History of the Peacoat

If you Google peacoat, you will find many renditions on the history of this classic.  We particularly like the rendition written by Donald Gjerdigen, Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law, Indiana University.  Enjoy!

Coats, Coats, Coats, and then Peacoats.

The feel of a proper-fitting peacoat, firm against the back and chest, is unlike anything else. Unchanged for 200 years and more, the basic Navy peacoat has everything a person wants in clothing: esthetics, function, and durability.

The term “peacoat” has been used for almost 300 years. As the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “pea-coat” explains, “pea” has nothing to do with vegetables. The term is derived from a Dutch word “pije,” used to describe a coat of coarse woolen fabric as long ago as the 16th century. Back then, of course, the Dutch ruled such of the naval world and so “peacoat” quickly became a standard term. (Another example is cotton “duck” pants, derived from similar sounding Dutch word (“duk”) for the cotton canvas used in sails, uniforms, and other nautical garb.) In short, “peacoat” has been used for centuries to describe a double-breasted, blue wool coat worn by working sailors.

Originally designed for “reefers,” sailors who climbed up the riggings of sailing ships, the classic peacoat is close fitting, has a slightly indented waist, and flairs out slightly around the hips (it was used climbing up ropes, after all). That’s also why some people, mostly Brits, still called it a “reefer coat.” As structured, the peacoat hits a nice middle. It’s longer than a jacket, and thus covers the backside, but it’s also short enough to climb and move about in.

The esthetics of this design — narrow at the waist and slightly flared at the hips — also make the peacoat equally (if not more) appealing as a coat for women, and I suspect more women wear them than men. Perched on the shoulders of a tall, thin man, the broad shoulders and slim waist of the peacoat mimics the broad shoulder and thin waist silhouette used on traditional military uniforms. Plus, a peacoat has another feature often missed when designing winter coats: a double-breasted coat, with its two overlapping layers, is warmer and also blocks heat loss from the wind, a common problem today with modern, single-breasted zipper coats.

The peacoat inspired other classic coats as well. The peacoat started as a coat for working sailors. A similar but longer coat, called a “bridge coat,” is worn by Naval officers. The bridge coat is suited for standing on the open bridge of a ship. As a coat for officers, the bridge coat has a double set of brass buttons down the front, a half-belt in the back, and epaulets (by military custom, officer rank is shown on the shoulders and lesser rank on the sleeves). In various forms, a blue coat, once supplied with brass buttons, became a standard part of the nautical wardrobe, as well as the model for the double-breasted navy blazer still used today.

A classic feature of the peacoat is the distinctive, oversized collar. This gives the coat a slightly dressy esthetic, but there’s a wonderful practical advantage behind the design, described in the Navy regulations as a “convertible” collar. The collar on the peacoat was designed, and designed well, to serve sailors exposed to the inevitable cold and open winds at sea. The collar can be worn up, almost as a half hood, without impairing vision (hoods are rarely used in naval dress for this reason). Plus, it can be closed up or left open to regulate heat. Once popped up, the collar frames the face, and — in a properly constructed coat — feels like a gentle hand against the back of the neck (another place of otherwise of prominent heat loss).

Wool is all you ever need, too. The melton wool of the peacoat is heavy, tight, and durable, keeping out cold, wind, and, if needed, even some rain. The peacoat is just wool, thread, and buttons. No fancy nylon, Gortex, Velcro, or even zippers. Just six main outside “fouled anchor” buttons (current Navy regulations require six, while some earlier versions required eight), plus one more button high for closing the collar around the neck, and one button inside on the left to secure the double-breasted front. As a practical matter, fastening just one button closes the coat, and many wearers routinely leave the top or bottom button open, just for esthetics and ease of movement.

The peacoat buttons have a special history, too. Official-issue peacoats all have large, thick plastic buttons. Imprinted on the front is a “fouled anchor” design — an anchor swaddled in rope. The design goes back over 400 years. It started out as the personal seal of Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord High Admiral of England when the British defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Following the victory, the design was then adopted as the official seal of the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain. From there, it went to naval insignias throughout the world. A real peacoat never has anything else.

Finally, a peacoat is the only coat designed with pockets for cold hands. No other coat is really made for this, something we all do most of the time outside in winter. Even better, the right outside pocket has a small change pocket sewn in (remember, the famous Navy pants — the ones with the 13 buttons — did not have pockets). The Navy model also has two inside pockets, one that can used for a wallet or car keys, and another lower and slightly smaller pocket (used at one point for storing cigarettes) that happens to be exactly the right size for a cell phone.

In the end, the peacoat is a classic for a reason. Practical function combines with wonderful esthetics. The peacoat has a simple, classic cut, and can be anything from casual to slightly dressy. A peacoat keeps a man warm in all kinds of weather — at sea or otherwise. It wears well, holds up to abuse, and is one of the least fussy coats ever made. Most important, the peacoat makes a man look good. The broad shoulders, thin waist, wide collar, and double-breasted front quietly make a man look slightly bigger, stronger, and taller than he really is. Plus, once the collar is popped, it frames the face and draws the eyes of others to the face, exactly the aim of most male fashion, from ties to tuxedos.

For now, if you want the real thing —what all those men and women in the US Navy wear — you can buy them from Sterlingwear of Boston, the main contractor for Navy
peacoats today.  With only a tiny change (e.g., a full satin lining rather than partial), Sterlingwear sells to the public the same peacoat they make for the Navy.

