The majority of today’s men wear ready-to-wear or made-to-measure clothes produced in factories. Only a very small minority of gentleman dress in bespoke clothes made by tailors, but 200 years ago every garment was made by hand. This article explains how clothes handmade by tailors have evolved from being an everyday product available in various price and quality categories to something exclusive and expensive. Read more
In the new year, we are continuing our overcoat series with an in-depth look at the hard-wearing Duffle coat. We’ll outline its history, details, how to wear it, and how to buy the best Duffle coat for you.
Duffle Coat History
Just like the trenchcoat, there are manifold variations of the duffle coat today, and while all are perfectly fine to wear, it is interesting to know the origins of the garment and how it obtained the characteristic hood and toggle buttons. Notably, the duffle coat remains the only coat in a classic gentleman’s wardrobe today that has a hood. Although similar hoods were long used in menswear dating back to early Christian monk’s habits, the hooded duffle coat as we know it today dates back to the 19th century.
Belgian Origins of the Term ‘Duffel’
The most common myth about the origins of the Duffle is that the coat is of Belgian heritage. The Belgian town of Duffel in the province of Antwerp was known as a clothmaking town in the 15th century that exported its cloth all over Europe. The “duffel” fabric itself was a black, rough woolen fabric, and the duffle coat was in fact named after it. However, the duffle coat itself was never produced in the namesake city, nor was it made from Duffel fabric.
Many claim that the English borrowed the Belgian term to create the duffle coat as we know it today, and while it is correct that the English military and especially Sir Bernard “Monty” Montgomery and Sir David Stirling, founder of the SAS, popularized this garment during WWII, the British origins of this toggle closure overcoat can be traced back to 1887. At the time, John Partridge, a British purveyor of outerwear, began to design and offer the duffle coat for sale. The look back then was quite different from today, though it already featured the characteristic wooden toggles. The coat was shorter and cut very roomy with a slightly angled toggle front closure, which looks similar to vintage motorcycle jackets.
A few years later, the Royal British Navy was searching for a hard-wearing, sailor-proof coat, and so the British Admiralty commissioned the duffle coat, which turned out to be a great success and was after that worn on military ships around the world.
Even though John Partridge designed the British duffle coat, he clearly was inspired by the Polish “frock” coat. It was first introduced around 1820 and gained some popularity in continental Europe in the 1850’s. Just like the modern duffle coat, it was tailored with a hood and a horizontal toggle closure. Of course, back then pockets were not part of a coat and was worn more closely fitted than the bulky cut of the British Navy, but nevertheless, there is a great resemblance. Toggle closures have rarely been used in menswear for the last 200 years.
The duffle coat probably reached peak popularity during the 1950’s – 1960’s for several reasons. First of all, Field Marshal Montgomery had helped to create an iconic look during World War II, which is why the duffle is to this day also known as a Monty in the UK. As such, it does not surprise that he was even made into a wax figure – wearing the Monty coat, of course. Also, Colonel David Sterling liked his coat so much that he even wore it in the desert! After the war, the military released surplus duffle coats to the public, and artists, students, and intellectuals wore them. Jean Cocteau popularized his very own version in white. As a consequence, mothers would dress their children in them, raincoats adapted the duffle cut and the Dutch men’s fashion publication SIR published an article titled “The Monty-Coat Forever”.
Farid Chenoune, author of the book Men’s Fashion History, claims it was often worn with former naval sweaters, a college scarf, and corduroy trousers, but based on the many pictures I have seen from that period, I can say that it was worn with all kinds of garments, suits, and even tuxedos!
After the coat had reached the peak of its popularity, it never came close to the same level of success again. You will still see duffle coats on the street today, even though these models are often fashion interpretations of the original, far from the real thing.
Duffle Coat Details & Characteristics
Since the 20th century, a duffle coat is made of a heavy, coarse woolen fabric. It features a roomy box-cut with a hood, a square shoulder yoke, and large patch pockets with hemp rope and wooden toggle closures.
