Origins Of The Overcoat
As with many contemporary staples, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the overcoat first emerged. Several online accounts name 1772 as the year the overcoat was invented, while others claim the early 19th century was when they really came into their own. Regardless, usage of the word itself dates back to the late 18th century, meaning overcoats were being worn before the Regency Period in Britain.
Crafted from a heavy fabric such as wool (merino, Melton etc.), the overcoat is a long-sleeved coat that can be either single- or double-breasted, and usually has a single vent at the back. If we’re being strict with semantics, the overcoat always extends below the knee, but you’ll find that modern day styles rarely do, given the impracticality of long outerwear.
The topcoat, on the other hand, is a variant plenty of people often confuse with the overcoat, and is made from a lighter fabric, extending to the knee at its very longest. To add to the confusion, there’s the greatcoat, which – for all intents and purposes – is just a way of referring to an overcoat that’s particularly bulky, heavy and hard wearing, and was historically favoured by soldiers on the front line.
While it’s true that overcoats are available in all kinds of colours and finishes these days, its plain cut is its defining characteristic.
Formerly used as a means of indicating (usually higher) class and social status, the overcoat found itself the subject of some serious re-appropriation in the 1950s, when the Teddy Boys started gleaning style inspiration from the Edwardian Era.
Worn with high-waisted, stovepipe trousers and chunky brogues or creepers, the Teds breathed new life into the silhouette, lending it a little rebelliousness.
In the 1960s, as skinhead culture began to seep out of the more radical sectors of the disenfranchised British working class, the overcoat was once again given an all-new guise.
Spurred on by the Teds’ and mods’ reinterpretation of clothing traditionally associated with the upper classes, many skinheads began to team overcoats with rolled-up jeans, ‘bovver’ boots and sharply-cut check shirts buttoned all the way to the top.
Later, during the early 1970s, the suedeheads – an offshoot of the skinhead subculture – would go on to fully embrace the silhouette, combining it with smarter attire, such as Prince of Wales check suits and brogues.
It was also around this time that knee-length silhouettes really gained traction as the more versatile, practical style, rather than the dramatic full-length versions that originally defined the overcoat.
By the 1980s, the overcoat had made an almighty return to the mainstream, becoming a key piece in the power dressing professional’s wardrobe – often cut boxy, slightly oversized and worn over the relaxed suiting made so popular by Italian designers like Giorgio Armani.
Now, given the #menswear generation’s renewed interest in all things tailoring, the overcoat has returned to the forefront of fashion.
Key Fabric, Fit & Style
We mentioned fabric briefly earlier but it’s worth expanding on here. If you’re looking to invest in an overcoat that you’ll wear for years to come, choose a style that is 100 per cent wool and that has decent weight to it (around 4lbs for most men).
Overcoats made entirely of wool will keep you warm and can weather the storm without falling to pieces. Alternatively, you could try a cashmere version, but not only are these usually eye-wateringly expensive, they’re also likely to show wear at the cuffs and collar quicker than a 100 per cent wool design would.
Try a wool-cashmere blend if you just can’t do without a little luxury.
Always wear a shirt, jumper and suit jacket (or at least a shirt and suit jacket) when trying on your potential overcoat, to measure accurately for fit. Much like a suit, you’re aiming for a fit that flatters your form – neither too restrictively slim, nor ridiculously oversized.
As for length, you can choose between a traditional full-length style (though these are few and far between and have an almost ‘dress up’ costume feel to them now) or something more contemporary that finishes at, or just above, the knee.
The former certainly makes for a formidable style statement, while the latter allows for easier movement and is arguably much more versatile.
While designers are constantly re-imagining the overcoat, adding elbow patches, applique details, contrast velvet collars and raglan shoulders, there are two main styles: double-breasted and single-breasted.
Colours can range from classic black or camel to eye-catching fire engine red, but each season the vast majority of overcoats can be placed into one of those two distinct categories.
