How To Build The Perfect Coat Wardrobe

Words | William Phung

The pinnacle of the tailor's craft, the overcoat is the cold weather essential for gentlemen bracing the winds of change. Here's our guide to the four essential coats styles you need to build your dream coat wardrobe.

1. The Trench Coat

Literally the coat worn in the trenches by British military officers during World War One, the story of this icon begins with the invention of gabardine fabric by Thomas Burberry in the late 1870s. A hardy, water-repellent cloth made from a combination of tightly woven wool and cotton, gabardine was first used by Norwegian explorer, Dr Fridjtof Nansen, on his expedition to the Arctic Circle in 1893, followed by British adventurer Ernest Shackleton in 1914. (It must be noted that the English brand Aquascutum – translating from Latin as ‘water shield’ – has claims to the mantle of making the first waterproof coat, having patented ‘waterproof wool’ prior to outfitting the British Army for the Crimean War.)

Whether it was made by Burberry’s (as it was then known) or Aquascutum, the trench came to maturity during World War One as a coat that, according to an early Burberry’s brand advert, “will stand hours of rain… a thick overcoat for severe weather.” Ideal, in other words, to help endure the mud and misery of drawn-out trench warfare (at least for officers). The coat’s epaulettes held gloves, whistles and other survival pieces, while its D-rings kept handguns and grenades within easy reach.

During World War Two Humphrey Bogart wore a trench in the iconic Casablanca, establishing its popularity amongst civilians (interestingly enough, he only wore it in two scenes). Actors Katherine Hepburn and Great Garbo wore it in films, as did Audrey Hepburn, and, voila, the trench had passed the tipping point. Today it remains a versatile, jaunty overcoat to help slip through adverse weather, and, as shown here for M.J. Bale, is cropped shorter for greater movement. As Bogey said in Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

2. The Car Coat

You can read an entire history of 20th century menswear in the car coat. It's short, loose-fitting, and has no-fuss Prussian collars that go with nearly everything. For the man who demands style and comfort, the car coat is his indispensable ally.

The modern car coat owes its identity to two related garments: the Scottish Balmacaan and the Duster Coat.

The Balmacaan (named after an estate near Inverness, Scotland), was perhaps the simplest coat a tailor could make. It was single-breasted, pearshaped, had round collars, and was made of thick wool or tightly woven gabardine (similar to the English mac). Practical and straightforward, the Balmacaan was the sort of coat a Scottish farmer might've worn for a twilight trip into town.

The Duster coat, on the other hand, was meant to protect riders on horseback. It was a sturdy coat that fit loosely over the body and protected the wearer from dust and rain. Crafted from oilcloth and later waxed cotton, this rugged coat could endure the wildest conditions (if not necesarily the demise of horse-drawn transport).

These two garments, and the automobile roaring its way into the 20th Century, spurred manufacturers to experiment with new forms of clothing (lest they be swept into the dust bin of history).

One of these forms was the original car coat, which took inspiration from the Balmacaan and the Duster. As its name suggests, the car coat protected those privileged enough to own a private motor vehicle (largely open top at the time). It was practical and took into consideration the realities of riding in a car; hence its short length, as well as the exhibitionism of the leisure classes, hence its handsome, slimmer, sporty design. Attention-seekers, i.e the heirs of oil tycoons, wore fancier versions to flaunt their wealth. Eyeing one blaze down the street in a car coat made of luxurious lamb shearling, racoon fur, or ostritch leather, upset both sense and sensibility.

Like most things during the 20th Century, it didn't take long for the car coat to take on a radically different form. By the mid-60s the car coat had evolved into the "driving-mac" most of us are familiar with today. The driving mac had set-in sleeves, rounded collars, a fly-front closure and slanted hip pockets that retained the spirit of the original car coat without any of the cultural baggage. Modern textiles also made the coat lighter, and its widespread adoption by the middle class forced it into sobriety.

In Australia, the car coat is ubiquitous and for good reasons. It's light and unstructured, meaning you can wear it with jeans and a t-shirt; it's dressier than a military style-inspired jacket so you can wear it with a suit or blazer, and it's sophisticated enough to throw over pretty much anything and still look good. Regardless of your fortune, every man can appreciate a car coat.

3. The Pea Coat

The pea coat’s origins can be traced to the Dutch and English – two of the most prominent seafaring nations of the 18th and 19th centuries. The popular consensus is that the word ‘pea’ is an abbreviated English conversion of the Dutch word ‘pijjekke’ (wool jacket). But it was the English who took the pea coat worldwide. The Portsmouth-based tailor Gieves (of Gieves & Hawkes heritage) had the contract to outfit the British Royal Navy from the late 1700s, and in the 1800s began dressing British naval officers in a well-crafted and highly stylised version of the modern pea coat.

With its stiff but warm and water-wicking wool cloth, welted pockets, high and fastening ‘Ulster’ collar and wide lapels, the pea coat was functionally perfect for the high seas. Its shorter length helped sailors scaling rope ladders in squalls, while, for officers at least, elaborate detailing and gold buttons gave it the type of aesthetic prestige the English navy were/are fond of.

The 19th-century US navy edition toned it down somewhat, cropping it to a shorter length and swapping in more sober black buttons. The pea coat’s position in pop culture was then solidified following World War Two when surplus Navy and Army stock (including chinos, M60 jackets etc.) appeared in thrift stores favoured by Ivy League students.

While changing little from the 1950s until today, the pea coat remains one of the great icon garments. It’s shape and length makes it more favourable to casual outfitting than anything formal (only the great outliers can make it work with a suit). However, thanks to the great work of weavers and Australian woolgrowers, who have created a finer, less scratchy woollen fibre, the pea coat is anything but coarse.

4. The Topcoat

Traditionally coats were cut to be generous and extend below the knee. Over time, however, they slimmed down and lost their dramatic length. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, in the 20th Century fabrics became lighter without compromising warmth or comfort, which meant they could fit closer to the body. Secondly, as electricity became widespread and heating improved, there were less and less reasons to own a heavy coat.

Eventually tailors made coats that were lighter and shorter at 3/4 and "car-coat" lengths (named because they were the best length for men when seated in their automobiles i.e. mid-thigh). The result was a striking new design that resembled the modern suit: the topcoat.

The topcoat is what most men wear with a suit. In its single-breasted notch lapel form, the topcoat is the most versatile coat there is. At home with corduroy trousers and jeans or over a suit, the topcoat is elegant without looking too dressy. It can be worn open or closed and features a slimming silhouette that flatters most body types.

Single-breasted peak lapel and double-breasted topcoats are less common but more dramatic. More formal than the notch lapel version, they add a bit of surprise to casual outfits. Over a t-shirt or jeans, their sharp lines cut through relaxed shapes and when worn with a suit, their precise angles complements the formality. A downside to peak lapel topcoats is that they can look too formal with a blazer, particularly if the outfit is conservative. An easy way around this is to simply wear your shirt en plein air sans cravat.