As mentioned above, this coat got its name, though indirectly, from the Belgian city of Duffel and the rough and heavy linen and woolen cloth produced there. As a side note, this is also the fabric used for the original duffle bag. Although the coat bears its name, is was never actually used for the duffle coat production. Instead, a similarly heavy 34 oz per yard (1050 grams per meter) of double-faced, boiled woolen cloth with a twill structure (similar to Serge) was used. As of 1900, the British Admiralty demanded that all fabric including the wool had to be British, and so only domestic cloth was used. The original color for military duffle coats was camel beige, but in the early 20th century, khaki and brown versions were used. However, the navy was not used until the thirties. In the fifties, navy blue and other colors became more popular with the public, and today you can find them in almost any color including red, racing green, olive green, gray, fawn, yellow, white…
If you look at the picture of Monty, you can see that the coat has a thick nap similar to the Casentino cloth. I think this was simply an effect that came with the age of the woolen fabric since new duffle coats did seem to have it.
In 1950, the Englishman Harold Morris and his wife Freda, who were already in the glove and overall business for blue collar workers, bought some surplus duffle coat fabric from the Navy along with some duffle coats and recreated them for workers. However, when the demand plummeted, they refocused on the consumer market with great success and became well known as the brand Gloverall – an amalgamation of gloves and overall. Instead of the original fabric, they used a 34 oz Tyrolean Loden fabric. Loden is a great fabric for outdoor use because its woven base is felted afterward, providing the cloth with a water repellent finish that is very hard wearing.
With elevated popularity in the fifties and sixties, different fabrics were used for duffle coats. At that time, synthetic fibers were state of the art and so you’d find Nylon wool and loden blends in addition to more traditional camel hair, tweed, gabardine and even popeline for summer.
In the early days of the naval duffle coat, the garment was rather spartan. If you look at the old pictures, you can see how overwhelming these coats were in size. Especially the smaller sailors look a bit lost in such a huge garment. At the time of its introduction, the crew still had to climb rigging, and so they needed to be able to move in their coats, hence the wide cut. However, at the same time, it was difficult to keep the body warm with so many open holes and so some sailors would tie the duffle coat to their body with a rope or add cord to the inside of their hood allowing them to achieve a tight fit around their face.
After the Admirals in charge had received some feedback about the coat, some design changes were made. The duffle was cut more narrowly with a straight seam down the front with a generous overlap. Shoulders were reinforced with another layer of cloth and studs were attached to the hood, allowing sailors to adjust better it. Overall, it looked much more like it does today.
Regarding coat length, the original duffle coats were rather short, just about as long as a peacoat. During WWII, the length increased to about knee length or above and today you will find most coats to be somewhere in between.
Cord & Toggle
The toggles are probably the duffle coat’s most characteristic feature. Originally, hemp cord was used in combination with wooden toggles. Gloverall substituted them with more refined looking horn toggles and leather ties in 1954, and today most toggles are made out of plastic. In the beginning, the Royal Navy seems to have favored three toggles, but later they included a fourth. Purists may want to go with four but at the end of the day, it does not matter.
You often read that toggles are easier to close with gloves than buttons. In my experience, the opposite is true, and the toggles are there for a distinctive look.
Similarly to the trench coat, the duffle coat has a bar underneath the collar, which is closed with two buttons so your neck can be better protected from the elements.
The shoulders feature a double layer of cloth which serves to both help repel water better and prevent premature wear of the shoulder areas due to carrying items on one’s shoulder.
A duffle coat features two prominent patch pockets on the outside. I have seen some with flaps though the original naval duffle coat is likely the one without flaps.
The old duffles did not have a lining but in 1954, Gloverall added a checked lining to their coats and lately it seems like some companies even use – charmingly – a Union Jack for a lining. Purists should do it like Monty and skip the lining. Interestingly, the original Monty coat featured thigh straps on the inside of the coat that allowed you to fasten the coat to your legs.
When to Wear & How to Combine a Duffle Coat
Traditionally, the duffle coat was worn on top of uniforms and even today, it is worn a bit more roomy that other overcoats. Although it was combined in the fifties with a variety of suits and sport coat outfits, it is decidedly more suited to casual outfits in tweed, thornproof, Saxony, etc., rather than superfine worsteds. Needless to say, never wear it with a tuxedo unless, like Jean Cocteau, you consider this coat to be your universal overcoat.
