Fashion has long drawn on military uniforms for inspiration. While most of the resulting trends come and go, occasionally something becomes a classic, transcending the vagaries of fashion. Such is the peacoat. The classic design is of dark navy wool, double-breasted and characterized by a distinctively close fit and short length that flares slightly at the hip, with broad lapels, vertical or slash pockets, and large buttons. Also known as the “pea jacket,” it is referenced in American newspapers as early as the 1720s, and today’s renditions still maintain much of the basic original design.
Of course, the origins of the peacoat have nothing to do with peas. The term comes from the Dutch “pij,” used to describe a coat of coarse woolen fabric worn by working sailors in the 17th century. It’s specifically believed to have been designed for “reefers,” the sailors who climbed up a ship’s riggings, because the design allowed them enough freedom of movement to do so unobstructed. Being that the Dutch ruled much of the naval world back then, the pij became a standard term. In 1850, an Englishman named Edgard Camplin started a store that sold uniforms to the British Navy. He adapted the Dutch design, creating a coat for petty officers to distinguish them from sailors, and this became known as the P. Coat and then peacoat. In turn, the US Navy adopted the peacoat from the British Navy. British Royalty took a cue from its Royal Navy when in the 1860s the Prince of Wales popularized a “pea-jacket” that was described as loose and double breasted with three pairs of buttons, two cross pockets, and wide piping. While his version was likely made was of softer material and with silk-faced lapels and velvet collar, the plebeian standard was blue pilot-cloth lined with wool. Whether for function or fashion, the peacoat’s popularity has endured to this day.
One of the peacoat’s greatest features, both practically and stylistically, is its oversized collar. Described in Navy regulations as a “convertible” collar, it was designed to protect sailors exposed form harsh cold and winds at sea. Worn up, the collar serves almost as a half hood and can be closed up for added insulation, all without impairing vision. When up, the collar frames the face in an unmistakable fashion. Peacoat pockets are effectively designed for keeping hands warm, and the inside pockets prove very practical as well. The buttons have their own special history, the official-issue ones being large, thick buttons with an imprinted anchor and rope design dating back over 400 years. This was the personal seal of Lord High Admiral of England when the British defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. To this day, these buttons are the mark of an authentic peacoat.
Of course, fashion doesn’t necessarily hinge on authenticity, and today you can find myriad variations and derivations on the classic peacoat. A big turning point was the 1960s, when army-and-navy stores became an indispensable source of attire for hippies, flower children and, ironically, antiwar protestors, as is perhaps best evidenced on the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper Lonely Hearts Club album cover. That decade saw the peacoat become a youth fashion staple. While it has always maintained classic status, it has more recently enjoyed its biggest fashion comeback since, with many designers paying it tribute while trying to add their own distinguishing flair to it. Thus peacoats are available in more materials and colors than ever before, as well as in different lengths and super-fitted versions.
Like all great design, the peacoat is a classic precisely because it perfectly combines function and style. It can be worn with most anything and in all kinds of weather. Most of all, it looks great on a man of most any stature and build, enhancing the shoulders and slimming the waist. As mentioned, the popped collar dramatically frames the face, an effect not lost on a number of film stars - from James Dean to Robert Redford to Brad Pitt. Certainly, the peacoat has come a long way from ships’ riggings, and will likely maintain classic status for some time.