Men's Fashion

Peas in our time

The new pea coats fuse maritime swagger with the hard-wearing essentials of great outerwear, says Jonathan Futrell.

November 14 2011
Jonathan Futrell

The first thing you need to know about pea coats is that they have absolutely nothing to do with peas. The name is a corruption of the Dutch and West Frisian words pijjakker and pijjecker, which translate roughly as a tough maritime coat. The pijj bit refers to the heavy, 30oz, coarse woollen fabric from which the coats were traditionally made some 300 years ago. Because the coat was worn at sea, it was latterly known as “pilot” or “pee” cloth.

Traditionally made with eight buttons inscribed with anchors, “slash” hand-warmer pockets, a boxy shape and a single vent at the back, the pea coat gained popularity among European and American sailors in the early part of the 20th century. The characteristic large lapels doubled effectively as ear warmers during those long, cold nights above deck somewhere in the icy North Sea. You could always spot a genuine example by the sturdy steel chain (from which to hang the coat’s enormous weight) sewn into the inside of the collar. The pea coat is still standard issue in the Royal Navy (where it is called a reefer), while the female version has enjoyed much more popularity in recent years.

So, like the trench coat, duffel coat and parka, Aviator sunglasses, epaulettes and flying jackets, the pea coat is another fine example of military style successfully adapted for life on civvy street. It offers an attractive combination of warmth and casual good looks, and it looks equally sharp worn with a tie or a rollneck sweater.

It’s important to know all this, because pea coats are everywhere this winter – some sticking close to the shape and style that first emerged in the early 18th century, and others, notably those from Aquascutum and Alexander McQueen, ripping up the heritage fashion rule book. Aquascutum has a black neoprene version (£950) with a detachable shearling collar, while Alexander McQueen has transformed something plebeian into something shamelessly aristocratic, with a gold silk-embroidered collar and a single-button front fastening (£1,865). This is the pea coat Count Dracula might have worn.

Men’s winter-weekend wear has always been something of a conundrum. Traditional waxed cottons tend to be unlined, and lacking in insulation. Blousons, heaven forbid, risk making the wearer look like a cab driver, and something down-filled and quilted can look out of place in the city. The pea coat resolves the issue. It’s warm, yet it flatters, and it doesn’t come with any age baggage. Fifteen or 50 – all men look good in a pea coat.

It’s hard to pin down precisely when the pea coat moved up from practical garment to style icon. The first one I registered was worn rakishly and undone (with the collar up) by Steve McQueen, looking as cool as you like in the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles. Seven years later, Jack Nicholson’s Buddusky wore one in The Last Detail.

For me, the variation that currently tops them all is the leather pea coat from Gieves & Hawkes (£1,700). In nappa leather, with six buttons and pockets in all the right places, it captures the spirit of the traditional coat but is elegant and ultra luxe. And, like that much-loved flat cap and those faded 501s, it can only get better with time and wear.

Gieves & Hawkes’ design director Barry Tulip explains that the pea coat is rapidly becoming a staple in male wardrobes since “it transcends the gap between everyday functional outerwear and a naval uniform”. The tailor’s archives in Savile Row document the firm’s contribution to military dress, and the evolution of the pea coat. Among the photographs is one of Winston Churchill sporting his bespoke pea. There is another of Victor Montagu, who relinquished his claim to the title Earl of Sandwich in order to remain in the House of Commons. The two dignitaries would have approved of the company’s classic pea coats for this winter. While both have zip-fastening slash pockets, one has a classic dark blue naval cut, with six shiny brass buttons (£750); the other is a shade lighter, and water-resistant (£650).

Peas are also the default look for Paul Smith this winter, where there are no fewer than six to choose from. The picks of the bunch include the navy herringbone version (£309) from the Jeans collection, with a quilted lining; one in PS by Paul Smith, in black, navy and red, also quilt-lined and with “anchor” buttons (£405); and a plain navy coat (£645), part of the Paul Smith London collection.

Dunhill’s pea coats are closest in spirit to the blokey naval look. The company that annually refines its mission to craft the most timeless of high-street menswear has called its pea the Hartford (£850). Made from a luxurious blend of wool and cashmere, it’s imbued with a hefty dose of devil-may-care manliness in this season’s ad campaign by adventurer and writer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Worn with a check shirt beneath a cream cable-knit sweater, the pea never looked better.

Burberry is also in the vanguard of the pea revival. Christopher Bailey, its chief creative officer, has helped take the 155-year-old company (recently ranked the 95th most valuable brand in the world by Interbrand) from the old school to the catwalk, and has reinvigorated a raft of military garments with great success. And he’s done it again with the pea, giving it a modern profile – and, being Burberry, sexiness. The closest it has to something sailors might recognise is in the Brit range – a black wool version, a bit shorter than standard, but with the traditional eight buttons (£495). But that’s where convention ends. Burberry’s other peas, all with the Prorsum badge, include a red and black check coat (£1,995), with black buttons, leather piping and epaulettes, and an outrageous primary red felt coat (£1,695) that would cause a storm were it ever worn on a boat.

You can always depend on the Italians to get cold-weather clothing right; it’s all those chilly scooter rides to cappuccino bars. Some of the best pea coats are over at Salvatore Ferragamo, where creative director Massimiliano Giornetti has balanced sharp, wearable practicality with military chic. Choose between brown, with a longer line and oversized lapels (£1,295), or turquoise, in a shorter, boxier 1960s line, with a higher break and gold-embossed buttons (£1,355).

He may have concealed the buttons and given it two back vents for a more tailored look, but of all the variations, perhaps Roland Mouret’s (£1,100) epitomises the coat’s adaptability. “I live between the city and the country, and I love the contrast of dressing in both,” he says. “The pea coat is ideal for either environment. I love how it starts on the red carpet and after a year ends up on my shed door to wear while walking my dog.”

From sea dogs to pedigree dogs… the pea coat, in all its guises, has them covered.

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