“Whatcha got under there?”
I’m on a sidewalk on Drumm and Market, in front of the Hyatt Regency, where the temperature in December hovers around the mid-40s. Today is especially frigid, especially for us thin-blooded San Franciscans, and many are forced to bundle in their warmest getups. All levels of formality and style are represented: the athleisure down puffer (the Michelin Man), the fleece jacket (the Undergrad); and various versions of a semi-water resistant, multi-pocketed, Thinsulate-filled jacket with a detachable hood – or what I like to call the Indiana Car Coat, named after the native soil of the kind soul that gave me a similar impossibly ugly jacket before I moved from California to New York. All these, mind you, are being worn over suits. And here I am in a polo coat. Which I am wearing over a suit, a shirt, a tie, and of course, to answer to the trite question raised by the passerby, underwear.
Dress overcoats to keep out the cold come in many variations, but the polo coat is arguably the most charming. The paletot has swagger but looks awkward with the lapels folded up, the balmacaan oozes rustic charm but is a shapeless blob, the chesterfield’s velvet collar relegates it to costume, and the ulster, with its practical double breasted closure, utilitarian collar, and flapped patch pockets, is pretty much as perfect as you can get. Why is the polo coat, which is essentially a camel-colored ulster, so great?
“Man, I need me one of those. It just looks so cozy.” So says a passerby dressed in denim jeans and a flannel shirt. The idea of throwing a polo coat with such an outfit sounds incongruous, but therein lies the secret of the polo coat’s success: it goes with practically everything. Way back in 1935, Esquire carried an ad for a camel’s hair polo coat that cost $32.50, or about $480 in today’s dollars (Not bad, considering that Polo Ralph Lauren currently sells theirs for many times that. And it’s not even camel hair). It was shown with a suit because, well, that’s what dudes wore when they weren’t naked or doing manual labor. A bit later an article showed how it could be worn, open, with a sportcoat. Fast forward to now, and the January 2017 issue of GQ showcases Ryan Gosling in a camel coat (close enough) and a white t-shirt. Which, crazily enough, seems to work (although come on, it’s Ryan Gosling, he can look good in a Marty Feldman mask).
Said passerby then asks where I purchased my overcoat, which makes me pause for a bit. I picked mine up at a vintage shop near Canal St. around the time I first moved out to New York, but here and now? Of course Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers have an iteration of the polo coat every year or so, but otherwise a true version is rather hard to come by: double breasted, ulster collar, half-belt and set-in sleeves. It wasn’t always that way. An old article on art mogul Paul Mellon relates a charming story of the time he ran into a handful of his buddies from Yale at his tailors. Feeling philanthropic, he offered them all polo coats, on his dime.
Much has already been written about the history of the Polo coat: Bruce Boyer in 1981 reports its history with the eponymous sport, but was it mere nostalgia? Versions of the Polo coat appeared in The Sting in 1973 and American Gigolo in 1980, and for the next ten years the camel-colored “Aristocrat of Coats” would be promoted in Ralph Lauren advertisements. Double breasted anything fell out of favor in the 1990s, and for a while the anemic topcoat was the only option available. Camel-hair topcoats have been around forever (this 1933 Esquire article starts off by saying they’ve been around “longer than dumb undergraduates”), but fortunately pictures from the recent Pitti Uomo featured quite a few double breasted overcoats, so it’s nice to see some guys starting to come around. Just the other day, as a matter of fact, I spotted a double-breasted suit on the KRON 4 news. On the weather guy.
Get yourself a camel polo coat with a classic ulster collar and martingale belt and throw it over anything, from a suit to a turtleneck, buttoned or unbuttoned (see pics for more inspiration). You’ll be pleasantly surprised how often you reach for it.
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