Spring in San Francisco is onerous. It’s as if winter is on its deathbed with a wet cough that keeps drenching you with incessant gloom as it slowly releases its grip on daylight. It’s pathetic. Long after the novelty off sweater weather wears off, you just feel like pulling the plug and ending the misery.
My first spring in New York was unforgettable. For months, the trees surrounding me in Putnam County had been shivering naked during the long winter like so many desiccated toothpicks, reaching up to a sun that would give them no warmth. The trails circling Mountain Brook were surrounded by dirty snow that blended into the granite horizon and ashen sky, painting a dormant landscape filtered in desolation, until finally the earth awoke. I remember buds shooting from the branches while it was still cold in March, offering hope of renewed life. I was so excited I walked around in jeans and a t-shirt; 36 degrees seemed almost warm. The snow began to melt, and within weeks, the whole valley of the east branch of the Croton River exploded in an intense, waxy green, sparkling in the breeze with hues of malachite in the sun and viridian in the shade. I’ll never forget that sight; it could have made anyone a believer.
It’s no wonder, then, that our clothes reflect spring’s renewal of life and color. The changing of seasons brings longer days and blossoming flora, prompting us to put away our heaviest winter coats in somber hues and exchange them for something lighter and cheery. For men, this traditionally means oxford cloth button-downs in soft pastel hues of robin’s egg blue, pale pink, and dusty yellow. Since it won’t get really hot for several months, now is what some call “Shoulder Season,” when moderate temperatures can accommodate items from both summer and winter wardrobes, without necessitating full-on shearling or head-to-toe linen. Lamentably, many places have pathetically a short Shoulder Season. This is a shame, since spring and autumn have arguably the most pleasant temperatures of the year – the Golden Mean Climate – perfect for for a variety of menswear. Here are some of my favorites for spring:
A faux tweed sport coat. I’m considering sending this fabric to my tailor in Sicily. A lightweight wrinkle-resistant wool from the long-gone Hardy Minnis Riviera line, the dusty kelly green expresses just the right amount of “spring” without being garish. A jacket in this color goes great with light grey trousers, tan chinos or faded jeans, so I expect I’ll be wearing this a lot come March. One of my favorite online stores, No Man Walks Alone (also a Styleforum affiliate), headed by longtime forum member Greg Lellouche, has a jacket in a solid olive green and a houndstooth patterned blue and brown in fabrics that are perfect for spring and would transition well into summer. If you’re not a plaid person, try a suit or jacket in a fresh sage green cotton instead of traditional tan.
A suede safari jacket. Last year I scored one from Polo Ralph Lauren at Goodwill for less than $30. It quickly became one of my favorites, and I found it went surprisingly well with a variety of outfits: beat-up denim and white sneakers, fresco trousers and tan chukkas, and hunter green khakis and boots. The four utilitarian pockets carry just about anything, and the jacket can be worn open for ventilation, casually belted for a quick jaunt to the market, or buttoned-and-belted for when the wind starts to pick up. Fair warning: people will want to touch you.
A mid-weight sweater. Twenty years ago, a sweet girl from Hyde Park named Liz gave me a periwinkle blue cotton cable-knit crewneck sweater from LL Bean, and I ended up wearing it all spring. In fact, they still offer the same one, available online. Perfect for those in-between times when you don’t have to worry about shedding layers of clothes. Sweaters such as this one feel wonderful against your skin, and when the temperature changes you can either roll up your sleeves or throw on a Baracuta. Later on, I picked up a shawl-collar sweater in a cotton-cashmere blend that serves more or less the same purpose, worn either with a simple white t-shirt or taking the place of a more formal 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.