The amazing sports uniform blog Uni Watch has a great set of scans from a 1965 varsity jacket catalog. (In high school, I lettered in cutting class to go get salami sandwiches.)
I probably should have anticipated this before I started a blog called Die, Workwear!, but as we get closer to winter, I’ve been thinking about getting myself a deck jacket. The term deck jacket refers to heavy winter coats worn by sailors during the mid-20th century. They’ve become highly prized among vintage collectors and workwear aficionados, not only for their history, but also their durability and protective warmth.
Some of the earliest deck jackets looked very much like the US Army’s winter combat jacket (also known as a tanker jacket). It had a dark blue outer shell made out of a heavy corded cotton, and a basic zipper-front design. Over the years, however, it’s been improved upon by the US military for naval use. In 1943, for example, the jacket was lengthened and lined with alpaca fur so that it’d be more protective for sailors. The knit waistband, exposed knit cuff, and patch pockets were also done away with, as they were at risk of snagging on different parts of the ship. As replacements, the knit cuffs were brought in, sort of like the storm cuffs you see today on certain Barbour jackets, and the jacket’s hem was made with a drawstring. The basic zipper front also saw the addition of a button-closure wind flap, and then later metal hook claps, which were easier to operate when you had big gloves on.
There are still many makers of deck jackets today, and they typically come in the garment’s original colors - dark blue, light olive, and dark green. My favorite version is probably by Mister Freedom, who released one with a striped blanket lining a few years ago. Most sizes have long sold out on their website, but you can sometimes find some floating around on eBay. Other makers include the many Japanese companies that specialize in workwear and military reproductions, such as Buzz Rickson, Toys McCoys, The Real McCoys, and The Few. You may also want to look into stores such as Blue in Green, Self Edge, Superdenim, and Bench & Loom, who either carry those aforementioned brands, or similar ones.
Unfortunately for me, all those are well outside my budget. I’ve seen slightly more affordable models by Spiewak, Engineered Garments, Orvis, and Pike Brothers, but they’re still pretty pricey. Going vintage here won’t yield any more savings, as collectors have been hunting for originals on eBay for years. For a good vintage piece, you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to a whooping $1,500.
So for now, no deck jacket for me. Perhaps for the better, since I don’t think you can look like a sailor with a size 36 chest.
Getting a Good Leather Jacket
Once you become interested in clothes, it’s not hard to buy more than you need. In the past two years or so, I’ve acquired eight leather jackets. Most get worn on some semi-regular basis (OK, semi-semi-regular), but none get broken out as much as this leather A-2 you see above. In fact, I could get rid of all my other casual jackets and be satisfied with wearing just this one.
When shopping for a leather jacket, I’ve found it’s good to pay attention to a few factors:
Materials: Most leather jackets are made from lambskin, goatskin, cowhide, or horsehide. Generally speaking, the first two will be lighter and thinner than the second two. Lambskin is exceptionally soft, pliable, and comfortable to wear, but it’s also most prone to tearing. Goatskin is a bit tougher and more pebbled in its texture. Neither, however, is as tough as cowhide or horsehide, which might require a circular saw to break open. The tradeoff is that cowhide and horsehide are very stiff and heavy, though that might suit certain styles more. It all depends on what you want out your garment and how you want it to look. Want something to wear to an overheated wine bar? Lambskin is a great material. Want something to fight a bear in? Cowhide and horsehide are good bets.
Insulation: Like with all garments, leather jackets are often made with seasons in mind. Spring/ summer pieces often have thin, breathable linings, or on rare occasions, they may come without any lining at all. Fall/ winter jackets, on the other hand, are often quilted or insulated. If you live in a temperate climate, like me, it may be good to err on the spring/ summer side, as you can always layer with a piece of knitwear. My A-2 pictured above, for example, has unique, open-weave cotton lining, and for cold days, I just pair it with a grey sweatshirt.
Style and color: I hesitate to recommend a style or color, as that gets into such subjective territory. You should just get what you like best. That said, I find myself wearing mid- to darkish browns most, and tans least. And from the few leather jacket threads I follow on various clothing forums, it seems that many men get a lot of use out of their A-2s. Whether that style suits you, of course, is a personal call.
It may be important, however, to think of leather jackets not just in terms of their most basic styles (e.g. A-1s, A-2s, motos, etc.), but also their sensibility. An A-1 from a luxury fashion house, for example, will look very different than one from a vintage reproduction company. Just compare this Ralph Lauren Purple Label piece to something similar from Good Wear Leather to see what I mean. It’s not just a difference in materials (a “luxury” piece will often be made from a fine lambskin, while a tougher, “authentic” version will be made from goatskin or horsehide), but also a difference in the cut and detailing. When shopping for a jacket, pay attention to these differences, and think about what kind of clothes you’ll be wearing your new jacket with. Maybe you want something from a very avant garde designer, or luxury Italian label, or a workwear company. That choice alone should narrow the field considerably.
