian design: hip length for ease of movement, high-cut double-breasted front closure with wide lapels, deep slashed chest pockets, large turn-up collar, all done in impenetrably heavy dark blue melton cloth that resisted everything but harpoons and cannonballs. It’s probable that the “pea” in peacoat refers back to the Old Dutch pij, the name for that type of dense, coarse, blue woolen cloth. Tailors used to say you needed pliers to pull the needle through that 30-ounce stuff. Along with sailor’s trousers – flapped front and bell-bottomed hems – the peacoat proved a formidable friend and as jaunty looking an outfit as the girls had ever seen.

 

Bell-bottomed trousers, coat of navy blue

I love a sailor boy, and he loves me too

I still have a photo taken around 1943 of my Uncle Bill in his US Navy peacoat and white canvas sailor hat worn at a jaunty angle, standing next to a very large gun installment on deck. He had been part of a crew assigned to a minesweeper in the North Atlantic, a battleship whose job it was to clear the sea lanes of deadly mines floating or submerged just below the surface by the enemy. It was arduous, unnerving work, and the long dark nights spent on watch, with the wind howling, the salt spray coming in sheets, and the heavy roll of the ship was about as unpleasant as can be imagined. Not to mention the nagging thought of being blown apart at any moment, a daunting concern when you consider that during the war the Allies lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 war ships in those waters alone. But with the thick wool watch cap pulled down and the high collar of the trusty pea coat turned up around his ears, a sailor might find time to nestle down behind a gun turret and have a smoke, or look at a snapshot of his girl back home.

This season Drake’s has presented its own impressive version of this nautically classic coat. A civilian model of considerable panache that can effectively be dressed up or down with equal élan, the Drake’s peacoat is a substantial wool twill found in more formal overcoats, but washed down to give it a bit more softness and drape. Made in Italy, where they know something about giving urbanity a casual twist, it’s a perfect coat for city saunters or country strolls, with a lean pair of jeans or cords, a thick roll neck jumper, and chukka boots. Aficionados might add a colourful scarf and the coat’s faithful friend, the watch cap.

 

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