A British style classic, or something more profound? Roberto Viscomi considers the timeless waxed jacket.
My first memory, when I think of a "utility jacket", is from some thirty years ago. My father accompanied me to Florence, where I was starting at the local university. In the typical way of a man who believed that studying came first and almost everything else came after, my enrollment and my accommodation were seen to without delay. But after that, he led me to his favourite clothing shop, an historic gentlemen’s outfitters in the city of Dante.
Before entering, he gave me a speech that I will never forget: in practice, in his opinion, I was inserting the keys into the door of maturity. That moment had to be marked by a more dignified wardrobe. I had already had a blue blazer made by his tailor, which I had owned for a couple of years - I was going to need a pair of grey flannel trousers, a pair of Church’s shoes and a couple of classic button-down shirts, most admired in distant America. You could not present yourself at examinations or seminars badly dressed. I had already received a couple of ties: one in tweed and one in shantung.
In the end, being a student, my outerwear had to be elegant but above all useful: we opted, therefore, for a beautiful green jacket, made of waxed cotton and produced in the UK: in jargon a "utility jacket". I still own that jacket - even if mended in parts - and use it weekly, keeping it as if it were a part of me: as much “utility” as the inevitable daily use of bread seasoned with a good olive oil.
Lessons at the University, trips out in Chianti, exams, walks in the centre, graduation: how many memories! A real second skin! After graduating, my utility jacket accompanied me to a British university, where I spent a year.
The first day the weather was typically British: my ‘utility’ was more than perfect to deal with it. When I arrived at the university, I got completely lost, spotted a beautiful girl and obviously approached her to ask for information. She got in first, though - both because I was clearly lost and because of my accent, which was not quite that of a subject of Queen Elizabeth II - and rushed to tell me that the Agricultural Faculty was on the other side of campus! She had mistaken me for a farmer! I was delighted: I understood then, too, why I was being looked at strangely by other students, whose look was, let’s say, less “classic”!
Waxed cotton was born in the Scottish town of Arbroath, overlooking the North Sea. Sailors noticed that wet sails were more efficient than dry sails as they let through less wind – but this also meant that they were heavy. So they applied fish oil and greases to their heavy sail cloth which stopped the wind from passing through, and also kept it from getting too heavy when wet. From the waste of the sails they cut waterproof hats to keep themselves dry - a precursor to the fisherman's slicker hat, and subsequently our present day waxed jackets. In 1795, the canvas producer, Mr. Francis Webster, himself from Arbroath, created a thriving business by introducing waxed cotton to the market.
The mending represents perhaps the most chic connotation of the garment: years of continuous use, together with periodic waxing, give the garment that allure that makes it a must-have whether one is a farmer or not. Each tear represents a moment, and each rough edge is a medal won on the field. The utility jacket is, in its own way, a metaphor for life.