It’s the badass outerwear of choice for style icons like Ernest Hemingway and Clint Eastwood, one that historically was less about dressing for dinner, rather about catching it. And yet, the safari jacket still divides.
That’s because get it right, and you look straight-from-the-fridge cool. But get it wrong, and you look the part of the Great White Hunter. Get it right, and you look Burt Reynolds-level macho. Get it wrong, and you just look plain awkward. But, ask any menswear expert, and they’ll soon tell you it’s worth the risk.
Never mind the practical benefits – room to carry your stuff; light enough to wear all summer. The safari jacket is a design classic, whether you’re in the real thing or one of fashion’s many interpretations, and it may just be the only cool jacket you need for the balmier months.
What Is A Safari Jacket?
Take the practicality of the military style field jacket – a tough cotton or cotton-blend fabric formed into a loose-fitting, mid-length garment with four bellows pockets at the chest and hip. Now do it in a more general purpose shade of beige, in a lighter-weight, breathable fabric like linen or cotton drill and add details such as an open neck, epaulettes and a belt to keep everything pulled together and in order.
There you have it: the safari jacket – a kind of field-meets-shooting jacket, substantial enough to wear a layer underneath, insubstantial enough to wear next to the skin or for the sleeves to be easily rolled ready to go hunting in, even if that’s just for the next bar.
Why You Need A Safari Jacket Today
Saint Laurent, which is credited with thrusting the style into the mainstream, famously still offers one, of course. But there’s a good reason why designers including Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, and brands like Abercrombie and Barbour have versions too. It just works. When it’s too hot for a proper jacket, but the event calls for something smarter than just a shirt, the safari jacket – functional in the outback, smart in a more urban jungle setting – works.
“The safari jacket is bittersweet – it can look like you’re wearing a costume, but the fact is that it’s great for the summer,” says Gieves & Hawkes creative director John Harrison. “They make quite a statement, but they really do the job.”
What’s more, it’s not a capital ‘F’ fashion piece either. That doesn’t mean a good quality example won’t be wearable for years to come. Just think khaki, cotton, classic. Its versatility is well documented, and it’s the ideal accompaniment to selvedge denim or, when the occasion calls, sharp tailoring. In short, it’s the ultimate trophy piece.
Safari Jacket Style Tips
Don’t Overdo It
The safari jacket is designed to be the star of the show, so allow it to take over, and avoid wearing anything else that attempts to compete with it for attention. If in doubt, muted basics are the order of the day, so throw it over a simple T-shirt and foot with dark denim and minimalist sneakers.
Aim High or Low
Much like other pieces in the menswear hall of fame, it’s possible to dress the safari jacket both up and down. Whether you wear it over a shirt, knitted tie and dark flannel trousers to appear smart or with white jeans and deck shoes for a Riviera feel, try leaving the jacket open but tying the belt across the middle for a nonchalant look.
Unless en route to a fancy dress a party, don’t attempt the all-out utility look. If you’re wearing a safari jacket, avoid also wearing khakis, combat pants, or bush hat. It’s important to re-appropriate the safari jacket from its original setting as an upscale piece to avoid looking like someone who’s lost his shotgun.
Play Around With Fabric
The safari jacket is made by its pattern, but different materials can provide different effects. Linen ages well, making for a jacket that will take on a timeworn look; suede has more of an eveningwear feel, so works well for guys with a smarter wardrobe; while options in leather offer added insulation during colder months.
Leave The Bag At Home
In its infancy, the pocket on a safari jacket would be used to carry ammo, batteries for the GPS, a flask and likely a pipe. Though most modern men have little need for these in everyday life, it’s still possible to use the jacket as intended and leave the backpack at home.
Ovadia & Sons
5 Key Safari Jackets
Private White V.C.
Known for its robust outerwear, British brand Private White V.C. specialises in stylish yet functional designs. This prime example is a minimalistic take on the safari jacket. Gone are the shoulder epaulettes and belt; replaced by pared-down pockets with discrete poppers, a shorter length and a hidden placket, giving it a smarter overall feel.
