Just seeing Jack Nicholson in the film ‘The Last Detail’ sporting a Pea Coat, whilst escorting a US Navy prisoner from his barracks in Virginia, to a military prison in Maine, was enough for me to want to own the garment. Jack wore it well and it also brought back memories of seeing it worn by the longshoremen in the film ‘On the Waterfront’, which was another stylish and influential film for me in years to come.
The coat is yet another classic piece of functional military clothing, that has been then re-evaluated as a fashion garment, very much like the parka sported by the Modernist fraternity over the years. (See Speakeasy Blog – ‘The Korean Parkas – from April 2021).
I bought my first Pea Coat from ‘Winners,’ an army surplus outlet on the Walworth Road and that one served me pretty well for a few years until I picked up a style called a ‘Churchill’ (Old Winston was often seen in one) by the company Gloverall as payment for a bit of graft I did a few years back. That is still being sported here and there, especially night matches at football and it’s hard to think of a more stylish look to do that in. It is also my attempt to avoid the padded coat mania all around us.
Sitting at Millwall recently, during a tough first half, my mind wandered. Along with trying to think why I keep going back to The Den, I was also curious as to the origins of the Pea Coat, P- Coat, Peacoat or Reefer jacket, depending on what you yourself call it.
Well, it turns out, its origins are all up for discussion, as are most of its design features. Having been around so long, the garment has many claims on ‘who wore it first’ as we shall see…
The name ‘pea jacket’ is first mentioned in the early 18th century, (1725 to be precise) it being Dutch in origin, it was called Pijjakker, with Pij meaning coarse cloth and jakker meaning jacket. It is pointed out, the Dutch were sea farers of some note back then, and the coat was definitely a naval garment.
And then there’s the British company Camplin (now based in Italy) claiming that its founder, Edgard Camplin, sold to the British navy, a coat for petty officers, which become known as a petty coat. Not surprisingly, it later became known as a Camplin, and the company continue to sell their own make of the coat, and therefore claim they invented it.
Finally (I think?) a coat which is called ‘the Prince of Wales’ jacket, made for The Prince himself in the 1860s, and described as a ‘double breasted jacket with three pairs of buttons, and two cross pockets.’ Research reveals, that by wearing this particular style in public, the Prince most certainly popularised the design.
What is remarkable when looking at the many images on-line for the coat, is that its basic ‘look’ has not changed much over the intervening years. It is basically a short overcoat, with the US Navy making them from the original heavy traditional wool, known as Kersey, before then moving in the early 1970s, to Melton in black or midnight blue.
The majority of coats have rows of eight – though at one time it was ten – large ‘35 Ligne’ black plastic buttons, with an anchor wrapped in rope design upon them. Also, on view is a extra button ready to be used to help enclose a face in the general width of the collar, with some ‘makes’ having an extra piece of fabric or cordage affixed to help do this, if needed. The buttons are that big in size by the way, for practicality purpose’s, making it easier doing up the coat with frozen and wet hands.
Two jet pockets on either side of the coat, then complete the look.
When the officer ranks took a fancy to the coats design, they would get their tailor to add gold buttons, replacing the bog-standard black plastic numbers to denote rank. The coat as a result, was then referred to as a ‘reefer.’ The US Navy discontinued issuing the coats in Spring 2019, signalling a roaring trade for them on the vintage scene .
Getting a coat of this design couldn’t be easier today, with so many brands and stores now offering up their own versions. It really is a case of you pay your money, you make your choice, with styles available to suit all budgets.
I wouldn’t be without my one at football and other outdoor occasions, dreaming all the while, of looking as good in it as Jack did but, of course, as always I wake up.
The Mumper of SE5
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 1
THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Gary Crowley
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