Clothing, like music, is a history of forms. Some are wildly successful but burn out in a matter of years, others last for centuries. The most successful persist by some combination of tradition, aesthetics, and utility: they are the clothes we admire on others and on ourselves, and the clothes we find too useful to set aside. But while designers always begin from within a tradition of some kind, they also change, adapt, and reinvent their inherited forms. As long as societies change, so will their needs, tastes, and fantasies. Clothes will speak to them and for them.
The Safari jacket is a great example. Its origin can be traced to a number of nineteenth century antecedents: the belted cotton trench coat, the British military uniforms used in hot climates, especially in South Africa, and classic piece of English sporting clothing: the Norfolk jacket. A Norfolk is a belted shooting jacket, made from thornproof tweed or some other “country” fabric, with numerous patch pockets for all the accoutrements of the sport. The Safari is a translation of the Norfolk into the language of summer. It traditionally has the same bellows pockets (which expand as you fill them with shotgun shells, seashells, taco shells, etc.) and belted waist, but is made from cotton gabardine or linen.
By the early twentieth century, the Safari jacket was an established leisure garment. Like divers’ watches and motorcycle jackets, the Safari had the look of adventure even when its wearers did not. Ernest Hemingway wore them when hunting in Tanzania in the 1930s, reporting his exploits in Green Hills of Africa (1935). Teddy Roosevelt was a fan, as was emperor of boy scouts Robert Baden-Powell. Aside from photographs of Hemingway squatting over kills, perhaps Clark Gable did most to glamourize the garment, appearing in coordinated safari jacket and cotton trousers in the hugely successful Mogambo in 1953.
Hemingway got his jackets from an esteemed old retailer whose modern incarnation couldn’t be more different: Abercrombie & Fitch. Before its rebirth as a fast-fashion purveyor of the blandly sexual and the sexually bland, Abercrombie billed itself as “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World.” So attached was Abercrombie to Safari jackets, trousers, hats, and shoes that as late as 1976 they sued to defend a trademark on the term “safari” applied to essentially any clothing. Unsurprisingly, they lost.
All this is to say that like Air Jordans, which would come to the market a decade after Abercrombie lost their trademark and entered a death spiral, the Safari jacket suggested a particular kind of sporting heroics. It was a previous century’s heroics, which was filtered through Hollywood, but nevertheless included big game hunting, but also British wars in Africa and Asia, and the whole colonial machine. As with every meaningful cultural object, there’s a history to be reckoned with. On the other hand, clothes change just as ideas do, and modern Safari jackets are a long way from replica 1870s costume. No single designer or manufacturer can own a sartorial form forever—that’s why Abercrombie lost their lawsuit.
The most significant date in the transformation of the Safari into modern fashion was 1967, when Yves Saint Laurent released a Spring-Summer Collection themed around Africa. As well as pieces inspired by West African sculpture and the Algerian landscapes of his birthplace, YSL produced a Saharienne reimagined as a woman’s garment. It had the requisite four patch pockets and a belt, but draped more smoothly from shoulders to waist, emphasizing the hips rather than the chest, and balancing a tall, slender body with wide flowing trousers. By 1969 it was available as hugely successful RTW.
Post-YSL, the freedom to experiment with the Safari only increased, and we now have a vast number to choose from. It’s still possible to find the traditional warm-weather shooting jacket. Notorious Anglophile Ralph Lauren makes something fairly close, but if you actually intend to shoot things, I’d suggest you go straight to the horse’s mouth and buy from Beretta, or push the boat out and visit shotgun maker Holland & Holland (but be aware—I know this is upsetting—“the armholes are very large”). Beyond that, here are three appealingly modern ways to enjoy the Safari jacket.
The casual Safari
Put the old shooting jacket on a diet, and you get something closer to an overshirt. A lighter cloth, a more modern cut, and garment washing all contribute to making a jacket that’s no longer country tailoring so much as a piece of fully-relaxed outerwear. Consider the Anglo-Italian garment-dyed models in khaki and navy cotton, or the linen models by shirtmaker Ascot Chang for The Armoury. (In fact, since the construction is fairly similar to a shirt, many bespoke shirtmakers will make you a Safari of this style.)
The Safari as modern tailoring
On the other side of the coin, many tailors continue to make more shapely, tailored Safaris. The best of these have subtly updated them in style and substance, combining traditional techniques and modern fabrics and cuts. Italian tailors such as Isaia and Caruso regularly offer such jackets, like this linen/camelhair/silk model by Caruso for The Armoury. For obvious reasons of climate, Safaris are a good match for cities in East Asia where there is an appetite for tailoring, and some of the finest models come from Italian-influenced Asian houses: Hong Kong-based tailors The Anthology and Prologue, as well as the Japanese RTW operation Ring Jacket.
An excellent value proposition in this segment is Spanish tailor López Aragón, which specializes in another hunting garment, the Teba jacket, but offers a range of made-to-order Safari models in linen and wool. Finally, for those who desire tailoring pedigree but have no expectation of a genuine summer, look no further than the Anderson & Sheppard travel jackets in that classic British “summer” material, corduroy.
The luxury Safari
Finally, you can find a heavier version of the Safari reimagined as design-forward luxury outerwear. The king among them might well be Brunello Cucinelli’s suede models, but another strong contender is the beautiful Hemingway model by Craftsman Clothing in Hong Kong, available in lamb suede and linen. For a British take on the genre, the made-in-England brushed cotton model from Private White VC is a good candidate. Finally, if you want to totally invert the original’s aspirations to camouflage and wear a high-concept work of art, there is an arresting statement piece in printed cotton by Ikiré Jones.
The Safari is dead. Long live the Safari(s).
Mogambo, dir. John Ford (MGM, 1953)
Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (Scribner, 1935)
Nick Foulkes, Mogambo: The Safari Jacket (Skira, 2012)
Abercrombie & Fitch Company v. Hunting World, Inc. (1976)
Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris (5 Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris)