Everybody looks good in an overcoat. Or, more accurately: everyone looks good in a good overcoat. Even growing up in San Diego, I knew this, despite never wearing one – until I moved to New York.
A few weeks before my departure, one of my father’s friends, originally from Indiana, took me aside and asked me if I was ready for the cold. Being a teenager, and thus knowing all there is to need to know about everything, I mentally reviewed my closet – full of shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops – and replied, “Yes.”
He smiled graciously, humored no doubt by youth’s ignorantly blissful anticipation of the unknown, before adding, “Well, I’ve got a coat for you, just in case.” And he handed me an old LL Bean barn coat, faded and creased from years of use. I remember looking at it with dubious skepticism, like earmuffs on the equator: with recessed cuffed sleeves, snorkel neck, 3” storm zipper, and rainproof Thinsulate liner, It must have weighed 20 pounds. More importantly, it was downright ugly.
“Thanks…?” I meekly offered. “Um…I do have a jacket…” thinking of the Starter jacket I wore when temps dipped to the low 60s. “I should be okay.”
“No,” he shook his head. “You have no idea.”
Sure enough, he was right about one thing: the Nor’easter blizzards of 95-96 would paralyze me with a bracing chill that I had never before experienced, a wetness whose piercing winds blasted through five layers of clothing as if I were naked, that left my feet frostbitten even standing three socks deep in Sorel’s. And yet that ugly barn coat, with all its engineering and overkill insulation, wasn’t enough; it still didn’t keep my legs warm, like a too-short bed blanket. What I needed – and finally got – was a good overcoat.
Overcoats are not only practical, but in covering most of the body, they lengthen the wearer and give the illusion of height. The slim and casual trends of the past 20 years have had men cropping everything from pants to jackets, and overcoats were traded in for parkas. Thankfully things are starting to change, albeit slowly, and longer coats are beginning to make a comeback. Depending on how it’s constructed, an overcoat’s cut and contour can give the wearer various silhouettes, all of which have their own charms. Here’s a quick breakdown of styles:
The Chesterfield – what most think of when they hear the word “overcoat”. In fact, your typical modern variation basically looks like a long sports coat: single breasted, notch or peak lapel, straight hip pockets, single back vent. The big differences are that the fronts are squared, rather than curved, and there are no front darts to shape the coat close to the body. Up to the early 80s you might have seen a velvet collar, but those mostly exist on the internet, and mostly in pictures of Roger Moore. Generally plain, in charcoal or navy; as it traditionally has no darts and is meant to fit over a suit, it looks slightly large on the hanger but looks perfect when worn.
The Covert Coat – like the Chesterfield, it’s single breasted, can have a velvet collar, but typically has a fly front (covered placket) so the the buttons are unseen when the jacket is closed. There are other details, such as the rows of stitching at the sleeves and hem and inside poachers pocket, but the most important is the eponymous cloth. Initially popular for sporting gentlemen, covert cloth is a rare bird these days – what with the decline of fox hunting – but is still a good choice for a hearty coat. Made of a dense twill, its tight weave not only protects the wearer from vicious game, but from rain and wrinkles as well. Traditionally cut generously, its colors fall somewhere between a mid-grayish-browny-moss. To hide in the brush, you see.
Lasse Hedenstead from Denmark wears his covert coat traditionally, but it fits in well with his surroundings. Check out his blog here.
The Balmacaan – I’m happy to see this one making a comeback. Similar in purpose to the covert coat, the balmacaan is cut a bit oversized, with raglan sleeves for ease of movement. However, unlike the covert coat’s comparatively plain city-suitable twill fabric, the balmacaan is generally made from country-ready tweeds in various patterns of houndstooth, checks, and plaids. This overcoat can just as easily be worn with a suit as with jeans, as there are no lapels to suggest formality; only a small collar that can be turned up when temperatures fall down. Its blobby shapelessness gives it a casual charm that doesn’t take itself too seriously. G. Bruce Boyer describes it as a “blanket with sleeves,” and I’m inclined to agree. Read his feature on the balmacaan on Drakes here.
Here’s a choice offering from S.E.H. Kelly:
The Paletot/Guards Coat – this is the coat you see in all the old Hollywood movies. Like a classic double breasted jacket in most every way: a 6-to-2 stance (meaning the top two buttons are at a wider stance like a Y), peaked lapels, and the occasional single vent. Usually tailored closer to the body. Being the most formal of overcoats, the absence of decoration makes it appropriate in practically every situation that calls for a suit. Which means you should wear it with a suit. The Guard’s Coat is similar, but can have a different buttoning stance, turned cuffs and and optional back belt. A little less formal, but in today’s athleisure world, no one will bat an eye.
The Ulster Coat – the one you want when it’s really cold. Recognizable for its collar and lapel made to be turned up to protect the neck, it’s usually made from heavy marled tweed for protection, double breasted for warmth, and a roomy fit for layering. Details include turn back sleeve cuffs, big patch flap pockets, and probably a force field for errant laser beams (currently only available on bespoke commissions).
The Polo Coat – one of my favorites, as borne out by this previous article. Originally Polo players threw on an oversized coat and cinched it with a belt to keep warm post-game, but since then the tan coat has morphed a bit. For example, the belt might still be there, or there might be a Martingale half-belt in the back. The collar could have peaked or Ulster-style lapels. There could be six or eight buttons, and sleeves could have cuffs or not. It could be camel hair, wool, or a mix of the two. What hasn’t changed is the color: always golden. Also, it’s always double breasted. A single breasted Polo coat is just a camel coat.
Another coat that I like is the bridge coat. Unfortunately you don’t see it too often, like its close cousin the great coat, even though it’s basically just a longer peacoat. Being that overcoats are gaining popularity, the bridge coat and great coat’s oversized collar, structured shoulders, and sweeping fronts add a bit of drama to an otherwise drab city seascape of boring coats, and I hope to see it more often.
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Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.