Maritime Macho

peacoat-illustration5 by Grandin Donovan
The end of the holiday season means two things for New Yorkers: The worst of winter is yet to come, and cold-weather coats are on sale now. Among them is the peacoat, the sailor's friend that never really went out of style but which, since 2002, has enjoyed a revival that has designers tweaking the archetypal cut to better weather the high seas of fashion every winter.
Like any classic design, the peacoat has its own apocryphal histories and conflicting etymologies. The notion that its name comes from the "pea soup" conditions of the North Atlantic is easily enough dismissed, but the truth remains uncertain. Since 1723, naval sources have maintained that "pea"—or "P"—is shorthand for "pilot" cloth, the coarse wool twill, napped on one side, from which the coats are made. Academic sources, on the other hand, suggest that "pea" is a type of cloth itself—pease—and that the word derived from Duth or Frisian origins back in the 15th-century. Some even say that "pea jacket" is but the anglicized form of the older Dutch "pijekkat."
However the name came about, these cropped, double-breasted coats, typically made of 30 oz. of wool, have been called such since the 18th-century, and have been a part of the U.S. Navy uniform since the mid-19th century. While the peacoat's platonic ideal—foul anchor buttons, melton cape, narrow rolling collar, elbow-level slash pockets—is maintained by government regulations, fashion designers have long revamped it for the street.
In the '20s and '30s, Coco Chanel adapted the peacoat for the female figure. In the '60s, both Yves Saint-Laurent and Calvin Klein gave it a signature spin. In 1993, old-school outfitter Schott Bros. boosted the design's visibility and style by producing the classic cut in an array of colors. Recent high-street options, however, opt for more subtle twists. Last season, Derek Lam trotted out a slim-cut, cameo leather women's peacoat with an extra-wide collar. Marc Jacobs offered a slightly punk take with a patchwork-plaid piece, complete with buckle-tabbed sleeves. Façonnable produced a moleskin version with a shawl collar, and Michael Kors added epaulets and—with a nostalgic gesture—cast the once-gilt, now usually plastic front and sleeve buttons in silver.
As usual, men's tweaks are more restrained and detail-oriented—longer or shorter, welt or flap pockets, simple or patterned cloths. Kenneth Cole's latest designs, for example, have sported modest notch collars, while Robert Graham's "McHale" has a double wide, almost retro spread.
Specifics aside, pea coats look equally good atop dinner dresses, trousers, or jeans; dressed up or dressed down. Remember: Time is the best appraiser, and peacoats have stood the test. If you don't have one in your closet yet, we suggest you hit the racks before the sales dry up.
Illustration by Pepin Gelardi,
Whether you plan on braving some briny spray or striking a James Dean stance in Times Square, now is the time to put a classic peacoat back in your closet.

More from Trends

R29 Original Series