Sunday, March 22, 2009

Some argue that the TOPCOAT is no longer necessary in the male wardrobe. But I say an elegant overcoat still belongs in the men’s clothing lexicon...

In the accelerated, climate controlled environment in which we live, where a man steps from heated automobiles into temperature regulated office buildings, airport terminals and homes, there are those who view the traditional topcoat as no longer necessary in the male wardrobe. However, this sentiment is largely lost on people like me who maintain that an elegant overcoat still occupies a pivotal place in the lexicon of men's clothing.

Since the middle ages, man has cloaked himself in scratchy woolen outerwear with little in the way of shape, style or swagger. In fact, up through the medieval period and into the Renaissance, outerwear was defined only by crude cloaks, capes and wraps that smothered the body like a sack. Tailors of the era criticized these outer garments as essentially shapeless, lacking waist suppression, seams, pleats and other tailoring details.

To trace the origins of the dress overcoat as we know it, one must rummage through the fashion annals as far back as the 1830's, to when a French nobleman known as the Comte D'Orsay, a bit of a fop, was stranded one evening during inclement weather. Not wanting to ruin his silks, D'Orsay borrowed one of the crude, woolen cloaks that belonged to a local seaman.

Since D'Orsay was viewed as a man of wealth and taste, a stylemaker in modern parlance, he unintentionally wore this unseemly coat into fashion infamy, since at the time, all men's coats were tightly fitted, with narrow sleeves and button-front closures. By wearing the loose-fitting seaman's cloak in public, D'Orsay unwittingly initiated a trend toward, bigger, more voluminous outerwear that would eventually become known as "greatcoats." In fact, this same nobleman was once recorded to have worn a greatcoat in pure white, highly impractical to be sure, and not the standard issue for gentleman of that period. The Comte must have looked striking nonetheless.

Fact or fiction, the fashion legend associated with the Comte D'Orsay is entirely believable in that most classic topcoats still with us today trace their beginnings to either battlefields or sporting grounds. Within a few years, this looser, roomier overcoat caught the imagination of practical gentleman as well as those dedicated to the fashion of the day. By the end of the nineteenth century, the most popular overcoat for wearing in town was a single-breasted model known as the Chesterfield, named for the sixth Earl of Chesterfield, a Regency period dandy who would have given Beau Brummell a run for his cravat. The modern Chesterfield looks much as it did then, with black or taupe velvet collar, covered button placket front and slightly pulled in waist. In charcoal or hunter green herringbone or navy or gray melton or cashmere, it is, to my mind, the most elegant of all overcoats.

The classic single-breasted Chesterfield with velvet collar and peaked lapels in gray wool chevron

When the weather is particularly harsh, or when traveling, a fine alternative to the Chesterfield is the stylish wool tweed, English-born Ulster, which is always double-breasted and features wide, sweeping lapels that can be turned up for protection from wind, rain and practically anything else El Nino may conjure up.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, noble British sportsmen became synonymous with a variety of caped and stylized tweed overcoats. These English lords' counterparts hailed from Bavaria or the Austro-Hungarian regions, where wealthy gentleman with a penchant for outdoor sports like hunting, utilized locally-produced loden cloth, as ubiquitous there as tweed was in the British countryside.

From the classic trench coat, designed expressly for British troops holed up, aptly enough, in trenches on the Western front, to the raglan coat named after Lord Raglan, a British noble and commander in the Crimean War, military conflicts have been the mother of invention in overcoat design. Probably the most famous of all dress outerwear born of sport, although technically it may be rooted more in the wardrobes of British officers, is the elegant, versatile polo coat, often executed in tan camel's hair or cashmere.

Though seen infrequently in the US, other coat styles with military history include the British Warm, the duffel (a favorite of Field Marshall Montgomery and named for the Belgium town of Duffel where it originated) and the Inverness, the latter, with its skirt of fabric draped from the shoulders, is virtually gone from the vocabulary of men's clothing outside the Scottish moors. Indeed, after the war, when demobilization came and the clothing market was flooded with military surplus, the duffel coat made its way to Civvy Street with ease. What had been standard outerwear for sailors on North Atlantic convoys became the uniform of sorts for the beatniks who frequented coffee shops that were springing up in cities such as New York and San Francisco, along with the Gauloise-smoking intellectuals of Paris' left bank.