Heritage is Expensive: Big Changes at Baracuta
Last year, the Italian company WP Lavori (which controls brands like Blundstone, Barbour and Woolrich Woolen Mills) acquired Baracuta, the company known for the G9 Harrington jacket. This year, prices are up. Way up.
The G9 was once a working man’s jacket - one of the things which helped it become an icon of mod. We’ve posted them before on sale, new, for less than a hundred bucks. Even the Made in England versions at full retail were about $250.
What will it cost you these days? As much as $450.
There’s Nothing Like Homemade
One of my favorite designers is Nigel Cabourn, and one of his most notable pieces is his Cameraman Jacket, which returns every year in new color and fabric combinations. We feature it frequently in the eBay roundup, but even second-hand it costs a pretty penny. Retail is about $1500.
One of our readers, Corey, fell in love with a cameraman jacket in one of our roundups, but he couldn’t afford it, even second-hand. Luckily, he’s got an exceptionally handy girlfriend. She made him the one above, which has a few adjustments from the Cabourn original - toggles instead of metal hardware, a slightly lower wool panel. She details the process on her blog, for those of you with a sewing bent. An impressive achievement!
The Transitional Shirt Jacket
The weather’s still pretty chilly where I live, but in a month’s time, it’ll hit those cool temperatures that’ll remind us summer’s not too far away. If you have a very casual American sense of style, a good garment to rely on for such transitional periods is the shirt jacket. The term “shirt jacket” can be pretty nebulous. I’ve seen Italians use it to refer to things many would just consider outerwear. Here in the States, however, it commonly refers to shirts that fit like jackets, and have a certain outdoorsy, workwearish, lumberjack-y feel. They’re not for everyone, to be sure, but if you want something very casual to wear with jeans and boots, these can be fairly useful on casual nights while strolling through the neighborhood.
The most well known in this field is probably Pendleton’s board shirt, which from my experience fits kind of baggy, but you can have a tailor take in the sides a bit. Filson’s Jac-Shirt is somewhat similar, but is made from a more substantial cloth. For something a bit more “fashionable,” you can consider Apolis, Orlebar Brown, Barbour, and United. Engineered Garments and Woolrich Woolen Mills can also usually be relied on for good options, although this season, I’ve only seen ones made from shinier fabrics (which may or may not suit your style). I also like Aspesi’s many takes on classic military designs. They’re slimmer fitting than what you’d typically find in military surplus store, and while they’re inspired by military garments, they won’t leave you looking like Robert De Niro from the film Taxi Driver.
All of these brands are a bit expensive, but they’ll come down 50% or more by the end of the season. If you’d like something more affordable now, there’s Club Monaco and Penfield. The second is particularly good to check in with every once in a while if you’re on a tight budget and in need of some outerwear.
Another option is to just use a moleskin or chamois shirt as a layering piece. LL Bean’s mainline has a very well priced one, and it fits surprisingly well. I’m a size 36 chest and fit nicely into their extra-small. My only complaint is the tonal buttons, but you can easily swap those out to something more agreeable if you’d like. Filson also seems to have a nice moleskins option, though I’ve never tried it. If you’d like something slimmer, you can try LL Bean Signature’s chamois shirt. The cloth isn’t as heavy or thick as their mainline chamois, and the cut is considerably shorter, but it could give a slightly more fashionable look to someone with a slim build. Epaulet also has a really nice looking moleskin jacket, though I admit I think people should at least give the LL Bean’s moleskin shirt a spin before they jump on a pricier option.
Is This an Orphaned Suit Jacket?
I recently received a couple of emails from readers asking if I thought something they were looking at on eBay was an orphaned suit jacket. An orphaned suit jacket is a jacket that used to belong to a suit, but for some reason – whether because they were worn through, badly damaged, or just plain lost – the matching trousers are no longer available. It’s not uncommon to come across these when you’re looking at second hand clothing, and you’ll want to avoid purchasing them. Wearing an orphaned jacket can make you look like you spilled something on your suit trousers and had to change out of them. It’s not a good look.
To be sure, there are no hard and fast rules, and some suit jackets can be worn as sport coats. Those made from cotton, linen, tweed, or corduroy are usually fine. There are also some wools that can be successfully used for both business suits and casual sport coats. However, for the purposes of this post, we’ll assume the simplistic view that suit jackets should generally never be worn alone, as most of the ones you’re likely to encounter through second hand clothing are of a certain type that shouldn’t be.
So how can you tell what’s what?
Generally speaking, the rougher, fluffier, more visible the weave, the more likely you’re looking at a sport coat. Conversely, the finer and flatter the weave, the more likely you’re looking at a suit jacket. This is especially true if it feels very smooth, silky, and lightweight, and you can see diagonal lines on the surface of the fabric (like you can with denim). If the fabric has a bit of shine to it when you bend and move it, it’s almost certainly something that was designated for a suit.