Single-breasted versions are more minimal and clean, enabling them to be paired with everything from your nine-to-five suits to a jeans and Oxford shirt combination at the weekend.
Double-breasted overcoats, on the other hand, have a formidable air of tradition about them and are best paired with full-on tailoring.
A Single- (Left) and Double-Breasted (Right) Overcoat
What should you look out for in addition to fabric and fit? The little things.
As well as colour and material, overcoats vary in terms of finer details like pockets, lapel style, belts and contrast linings. If you’ll be carrying plenty with you, then opt for a coat that has exterior and interior pockets.
If you desire a military-inspired look, then go for a style that is belted or features a half-belt detail. Considering these smaller touches is essential in finding your optimal overcoat.
Consider The Details: Lapel Style, Button Holes, Undercollar/Lining Colour, Belted etc.
Who Does It Well?
Given that an overcoat won’t be the cheapest addition to your wardrobe, it’s highly advised you do some shopping around before making the decision to invest.
Plenty of brands would like to have you think they can lay claim to an age-old heritage of coat-making, but few actually can.
The Pinnacle: Crombie
British brand Crombie produces such high quality coats that their name has basically become a synonym for ‘overcoat’ in the UK.
Founded in 1805, the label has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, re-launching as the authority on outerwear – and it’s tough to dispute.
Find out more and shop the range at Crombie.co.uk.
Going bespoke is another option. Though many of us may not think of approaching our tailor for anything other than suiting, an experienced tailor can create an overcoat totally unique to you.
No, it won’t be cheap, but this is a timeless piece that you will wear for many years to come and you’ll also get the last say on every detail of its design, which is pretty much priceless.
You’ll be hard pushed to find 100 per cent wool overcoats at the budget end of the high street, but there are a few notable brands producing modestly priced and sharply-cut coats – try Reiss, Charles Tyrwhitt, Suitsupply, Thomas Pink, Jaeger and Marks & Spencer for starters:
- Thomas Pink Milan Coat
- Thomas Pink Cooper Coat
- Suitsupply Brown Double Breasted Coat
- Collezione Online Only Made In Italy Camel Hair Double Breasted Coat With Wool
- Navy Italian Wool Cashmere Slim Fit Overcoat
- Fawn Classic Fit Covert Coat
- Acne Studios Grey Charlie Single Breasted Coat
- Jaeger Wool Salt And Pepper Coat
- Austin Reed Grey Twill Velvet Collar Wool Coat
- John Lewis Italian Wool/cashmere Notch Coat Camel
- Suitsupply Light Brown Overcoat
- Ted Baker Corfton Double Breasted Wool Coat
- Suitsupply Blue Double Breasted Coat
- Joseph Shetland Attlee Coat
- Theory Whyte Wool Overcoat
How To Wear It
As you’ll likely have gathered by now, the overcoat is intended as an outer layer for wear during the colder months. Many people think it’s merely the final, winter-appropriate addition to a suit, but this essential has so much more potential.
For a casual look inspired by the skinheads, try a coat with a trim-fitting gingham shirt, rolled-up acid wash jeans, ribbed boot socks and a pair of chunky Dr. Martens. For something that’s refined but not formal, wear it over a slim-fit blazer, merino/mohair jumper, button-down white Oxford shirt and wool trousers, then finish with Derbies.
The wool overcoat may be smart but it’s not occasion wear, so feel free to play around with what you’re wearing underneath. The lookbooks below should offer some welcome inspiration on how to style your new staple:
Smart/Formal Lookbook Inspiration
Smart-Casual Lookbook Inspiration
Insulating, versatile and an easy way to take any look up a notch, the overcoat is a fundamental part of any well turned-out man’s wardrobe.
Forking out for a good quality style may set you back financially, but this is an investment you’re sure to receive a handsome return on.
Do you own this modern wardrobe essential? If so, what style did you opt for and how do you like to wear yours?
Let us know in the comments section…