For Sea and Sidewalk: A Deep Dive Into The Pea Coat
For Sea and Sidewalk: A Deep Dive Into The Pea Coat
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date March 20, 2018
Military surplus clothing has long been a fashion statement. Combat boots, Army jackets, and even the American military take on the keffiyeh, have all crept into casual men’s fashion. Though military garb often goes civilian, no piece of clothing has done so as effortlessly and completely as the pea coat.
Though at first glance the name “pea coat” evokes hints of folksy Americana, the origins of the coat are actually Dutch. In the late eighteenth century, when the Netherlands was still a naval powerhouse, Dutch sailors wore pijjakkers, coats made from coarse wool “pije” fabric. Though the Dutch kicked off the use of the coat, it was the British Navy, and their ubiquitous colonial presence around the globe that made the coat truly popular. The “pije” coat became the “pea” coat, as the British adopted a version of the coat as a uniform for petty officers. To this day, pea coats are sometimes referred to as “reefer coats’”—reffering to the shorter pea coats, a.k.a. “reefers,” worn by petty officers of the British Empire. Higher ranking officers would wear a longer “bridge” coat. Eventually, the United States Navy also made the coat part of some of their standard issue clothing for cold weather jobs, and the coat crossed the Atlantic.
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These seafaring origins are important to understanding the shape of the coat, a huge part of what has kept it so popular for so long. Intensely utilitarian, the coat was originally designed for sailors who spent countless month on open waters. Intentionally form fitting, the silhouette was engineered to better insulate seamen from harsh winds. The jacket would flare out a bit at the hips, as not to hinder rope climbing, and the ulster collar could be buttoned all the way up to protect from the elements. Coincidentally, it is those very same stiff long collars that still give the pea coat a fashionable edge. The iconic large buttons (often featuring anchors) were sturdy enough that you wouldn’t end up fumbling with them in a squall.
Still, presence in military surplus only goes so far. What truly pushed the coat into the men’s fashion canon was its adoption and implementation by various vendors and designers. As the pea coat gained popularity, various vendors started to see its appeal in civilian life. Solid evidence of the pea coat as a fashion trend dates back at least to the mid-19th century. Tailor & Cutter magazine, the leading tailor trade magazine of that era in the UK featured pea coats as an up and coming trend in October of 1868. Although the magazine referred to the coat as a “Prince of Wales Jacket,” it was clearly a pea coat: a loose double breasted jacket with three pairs of buttons made from blue pilot cloth and lined with wool. Indeed, an illustration from the following year describes the style as a “Prince of Wales pea-jacket.”
Unlike L.L. Bean and the duck boot, no one company claims to have pioneered the civilian pea coat. As with more modern military influenced trends like cargo jackets and combat boots, it’s likely that civilians first began grabbing up military surplus—or retired sailors began wearing them off duty like soldiers had done M-65s and BDU cargo—and various companies saw an opportunity to capitalize on a trend. One company in particular claims an entirely different origin story for the garment. Making pea coats for more than 150 years, Camplin refers to itself as the “pea coat innovator.” In contrast with the more widely recognized Dutch origin story, Camplin claims that they pioneered the term “p coat,” short for their “petty coat”—a reference to the officer class, not the undergarment.
Camplin did ultimately have a more outsized impact on the development of the pea coat than their competitors. In 1857 they became the official supplier for the British Royal Navy, creating an outline for the coat we know today. Still available today, the Camplin pea coat introduced red fabric liners and slash pockets that come to a point—details now emblematic of peacoats in general. While Camplin oversaw production for the Royal Navy, Schott handled production stateside. The official pea coat manufacturor for the US Navy, Schott held the license from the 1930s to 1990s. Their iteration, largely unchanged since its introduction, is still in production.
While enjoying steady popularity among civilians since their introduction, Pea Coats saw a sharp increase in demand during the 1960s, as military surplus fashion became chic in the midst of the anti-war movement. As second-hand military attire became a key element in hippie fashion, pea coats became the preferred winter coat for flower children. While green Army jackets fell in-and-out of style in subsequent decades due to an intimate association with the anti-war movement, the pea coat drifted into mainstream American tastes, and never left.
In part, the pea coat’s staying power is a result of never being merely a counterculture symbol. From hip college students to American royalty, the pea coat was ubiquitous. The jacket was just as prevalent with hippies as it was with WASPS—women included. Jackie Onasis loved pea coats, and to this day, womens’ pea coats are often called “Jackie O Coats.” Similarly, Robert Redford, made the pea coat a staple of this look. His style in *Three Days of the Condor, anchored by a black pea coat, remains iconic to this day and helped establish the jacket’s hard masculine edge.
Considering its integration into civilian wardrobes for over a century, the idea of a high fashion pea coat is far from subversive. Today, you are just as likely to see a pea coat at the coffee shop or naval cruiser as you are on the runway. While military influences tend to make bold statements in designer collections, pea coats appear in more nuanced ways, their subtle shape often going quietly unnoticed—particularly for outerwear. In Givenchy’s Fall 2009 menswear collection, for instance, is a great example of how they often appear. Simple and understated, the jacket was updated by forgoing buttons and cut wide rather than contour with the body. Still, the garment was undeniably a pea coat, and modern to boot.
Though pea coats will forever be linked to various naval forces around the globe, America’s military is actually stepping away from the pea coat. In 2016, it was announced that pea coats would no longer be a part of the US Navy uniform. A black synthetic parka is replacing the historic coats, and the classic design is being phased out, much the the chagrin of New England’s wool industry. By 2020, the only pea coats worn by the US military will be purchased with a soldier’s personal funds.
Though the pea coat will no longer be seen on naval ships, it is a permanently entrenched as a part of men’s cold weather wear. The pea coat’s popularity ebbs and flows, yet always seems to make reliable cyclical comebacks. Speaking to GQ about the pea coats most recent resurgence, J.Crew menswear designer Frank Muytjens said, “a peacoat makes you feel good because everyone knows it. You grew up on one, and I think every guy has them. It’s nice to be able to do different iterations of them.”
Over the last two years, the pea coat has been all over the runway. Tommy Hilfiger’s show went as far as to park a model ocean liner in the background of his show, literally anchoring his naval theme. Coach, Burberry, and Prada have similarly gone the naval route with pea coats sprinkled throughout various collections.
While this current trend is sure to end as reliably as the tides, the pea coat will undoubtedly see another resurgence. The utility of the coat, combined with its unwavering association with the open ocean continues appeal to both sexes. Even if they are no longer standard issue, pea coats are sure remain a staple of winter fashion for years to come.