It’s Time for a Field Jacket

Lightweight outerwear is, in my opinion, the best category of clothing. And the king of lightweight outerwear is the field jacket: it’s versatile, it’s variable, and there’s pretty much a model out there for you, whatever your tastes may be.

Like just about every menswear classic, the field jacket is originally a military piece. And really, it has no definite beginning, since any jacket worn into the “field” became, by definition, a field jacket. But the best-known models are the American-made M-series jackets that replaced the original OD-3 (Olive Drab 3) field jacket, which itself replaced the four-pocket service coat that had been in action through WWI: the M-43, M-51, and M-65.

The latter has become the standard-bearer for the clothing genre, but it has an equally compelling cousin in the form of the Safari Jacket, or Bush Jacket. These also have their origins in military use, particularly as warm-weather British uniforms in khaki drill, but were rapidly adopted into casual offerings as well. Now they’re often referred to as “Hemingway Jackets,” thanks to Ernest’s penchant for wearing them while shooting things in Africa. Similar in style to the American service coat, these jackets share the four-pocket style with the addition of a waist belt.

As you might expect from a style that’s been around for the better part of a century, there are now endless options for safari jackets. They range from vintage M-65’s (still very popular due to their robustness and movie-star appeal) to modern interpretations made from luxurious materials like suede, soft wools, or supple leather. My own field jacket – yes, I own just one – comes from the short-lived but excellent brand Cloak. Unlike some of the lighter-weight examples, this one is fully quilted, and is at its best over a roll-neck sweater on a chilly day.

However, most field jackets are still true to their origins as a versatile, always-applicable jacket. The cloth versions can be sported with sleeves rolled up, which is perfect for confusing autumn weather. I’ve never understood the aversion to rolling the sleeves on a jacket – there’s nothing odd about the look, and I find it comes in handy much more regularly than you might assume. Besides, a field jacket can be worn over a linen shirt or even a medium-weight sweater, depending on what you need. And best of all, you’ll never run out of pockets.

I’m not really a fan of out-of-control luxury interpretations of utilitarian pieces, although I certainly understand the appeal. And I think that a suede field jacket is a truly handsome piece – I’d go so far as to say I’d love to own one. But if you’re looking for a real workhorse of a jacket, I would stick to fabric offerings – especially as you can find lots of models that are water- and weather-resistant, which turns the field jacket into a dependable standby every time you pack a suitcase.

Shopping for a field jacket is really case of being spoiled for choice. Because it’s such a classic style, it’s pretty easy to find a model that won’t break the bank. You’ll find examples at brands like Orvis, Land’s End, and L.L. Bean, and if you’re looking for a purely utilitarian piece, the truth is that you probably won’t be disappointed with a budget option.

Of course, you can always go vintage. A quick web search will show hundreds of options for surplus and vintage suppliers, as well as from brands like Alpha Industries. You can also find exacting replicas at Buzz Rickson’s or The Real McCoy’s, if you’re looking for period-correct details and fantastic build quality. In these cases, expect to pay orders of magnitude more than you would at your local thrift shop.

The internet menswear set has embraced the suede field jacket, which is just fine with me. While these were never exactly hard to find, it does feel that they’ve seen yet another resurgence, and Menswear designers have certainly cottoned (sueded?) on to the trend. Now, you’ll find suede models everywhere from Hickey Freeman to Brunello Cucinelli. Hell, Mr. Porter even has an entire section of their website devoted to field jackets.

Here’s the thing: if I were going to add another field jacket to my closet, which is already bloated with light jackets, I’d go for one of two options: first, I’d check for a budget option that fit my fancy for a dose of boring but functional style. Barring that, if I had the spare cash, I’d look for a suede option.

I first heard about Stoffa from Derek at Die! Workwear, and after stalking their offerings for a year I think they’ve really hit the perfect mix of clean lines and functional details – and I don’t think that’s easy to get right. I also happen to like their colors; all of which are a bit whimsical and exciting as opposed to standard drabs. You’ll have to inquire directly about materials as well as fittings.

The other maker I’d consider is Styleforum affiliate Craftsman Clothing, a Hong Kong-based made-to-measure leather company. Their Hemingway jacket is a bit more traditional, a bit less clean, which I find very appealing. And so far, Styleforum members have shared nothing but praise.

Even if we’re in the middle of a field jacket craze, it’s a very safe buy that I really doubt anyone would come to regret. Like most menswear classics, it’ll have its moments, but it’ll also never look outdated or out of style. And while I’m not a proponent of having a wardrobe made up entirely of classics, I think a field jacket is a piece that can easily be styled to the wearer’s tastes.

Regardless, best of luck on your search, dear reader. And if you have other favorites, feel free to mention them in the comments below.