Certain patterns can also be clues. Pinstripes and chalkstripes always indicate something was meant to be worn as a suit. Birdseye, nailhead, pinhead, and very fine herringbone - the kind that you only notice is herringbone when you inspect it up close, but looks solid from a foot or two away - also tend to be reserved for suits, though there are exceptions. If it’s a chunky, rough weave such as tweed, something like a birdseye would be fine.
Similarly, pay attention to scale of patterns. Though suits can come in big, bold patterns, and sport coats in quiet and subtle ones, the more successful sport coats tend to have larger scale designs. It’s a way of announcing to the world: this isn’t something to be worn to a business meeting. Thus, if you’re in between whether or not a jacket can be worn by itself – if the pattern is very small or faint, you’re probably safer off passing.
Lastly, if a jacket has buttons made from metal or mother of pearl, or are covered in leather, you’re likely looking at a sport coat. Horn, on the other hand, can go either way, but one thing you can do is count the number of buttons on the sleeve cuff. If there are less than four, the chances of it being a sport coat go up.
In the end, however, you just have to use your own best judgment. Remember: the point is not to say whether something is definitively orphaned or not, the point is to not look like you’re accidentally wearing a suit jacket without the matching trousers. In the end, just keep that in mind and go with your gut.
(Photo via Capnwes)
Q & Answer: My Pocket Square Makes My Lapel Bulge!
Gus asks: I have a recurring problem with my jackets: the left lapel bulges open when I put a pocket square in the breast pocket. Do you know of the cause of this and the cure?
The answer’s about as simple as you’d think it would be. Either your pocket square’s too big or your coat’s too small. With our squares, we usually cut at 16” square, though we go down a bit smaller for heavier fabric to prevent this problem. You can try a less scrunchy, more foldy pocket square arrangement - that might cut down on volume.
More likely though is that your coat is fitting tightly, either in the chest or at the buttoning point. So either have it let out a bit or hit the gym. The fad for tight-fitting jackets has led to a lot of gaping and bowing in our nation’s lapels, and jamming a pocket square in there can exacerbate the problem.
The Rule of Thumb
There’s a rule of thumb (literally) that’s often passed around for how to determine the proper length of a suit jacket or sport coat. As it goes: you want the hem of your jacket to hit around the thumb knuckle, the one between the end of your thumb and where the thumb’s joint meets the palm. Some also say that your hands should be able to just cup the hem of your jacket when you have it on, but this is essentially saying the same thing.
This rule, however, is somewhat mixing up the order of how traditional tailoring is done. In the past, when men went to bespoke tailors to have their suits made, tailors would eye where a jacket should hit, and then use a man’s thumbs or knuckles as a reference point for future commissions. Which makes sense. The proper length of a jacket is more about how it works in concert with the other parts of your body, thus making things look as well proportioned as possible. It’s not about just meeting wherever a man’s knuckle happens to fall. The “rule of thumb” works for most men, but what about those with longer or shorter arms? Should they have to sacrifice the proportion of their suits just so the hem hits the “correct” place?
Of course, nowadays, most men buy off-the-rack, so they have to rely on their own eye for whether a jacket is long enough. One principle – and this is the one that I think is best – is that the hem of your jacket should roughly break at the midsection between the floor and the back of your coat’s collar (i.e. the highest point on your jacket). There’s some wiggle room here though. A casual jacket can be a touch shorter, whereas a business suit may need to stay traditional.
To determine this, you’ll need a full-length mirror and about ten or twelve feet of distance to view yourself accurately. If you’re standing too close, you’ll distort your view and the proportions of your suit may look right when they’re actually not. So, if you can’t get a good look, we have a more generalized rule: a sport coat or suit jacket should at least cover your posterior.
That’s not a bad rule to follow, but remember: at the end of the day, where a suit jacket’s hem should end is about proportions and balance. Be careful of the trend towards shorter coats, as they can make you look as though you’re wearing your little brother’s jacket. And beware of overly long jackets, which can make your legs look unusually short. As always, what’s best is what flatters you the most.
I think winter has arrived in some parts of the country, but here in Northern California, it still feels like fall. So if it’s not too late to post, I’d like to give a recommendation for green jackets, which I’ve come to realize feel just right around this time of year.
By green jackets I mean four-pocket M65s, easy-fitting waxed cotton jackets, thick Loden wool coats, or some kind of casual outerwear piece made out of olive tweed, like you see above. These have a wonderful autumnal feeling, and can be successfully paired with year-round pants such as chinos or jeans, or something more seasonal, such as corduroys or heavy woolen trousers. In addition, green jackets are a nice way to pick up the natural colors around you in the autumn, as well as add a bit of a country look to your ensemble. While I’m suspicious of men who dress a bit too country in the city, adding a green jacket to a pair of jeans, flannel shirt, and heavy leather boots is a nice way to lend a gentle rustic touch without looking like you’re about to go duck hunting on Main Avenue.
So, try wearing a green jacket this fall.