As is true for so many other staples in the classically-inclined man’s wardrobe, the duffel (or duffle, depending on who you ask) coat has military roots. Supposedly, the coat originally got its name from a Belgian town with the same name, that for centuries has been the production site for a coarse, woolen type of fabric, much like the one used in the duffel coats.
The exact origins of the coat model are somewhat debated. Some say they come from a Polish military frock coat made in the 1820’s, while others claim it wasn’t until John Partridge made the changes to the design that are significant for the coat, that it was actually born.
Whatever the origins, the Royal British Navy started mass producing duffel coats during WWI, since it had some qualities that were great for personnel on deck. It had easy-access buttoning (even when wearing gloves) due to the hemp string and wooden toggles, and it had a hood that sheltered the wearer from harsh weather conditions. Originally, it was cut quite generously to allow for a fully equipped uniform underneath. It did, however, go through some design changes between WWI and WWII, when it became slightly more fitted with a marginally smaller hood, so not to allow sudden bursts of wind to rip it off.
It was the famous General Montgomery, allied commander of the British forces who made the garment iconic. A camel-colored duffel coat and a beret became his signature look. After WWII, the coats were sold as surplus to the general population and gained popularity among a diverse group of people.
Two business-minded individuals, Harold and Freda Morris, saw great potential for the coat. At the time they were in the gloves and overall manufacturing business. It was only fitting that the new, slightly redesigned duffel coat would be branded “Gloverall.” They made additional changes to the original duffel, such as leather and horn buttoning instead of the hemp string and wood toggle. They also added a fourth buttoning point and flaps to cover the waist pockets, making the coat look slightly less like a surplus garment and a bit more dressed. It still kept its basic, rather square appearance.
Through the 50s and 60s the duffel coat, both the surplus model and the Gloverall adaptation were adopted by several very different groups of (mostly) young people. It was offered in a sea of color options and took on new designs. It was THE coat to own for some of the in crowds at the time.
As I’ve said, the duffel is hardly the only garment with a military history that has found its way into civilian closets. However, the uniqueness of the duffel coat is its wide-ranging appeal to groups as diverse as the British Mods, the Ivy League students in America who came to form the style commonly known as just the ‘Ivy League style,’ and even French intellectuals and political radicals. Moving on from the 60s to present, the duffel coat has been found in many well-dressed and generally cool people’s closets, ranging from Prince Charles to various rock and pop musicians, actors, and new generations of Ivy and Mod enthusiasts.
As someone who found his love for tailored menswear through the love of music and the Mod style, the duffel has always held a special place in my heart. I got my first duffel coat in high school, and have owned several since, from different makers. The latest of which is this green coat from Gloverall, in a mid-length version with four buttoning points.
The reason it still holds such an appeal to me is that it makes an aesthetically pleasing clash between business and casual wear. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a casual coat in a very classic sense of the word, but it will still look very cool over a suit, lending the whole ensemble a slight air of Mod sharpness or Ivy League nonchalance. Worn with corduroy or flannel trousers and a roll neck, the coat will give just the right amount of sharpness to a classic casual outfit.
There have been many adaptations of the duffel since John Partridge set the original design. Here’s David Bowie in a version with buttons instead of horn or wooden toggles:
And here’s an advertisement quite obviously targeted towards the “Ivy League style” enthusiasts:
Besides looking good, it’s also one of the most practical winter coats in my opinion. I may not be on the deck of a ship, but as a dog owner, I appreciate the roomy side pockets, the easy buttoning and the hood against chilly winds.
The duffel coat is certainly up there with the field jacket and the trench coat as an iconic garment with a military background, and it will probably keep finding a new audience for many generations to come.