Permanent Style's Simon Crompton sings the praises of waxed cotton, to celebrate the return of our ever-popular D-43 field jacket.
Photography by Jamie Ferguson.
Of all the natural ways to waterproof cloth, wax might be the most comfortable, distinctive and satisfying. It has history on its side, certainly. Sailors used pieces of sailcloth covered in oil and grease to make waterproof capes way back in the 15th century. The first cotton versions used linseed oil, which had a habit of turning yellow over time (hence the yellow colour often used in fishermen’s clothing), but modern waxes have no such issues.
Wax also ages beautifully - obviously compared to synthetic products, which are designed not to age at all, and arguably compared to bonded cotton or other rubberised cloths. The beauty comes from the way a traditional solution will crack on the surface, rub down at the wear points, and gain an overall patina that reflects how it has been worn.
Drake’s iteration of the D-43 jacket this season uses a more traditional wax formula than the 2016 version - one specifically designed to enhance that cracking. Halley Stevensons, the Dundee-based wax specialist, calls it their ‘desert’ wax. Like most modern formulations, it is more waterproof and attracts less dirt than traditional waxes - but still retains those ageing effects. (The D-43’s cotton, by the way, is entirely waterproof. But the lack of taped seams means the garment as a whole is not, quite; waxed garments cannot normally have taped seams because the heat involved in their application melts the wax.)
Waxed cottons also have a reassuring warmth and comfort that can easily become addictive. The wax moulds slightly to the body - as it cracks, warms and then cools - giving a sense of familiarity every time it is put on. A feeling that, indisputably, this is my jacket. Interestingly, that warming and cooling is also a distinctive feature of wax. Although cold to the touch initially, waxed cottons warm quickly with the wearer’s body heat, and retain it better than other waterproofs. The trade-off for this is mainly weight. Waxed cloth is relatively heavy (although a lot lighter than it used to be).
But as enthusiastic consumers of well-made, traditional menswear, I think we can put up with this in return for cloth with character. Tweed is not the most weight-efficient way to stay warm, nor cordovan the lightest material for a robust shoe. In an age when such subtle attractions are quickly traded for cost or just simplicity, we can and should push back - investing in a material that will both protect us and look great doing so.