Coats & Jackets Essays

An Ode to Cinema's Most Iconic Coats

By Robbie Collin

Jul 13, 2022

An Ode to Cinema's Most Iconic Coats

Illustration by Wes Robinson.

It’s a perishing December night in Manhattan, and a dashing young man with kind, sad eyes is sitting alone in the park. His name is Bryan – Mr Bedford to some – and moments earlier he proposed to his girlfriend Dorey, a department store executive, with a diamond the size of a SIM card. Alas, though, she rebuffed his offer of marriage, so now he’s quietly mulling his prospects on a bench, by a streetlight’s consolatory glow.

Then Father Christmas sits down beside him and gives him a pep talk.

When I first saw the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street as a child, there was much about this scene I didn’t understand. Why had Dorey turned Bryan down? And why did Bryan even want to spend his life with a yucky girl, when he and Santa were apparently best pals? But there was one thing I understood on an instinctual level: those two men were wearing excellent coats.

Bryan, played by Dylan McDermott, was sporting a suave polo coat of thick navy wool, while Kris Kringle himself, the great Richard Attenborough, was in a dignified brown herringbone number, a tie peeping out from between its broad lapels. Even as a youngster, I remember feeling these items radiated decency and dependability. Just watching them made me feel cosier inside.

Clockwise from top left: Dylan McDermott in 'Miracle on 34th Street'; Richard Gere in 'American Gigolo'; Warren Beatty in 'McCabe and Mrs Miller'; Orson Welles in 'The Third Man' and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps'.

It was then I first became conscious of the strange and exciting power of a great movie coat. When the combination of actor and garment is just right, you find yourself sensing how wearing it might feel, and how it might change the way you move through the world. Perhaps this is the kind of sensation Aldous Huxley had in mind when he came up with Brave New World’s ‘feelies’ – though even Huxley’s bearskin rug would have nothing on the sensual potency of Warren Beatty’s resplendent russet fur in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller

With the addition of a bowler hat and leather gloves, Beatty’s McCabe resembles a debonair Bigfoot: it's pure frontier swagger, and the look has endured. Versions of the McCabe coat have been sported by heroes and scoundrels alike in many modern westerns, from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (just a superb winter coat film in general) to the recent independent gem Slow West, and even Solo: A Star Wars Story. Who said style and wilderness practicality didn’t mix?

Certainly not Robert Donat’s Richard Hannay, whose double-breasted tweed overcoat in a chic yet camoflaging gun check allows him to evade the police while scampering through the highlands in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Well, I say his coat: of course it’s ‘borrowed’ from John Laurie’s glowering crofter. “Aye, his Sunday best one, but never mind,” shrugs the crofter’s much younger wife, as she wraps it ardently around the handsome Hannay’s shoulders.

For the well-dressed wanted man, protective outerwear is a must. It’s why the spivs and spies of detective pictures and film noir are rarely seen without their belted trench coats. Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon: you never knew when these chaps might have to pull up their lapels and duck into an alleyway, away from prying eyes. Then in American Gigolo, Richard Gere toyed with the trend, somehow making his belted camel polo coat look simultaneously like a PI’s trusty mac and the most deluxe dressing gown ever made. 

Some especially high-value targets go further still, and wear their overcoats like armour. Think of Orson Welles looming from the shadows in The Third Man with his collar pulled up around a gorget-like scarf, or Daniel Craig in Spectre, cutting a funereal silhouette in his black bridge coat.

Craig is one of modern cinema’s finest coat wearers: see also Skyfall’s waxed jacket and navy peacoat. But the actor has never looked snugger than when playing Benoit Blanc, the so-called last of the gentlemen sleuths, in the Rian Johnson whodunit Knives Out. Blanc’s beige and brown herringbone raglan coat is ideal investigative workwear: as soft and relaxed as an enormous cardigan, it’s the perfect piece in which to sit back or stroll while mulling one’s suspects’ alibis and motives. Or, of course, while idly daydreaming about doing these things, during a stroll to the shops for some milk.

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