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Swellboy on… the sheepskin flying jacket

Chocks away – the sheepskin season is here

Swellboy on… the sheepskin flying jacket

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 07 2010
Nick Foulkes

One of the compensations of winter is that it offers the opportunity to wear sheepskin. Indeed, my trusty winter companion whenever I leave the family seat in Shepherd’s Bush is a wonderfully weathered three quarter-length zip-fronted black sheepskin that has a sort of chocks-away quality to it.

I have long been drawn to the flying jacket as an item of great chic and I acquired my first one, which was so distressed that it missed an entire elbow on one side, when in my early teens at school in Sussex. I suppose it is all to do with David Niven in one of my favourite films: Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. From what I understand, it was made with a view to improving Anglo-American relations, but it is a beautiful warm and witty film with the bonus of the unfairly elegant Niven in sheepskin flying jacket.

But even Niven has to cede the palm of suavity in a sheepskin flying jacket to Field Marshal Alexander, one of the most underrated of Britain’s military leaders during the first world war. An accomplished man who spoke many languages and dabbled in painting, he was also probably the most stylish allied military commander. Apparently during the first world war he took a liking to the sort of high peaked cap sported by Russian officers and had his hatter make his military headgear to this pattern.

But it was his adoption of the flying jacket that elevated him to the sartorial top spot. Never before or since has this garment been worn with such style. I once asked his son and heir, the current Earl Alexander of Tunis, what happened to this jacket and he told me that for years he used to wear it when picking up the Sunday papers, but that after some time he performed the inestimably noble gesture of giving it to the Guards Museum, where it can be enjoyed by a grateful nation. I am not sure that if it had been in my possession I would have been anything like as magnanimous.

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People, Jackets