Ship Shape: The Story of the Peacoat

Ship Shape: The Story of the Peacoat

Man About Town writer and military apparel enthusiast Tony Sylvester discusses the French navy's greatest invention.

One inclement day in early 19th Century Paris, renowned clotheshorse Comte Alfred D’Orsay found himself on the streets and underdressed. A passing marin was persuaded to part with his rough blue overcoat, and the rest, as they say, is history. By 1839, La Fashion were reporting that ’stylish men” had “borrowed the ‘overcoat’ from Dieppe Sailors” and the widespread adoption of its rugged good looks and basic construction raised the rankles of professional tailors fearing its utilitarian simplicity may be their undoing.

Like most menswear creation stories, this is both fanciful and very likely apocryphal. But it certainly fits the zeitgeist. As George ‘Beau’ Brummell was ditching the elaborate embroidery and powdered periwigs for riding boots, blue serge and calvary twill, so gentlemen Europe-wide were looking to the field, mountains and seas for sartorial inspiration.

The peacoat has been keeping seafarers safe from harm both sides of the Atlantic for over three centuries now and has shown remarkably little change in that time. Constructed from heavy, dark blue wool and double breasted for insulation, the coat’s high-buttoning front, tall collar and warm pockets all contribute to its status as the gold standard of foul weather protection. Buttoned tight and with the collar upturned, the peacoat creates such a dramatic silhouette that it is little wonder the Aquarian Age peacocks of the Sixties adopted its form, along with its lower half naval companion the bell bottoms, as de rigeur.

Despite its specificity though, the peacoat is a remarkably versatile piece of kit, able to straddle both the hardy and elegant halves of a man’s wardrobe. Dress up with a colourful scarf for the dandy adventurer vibe of antihero Corto Maltese, or pair with chambray, chinos and a watch cap for that Clint Eastwood-in-'Escape From Alcatraz' weather beaten toughness.