The other day my son returned from Battersea car boot sale in triumph, wearing a greatcoat that he had bought for £10. In an instant of Proustian recall sharpened by the emotions of parenthood, I realised that I had been about his age, maybe a year or two younger, when I, too, discovered the delights of the greatcoat.
This was back in the early 1980s – a time of abundant Army surplus stores that brimmed with the sartorial peculiarities of the world’s various military forces. Fashioned from a bullet-stopping material that made roofing felt seem like the finest silk, my iron-grey coat with metal buttons hailed from West Germany and imparted instant Checkpoint Charlie chic to my teenage self. It was a fabulous garment.
I am a slave to my emotions and, having stirred long-dormant atavistic memories that reconnected me with my inner cold war border guard, I began to see my life through the sartorial prism of a 1960s John le Carré novel: all dead letterboxes, iron curtains, case officers and tradecraft. Having somehow managed without a greatcoat for over 30 years, I now felt the need for one acutely. However, no longer being au fait with Army surplus retail, I headed instead for No 1 Savile Row and Great Britain’s best known military outfitter Gieves & Hawkes.
Before they were united, Gieves had been a naval outfitter since 1784, while Hawkes had dressed the British Army since 1771. Among their respective clients were Nelson and Wellington. What better place to reconnect with the greatcoat? Alas, while the bespoke department would have been only too happy to make one for me, there was not a single greatcoat to be had off the rack. “There isn’t a great deal of demand in ready-to-wear these days,” laments its creative director John Harrison, “perhaps due to changing climates and our clients’ fondness for layering, which is sad to me, particularly given our military heritage. However, orders continue to come in for bespoke greatcoats and it is my dream to bring them back into ready-to-wear one day.”
I have never really got the hang of layering. Granted, it may be practical: long-sleeve fine-gauge polo shirt, zip-necked cashmere knitwear and maybe a quilted nylon gilet worn under a shrug-on shrug-off down-filled outer garment; but unless you are taking lessons in layering from that secular saint Brunello Cucinelli it is all too easy to achieve the silhouette of a baked potato. Put on a greatcoat, however, and even the sort of physique that looks like a root crop takes on military swagger: the suppressed waist, the back gathered by a martingale, every step emphasised by the vent and pleat; every turn a dramatic sweep of cloth...
Unwieldy, warm and heavy though it may be, the greatcoat has something that layering will never possess: romance. As such it was a staple of Regency chick lit. “The innumerable capes of his greatcoat looked so becomingly important,” swoons the impressionable Catherine Morland of Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. More than 200 years later the greatcoat can still muster sex appeal.
“The greatcoat is an amazing tool for making drama on the runway rather than for sales,” says Peter Hawkings, chief of men’s design at Tom Ford. “Tom loves a dramatic coat and whenever we do a smaller-fitting coat he says ‘Boring!’ I have been working for Tom for 20 years and it has always been an important coat to me. Popping the collar gives drama up around the face and you feel amazing.”
Isabel Ettedgui, owner of Connolly, agrees. “It is a sexy piece of clothing. We had one in the first season with a deep military slit at the back, and this season we have done an oversized reversible wool riding coat along the same lines. My whole collection was based on a military theme,” she adds, albeit not the military of parade grounds and brass bands, but “going walking in the country wearing an old military coat of a great uncle.”
Talk of great uncles in the country inevitably leads to Uncle Monty, played with aplomb by the late Richard Griffiths in Withnail and I. For Oliver Spencer that film was a defining cultural moment for the greatcoat, canonised in its closing scene, in which Withnail recites Hamlet’s soliloquy, “what a piece of work is a man”, before the wolves of London zoo. It is wearing them thus, à la Richard E Grant, that seems to hold the secret of the coat’s rehabilitation. “For me, double-breasted ‘great coats’ should always hang below the knee and button up above the neck when fully done up,” says Spencer. “They were made super-chic by the film Withnail and I and became a legendary piece of clothing for many a man’s wardrobe.”
And there are other ways in which to modernise it. “As convention breaks down, and the uniform becomes less regimented, there are more opportunities for wearing, say, a denim jacket under a coat with which a suit might have been worn in the past,” says Michael Hill of Drake’s. “Everything is getting lighter and trans-seasonal, but I think we still need a great winter coat; and we want to wear great cloth and I don’t think we should apologise for that,” he adds, warming to his theme.
As good as his word, he has worked with teddy‑bear maker Steiff to revive a thick mole-coloured cloth, last woven in the 1950s, for a double-breasted coat. “It is showstopping, the heaviest one we have ever done, and we’ve developed our own gold button with the Drake’s crest.”
If anything, Private White VC is even more gung-ho. “I don’t think the time is ever wrong to do a greatcoat,” avers its CEO James Eden, who has chosen a blastproof 850g wool from Joshua Ellis for the unlined greatcoat he launched at Pitti last month.
But if you can’t wait, Kris Van Assche has also created a very Soviet, very oversized grey wool coat for Berluti’s current collection, and Edward Sexton, tailor to Mick and Ringo back in the day, is selling them ready-to-wear from his website. “I made one last year for men’s fashion writer Simon Crompton and it looked so good that we made them ready-to-wear for this winter. It is long and can be worn over a jacket or without. It is just a very sexy coat and sexy look.” If Sexton is to be believed, the return of the greatcoat is the beginning of a wider revanchist movement concerning all manner of swagger coats: “We have a lot of interest now for Inverness capes.” Does this mean that the deerstalker will finally have its day as well?