In Depth: Duffle Coats
From the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean to the arid deserts of North Africa, the duffle coat has been protecting people from the elements for over a century. Here’s the story behind it...
As far as anyone knows, the credit for the original duffle coat design goes to a British outerwear manufacturer called John Partridge somewhere back in the late 19th century. Even back then, designers would borrow heavily from earlier creations—and it’s thought that John’s coat was based on an older, fairly regal looking coat from Poland which featured a sizable hood and four toggles down the front instead of buttons. The ornate trimmings of the Polish coat were stripped right back and the duffle coat was born.
How it got its name is another slightly hazy bit of history, but the general consensus is that the seeds were planted in the Belgian town of Duffel. This place was so famous for making thick wool fabric that the word ‘duffel’ had become shorthand for any hearty woollen cloth—regardless of where it came from. In Britain, ‘duffel’ became ‘duffle’, and although Mr Partridge’s thick wool overcoats were made nowhere near Belgium, the title stuck (for anyone wondering, the duffle bag got its name the same way).
Created as a warm overcoat which would easily fit over layers without restricting movement, the duffle coat quickly caught the eye of the Royal Navy, who were searching across the lands for a functional deck coat which would protect sailors from the elements. These hefty woollen coats weren’t just warm, but in the age before technical fabrics, they offered a much-needed bit of water-resistance—making them ideal for the less-than-ideal conditions often found out at sea. The large hood was big enough to fit over an officer’s cap, and the wooden toggles did away with the problem of trying to undo buttons with gloves on (they were easier to repair too).
The Navy ordered thousands, and throughout the early 20th century they devised even more useful details for the already-functional design. Another layer of wool was added on the shoulders to help repel water and prevent wear on the shoulders, whilst a throat tab collar kept the draught out.
In WW2, when sailors braved the Arctic Ocean to carry vital supplies to allies in the north, the standard issue duffle coat was indispensable, and those involved in the arctic convoys would often wear theirs over their greatcoats (long double-breasted wool jackets) along with a balaclava and as many pairs of gloves as they could find. Meanwhile, in the deserts of North Africa, officers on patrol (such as SAS founder David Stirling) turned to the duffle coat to help keep them warm on long nights (through the day they’d fold them up and use them as cushions to add a bit of comfort to their less-than-luxurious truck seats). The distinguished general Bernard Montgomery was a fan too, and the countless photos of him wearing one whilst looking serious and pointing at maps helped the duffle earn the nickname, ‘Monty coat’.
After the war, the Ministry of Defence were left with piles of surplus duffle coats which they had little use for, so they enlisted the help of an industrial clothing manufacturer called H&F Morris to help shift them. Keen to downplay the coat’s military background, Harold Morris combined his two main exports—gloves and overalls—to create a new brand name for the old coats… Gloverall. Marketed as a coat which would allow builders to work through the winter, the duffles sold well, and thanks to appearances in films like 1953’s The Cruel Sea, it wasn’t long before they started to make waves outside of the work-wear realm.
As demand for these functional wool coats rocketed, the surplus stock quickly dried up. Realising he was about to lose his cash cow, Morris enlisted the help of his father (who conveniently worked as a Savile Row tailor), to create a new civilian version of the coat, featuring lighter wool cloth and swankier trimmings—the traditional wooden toggles and hemp cords replaced for horn and leather.
Still a firmly utilitarian option, the duffle found favour amongst a diverse crowd… Sterling Moss and Jean Cocteau wore them, as did countless students—who reappropriated their functional design as a symbol of egalitarianism. In Paris, those on the Left Bank used duffle coats as a way to distance themself from the bourgeoisie, whilst in Britain they were a regular sight at CND Ban the Bomb marches.
To list everyone interesting who wore one would take a fair while, but no article on the subject would be complete without nods to David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bridgette Bardot in The Truth, and Oasis on the front cover of the ‘Roll With It’ single—and then there’s the fact that Stanley Kubric kept one on set at all times in case the conditions turned sour.
Whether worn for practicality or politics, the humble duffle coat has weathered many a storm, and whilst the term ‘classic’ gets thrown around fairly casually these days, if there was ever a coat worthy of the title… this might just be it.