The Sterlingwear “Navigator” model (100% wool) is the coat and the only choice for the purest. Sterlingwear offers it, too, in a full range of sizes. As a final bonus, the real thing from Sterlingwear costs less than most of the imitations. Here, the original is cheaper than the knock-off. If you want to study up, vintage coats are another option. With some patience, you can often find good ones on ebay.

It is, flat-out, the best constructed coat I’ve ever owned.

dhg

Oct. 23, 2007

About Nancy Fendler

Comments

  1. Hi Nancy. I enjoyed the article on pea coats. In the article, Professor Gjerdigen gave a link (Vintage Coats) to my article at the Fedora on dating vintage Navy pea coats. The url has been changed. The new url is: http://www.thefedoralounge.com/showthread.php?35824-PEACOAT-DATING
    Thank you for going to the trouble to find Professor Gjerdigen’s comments about these great coats.
    While my interest lies in the vintage coats, Sterlingweat makes a fine current issue peacoat, and has done so for years–going back to the vintage era. In my collection I have a Vi Mil Inc. (Viking Military) peacoat. It is of excellent quality. I believe Vi Mil, Inc. was the name of the military branch of your company before it changed to Sterlingwear. I have seen some of your vintage coats as far back as the 70s. Keep up the quality work you guys do.
    Cheers, Peacoat.

    • Nancy Fendler says:

      Hi Peacoat,
      Many thanks for your kind words about Sterlingwear of Boston and for sending along the new link to your post on Fedora Lounge. I have updated it on this post. And yes, you are correct that Sterlingwear of Boston was called Vi Mil during that time. Sounds as though you have quite a collection of peacoats! Perhpas one can not have too many?! Thanks again for your post and your interest!

  2. Tina Smith says:

    Buttons

    Collecting buttons has been one of the most popular hobbies of all times. Buttons can be used for a variety of purposes, right from holding a coat secure, to card-making and appliqué-work. But most importantly buttons add a touch of beauty and colour to life. Buttons are one of those little joys that create life delightful.

    Some museums and art galleries hold culturally, historically, politically, and/or artistically significant buttons in their collections.
    The Victoria & Albert Museum has many buttons, particularly
    in its jewellery collection, as does the Smithsonian Institution.

    Hammond Turner & Sons, a button-making company in Birmingham, hosts an online museum with an image gallery and historical button-related articles, including an 1852 article on button-making by Charles Dickens. In the USA, large button collect are on public display at The Waterbury Button Museum of Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Keep Homestead Museum of Monson, Massachusetts, which also hosts an extensive online button archive.

    Early button history

    Buttons and button-like objects used as ornaments or seals rather than fasteners have been discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization during its Kot Diji phase (circa 2800-2600 BCE) as well as Bronze Age sites in China (circa 2000-1500 BCE), and Ancient Rome.
    Buttons made from seashell were used in the Indus Valley Civilization for ornamental purposes by 2000 BCE. Some buttons were carved into geometric shapes and had holes pierced into them so that they could be attached to clothing with thread. Ian McNeil (1990) holds that: “The button, in fact, was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old.”
    Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

    Clothing Buttons.

    • Nancy Fendler says:

      Hi Tina,

      Many thanks for sharing your post on the history of buttons! It is very interesting! They certainly do add interesting detail to clothing, not to mention function. I hope some of our readers enjoy this information as well.

      Thanks again!

      • Thanks for the fine, concise, and entertaining article about the History of the Peacoat by Professor Donald Gjerdigen. I do have one bone to pick with him, though. Speaking of the fouled-anchor buttons, he says, “A real peacoat never has anything else.” That’s not strictly true.

        Speaking only of the American Navy, the peacoat was introduced sometime during the first half of the 19th century. I’m not certain what sorts of buttons those coats might have had. During the Civil War, a “Goodyear Patent” button made of hard rubber was introduced. It was large and slightly concave; it’s design had a couple variants, but both included the words “U.S. Navy” and a small, plain anchor (not fouled). On some buttons the anchor was vertical, while on others horizontal. (The Confederate States Navy used a similar hard rubber button, but it had two crossed cannons surmounted by a fouled anchor, above the letters “CN” or “CSN”.)

        Sometime around the turn of the 20th century (and certainly by World War I), a different button appeared. It was flat, of some plastic material (perhaps Bakelite?), had the large fouled anchor in the center, but with a ring of 13 stars surrounding it, spaced along the edge of the button face. (This button was of a somewhat larger diameter than present-day buttons.) At this time, the peacoat was longer, definitely covering the whole posterior, and it had four outside pockets — two handwarmer slash pockets like those today, and two horizontal flap pockets below.

        By the 1920s, the present, familiar fouled anchor buttons had appeared (minus the stars), and they remained until the time of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1970s; he made a number of uniform changes for sailors. One of these changes was to replace the old peacoat buttons with 40-ligne (1″) metal buttons identical to those used by officers, warrant officers, and chief petty officers, except in a pewter-colored metal instead of gold. These remained until 1984, when the old 50-ligne “traditional” fouled anchor buttons returned. These “Zumwalt” buttons do have an anchor in the design, but only as a perch for a large eagle; they also feature a small stack of cannonballs.

        While variants of the peacoat are used by many navies, and most use buttons with some variant of the fouled-anchor design (with a crown, if the country is a kingdom), it is also true that many of these buttons are of brass, gold plated or not; or of anodized aluminum (“Stabrite”). Sometimes the buttons are of black plastic or horn, but with metal shanks rather than four holes for sewing.

        My conclusion? The cloth and cut of the coat are more important that the buttons. And gold, brass, pewter, or horn can be just as authentic as plastic or hard rubber, with or without a fouled anchor. (And we haven’t even discussed Kersey vs. Melton yet!)

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