It also pairs well with jeans, chinos and corduroys as well as tennis sweaters or other heavy knit wear. Regarding footwear, boots or brogues are better than plain toe oxfords and many people even combine it with sneakers. If you decide to buy a duffle coat in an intense color such as red or yellow, try to tone down the rest of your outfit since you are already making a bold statement. Overall, I would recommend it for all things casual and consider it improper with anything business or evening related.
Where & How to Buy Duffle Coats?
Over its existence, millions of duffle coats have been produced, and there are still plenty of manufacturers who offer duffle coats or their particular spin on it. For you, that means a wide range of choices is available between vintage, new, and bespoke. However, at the same time, this means that there is a lot to choose from and in the following section I will try to help find the duffle coat that is right for you.
Used & Vintage Duffle Coats
True WWII duffle coats in great condition are difficult to find. They pop up every once in a while on eBay for about £10 – 100, but shipping from the UK is quite expensive. Of course, you may also be lucky to find a great duffle coat at a local store like vintage menswear in London, but this will be the exception to the rule. Thankfully, the wider cut will make shopping online less risky regarding sizing. Also, you can try vintage websites, such as this one, this one or that one. However, always bear in mind that the smallest size they used to make them in was a size 1, and I have seen a 6’2″ man weighing 250 lb. look like he has to grow into it. So only go for WWII coats it if you really want the real thing. Otherwise it will just be way too big on you.
New Duffle Coats
When it comes to new duffle coats, you have an almost endless choice of suppliers but none of them truly provides the real thing. Likely the closest imitation regarding fabric and details comes from Gloverall – called Monty, it currently costs £325. They claim it is original, but just the fact that they use a 90% wool and 10% PA blend proves that it is far from authentic. The fabric comes from Italy and is not 34oz heavy as it used to be. The company likes to market their Monty as the “original” duffle coat despite the fact that the company was not founded until 1951, long after the inception of the naval duffle coat. If you can overlook this marketing transgression, and live with 10% nylon, it is the closest thing to the original, and it comes in sizes that fit better than the real coats.
Another supplier that claims to make original coats is Original Montgomery, which once again shows what an impact the Field Marshal had in Britain. According to their website, they have been producing duffle coats for the British Admiralty since the 1890’s, and still produce their signature product in England. Their product is less expensive – about £170 – and in return you get 30% polyester. That alone would be a reason for me not to buy it, but if you are on a budget, it may fit the bill.
Another manufacturer that provides 100% Loden duffle coats is Schneiders Salzburg from Austria. In the US, they are not readily available, but in Europe they are widely available in haberdasheries. If you want a duffle coat with flap, LL Bean offers an 18oz version in wool and if you live in Germany, you should consider Ladage & Oelke in Hamburg, who have been offering this classic in various colors for years.
If you do not concerned with absolute authenticity, there are a number of manufacturers that offers adapted designs of the duffle coat. They include Harnold Brook, which in fact used to make the real deal once upon a time but it seems like they were taken over by an Italian company recently. Japanese companies like Headporter Plus offer their version. A more fashion forward house, Comme des Garcons, is currently selling a Varsity duffle coat by Junya Watanabe for about €1000. Personally, I would stick with a more classic cut in a vivid color such as green, red or yellow, but each to his own.
Last but not least, you always have the option to go bespoke. Although every bespoke tailor should be able to make you one, many may not be familiar with the specific details and due to the lack of time for research, they may decline the project. Even on Savile Row, duffle coats are not the standard but it seems like Richard Anderson has developed a custom program for duffle coats made from a 21 oz wool melton cloth in various colors. Of course, a bespoke garment will be considerably more expensive than a standard duffle coat off the rack, but the fit should also be superior and you can build your very own garment in the fabric of your choice – maybe you can find a special 34oz Loden fabric or even a real Duffel – wouldn’t that be something? Like many things in classic fashion, a garment such as the duffle coat, if you can forsee wearing it for many years, would be worth the investment.
If you have other sources for duffle coats, please contact me and I will add them to the article. What duffle coats do you own, and what colors are your favorite?
I know some of you will say, in this day and age, I can wear whatever I want, and you’re quite right! Today, you can wear whatever you want at the same time, you can also inhale asbestos, or you can drink water from lead pipes. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
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