Anderson & Sheppard
Given that it occupies a space on Savile Row, Anderson & Sheppard is best known for its exemplary tailoring. However, the heritage firm also produces a fine take on the safari jacket. Made from military-esque cotton drill and coming with 15 pockets as standard – including two iPad-sized interior pockets – it’s perhaps the handiest garment you could own. Forget luggage, just get yourself one of these.
Sure, because of its butter-soft lambskin construction and silk lining, the all-leather ‘Saharienne’ jacket by Saint Laurent would be useless in an actual safari – but just look at it. An ultra luxurious take on the design Yves himself backed in the 1960s, this is the French label at its best: classic, louche and incredibly desirable.
Marks & Spencer
Trust Marks & Spencer to come up with a safari jacket that both ticks all the design boxes and doesn’t offend your wallet. The British high street retailer has put its own spin on the classic piece, choosing to forgo the belt and instead add a couple of buttoned rear vents. So, whether you mount a horse in the desert or a motorcycle in the city, your jacket won’t scrunch up when you sit down.
Sitting somewhere in between Barbour’s signature waxed outerwear and the British brand’s motorcycle styles, this four pocket cotton design is an ideal modern update on the safari jacket. The drawstring waist provides a customisable fit, while a zip-and-button closure, coupled with a buttoned throat latch ensure that when the weather turns sour, it’ll be a useful ally.
The History Of The Safari Jacket
Picture the late 19th-century British soldiers of the Boer War, tramping across the plains of South Africa, unable to find their enemy – engaged as they were in this new, ungentlemanly form of warfare known as ‘guerilla’. Of course, it didn’t help that the British soldiers wore tunics in red, and the Afrikaners – appreciating the advantage of blending into the landscape – wore khaki.
Officers in British high command thought they were on to something – and shortly after came the first British military dress to make a step towards the palette of beiges, dun browns and olive drabs still used today. The resulting attire – a four-pocket field jacket in khaki – would by turns be adopted by hunters, who likewise needed to be less visible to their prey.
Military officers during the Second Boer War wearing safari jackets
Indeed, the so-called safari jacket was born, and it would remain a specialist item – worn by hunters and trackers including diehard-killers-of-anything-that-moved Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt. Although versions of the safari jacket were re-adopted for both the British and German forces fighting in Africa during World War Two, it was typically only worn on safari and would have looked mightily out of place anywhere else up until the mid-1950s.
This was an idea underscored by Hollywood. From the 1930s, the film machine decided the perceived exoticism of the Great Continent was ripe for the next spate of romantic, action-packed movies, with the likes of Clark Gable donning safari jackets on screen. Out came The Road to Zanzibar (1941), Mogambo (1953), Safari (1956), Hatari! (1962), onwards to the likes of Clint Eastwood in White Hunter Black Heart (1990) – by which time the safari jacket had arguably lapsed into ‘central casting’ territory.
The safari jacket has appeared in many films including on Clark Gable in Mogambo (1953)
But not before making its forays into fashion. In the movies – especially during that busy run of the 1960s – the safari jacket was typically worn with plenty of dust and sweat, perhaps a rakish neckerchief, baggy shorts and maybe a pith helmet. Take away the perspiration, however, and the safari jacket was recognised for its practicality for city life.
In India – inspired by the climate again – it became the local answer to the business suit. This was in part why Roger Moore wore a safari jacket in Octopussy (1983), partly set as it is in India. But then Moore, as James Bond, also wore one for the private islands scenes of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Moonraker (1979).
But then Moore, or his wardrobe team, was ahead of the times: he wore a safari jacket in ‘The Saint’. This wasn’t just before Bond, it was before the other Saint too. It was the designers Ted Lapidus and Yves Saint Laurent who really gave the safari jacket a fashion overhaul.
Yves Saint Laurent is credited with making the safari jacket a fashion item
The former introduced his take on the jacket in the mid-1960s, while the latter seemingly stole all the glory – or just got the timing right – after first showing his take on it in 1967, though it was a one-off made for a Vogue story on him the following year that made it a cult item for the times. And it’s never looked back since.