The Warm and plush Duffel, with its wood toggle closures, is a perennial favorite in New England

The adoption of the duffel coat by American beatniks and Paris left bank intellectuals stands as one of the first instances where an overcoat was used as a style statement. A decade or two later, Afghan coats--essentially the same type worn by Middle Eastern sheepherders--would become de rigueur among hippies on both American coasts. The practical overcoat had morphed into something decidedly symbolic.

Ironically, today it is those who continue to wear classic, elegant overcoats who appear to be the rebellious ones. Admittedly, it is in a spirit of symbolic defiance against the pernicious promotion of casual wear that I still wear my dress overcoats. To my mind, there is nothing like a classic Chesterfield in solid black, navy or charcoal for adding a much needed air of dignity to any cityscape. All too often, a man who is otherwise properly suited, spoils the balance of his ensemble by opting for a hideous anorak or some other sports-oriented outer garment. These sportive coats are appropriate for camping weekends and mountain climbing but so much fish out of water in a business environment.

My personal rules regarding elegant overcoats are quite simple. A well-tailored Chesterfield in a solid dark color is best, although one made up in a classic yet subtle pattern such as herringbone is permissible. Ideally, the coat should reach below the knee; exactly how much depends on the individual but anywhere between six and ten inches is acceptable. Any longer and the coat will begin to look theatrical.

Avoid any and all extravagant trims and flourishes in favor of the understated elegance of a fly front and set-in shoulder detailing. If desired, a velvet collar in a complimentary tonal shade is fine and in keeping with the coat's origins. A patch of silk in the breast pocket might also be worn.

For country wear and more casual occasions, the loose-fitting, raglan-sleeved Balmacaan, tailored in a mini gun check, twill or tweed fabric, is highly versatile and travels well. Edward VIII, as the Prince of Wales, a man given to breaking certain rules of fashion, favored this style coat, which he wore in town over his pin striped suits and reverse-calf oxford shoes. While the overcoat may not lend itself to color and pattern as well as the lounge suit, finely tailored topcoats marry extremely well with luxurious fabrics made of alpaca, cashmere, camel's hair and, in Europe anyway, vicuna. Inside the coat, linings may be made of woven silk --a remarkably practical fabric in and of itself. Or, if the climate demands and a buyer has the means, fur also works well as a topcoat lining.

The casual yet elegant Balmacaan, with flip-up collar, often features a lap seam across the shoulders and down the sleeves

On the subject of fur, it is, in my opinion, a worthy option for extreme northerly climes. Apart from being luxurious, fur exudes aristocratic opulence, if that is your thing. In modern parlance, a fur coat is, understandably, the ultimate "feel-good" garment. I never did subscribe to the idea of "political correctness" in matter of gentlemen's dress. When it comes to fur, almost all the animals of origin are responsibly farmed or ranched. The spurious argument that killing an animal for its pelt is morally reprehensible is founded on the unfound premise that dignity for animals is in some way tantamount to that of man.

But as with everything, a fur coat is best worn only when circumstances dictate that it is proper to do so. Different countries, with differing climates demand alternative approaches. For example: a loden coat in Milan may be viewed as a model of restraint and conservatism. In London, however, a velvet-collared, navy blue Chesterfield would be seen as much more appropriate.

While the coat may have been born of function, in the modern era, fashion is to the fore. The style-conscious man today should have a well-rounded 'library' of overcoats from which to choose, and use his best judgment as to the right coat for the proper occasion. It is only when a man owns a well-rounded assortment of topcoat styles that he can truly appreciate the elegance and pleasure that comes from wearing this most underrated and overlooked classic.


  1. Well said.

    Myself, I prefer a topcoat, wool cashmere, above the knees, single breast. I have a Scotish Harris Tweed version, and a classic British Bodner Elem wool cashmere of traditional quality.

    But a Chesterfield is slightly more formal, and of course, an excellent choice.

    Life is too short to wear plebian sports wear when it is so easy to be suitably dressed, pun intended.

  2. I definitely think that a nice, long, wool coat is a necessity. I don't think this will ever really go out of style.

  3. Anoraks and sports-orientated outer garments are completely incongruous with a suit (or for that matter with blazer/sports jacket and tie). A full-length coat adds elegance and "finish" as well as warmth, and there are many occasions (and temperatures) for which wearing one should be considered as the "default" position rather than not wearing one.