Fashion history – the exciting origins of pea coats

This is the launch of the new Wednesday series that I announced in my post on how to create a working fall wardrobe. The new series starts out with the pea coat – a perennial fashion favorite and eternal style classic.

You can't go wrong with a classic pea coat in a neutral color. Click To Tweet

Origins of the pea coat

When you do some research on the pea coat you find some different origins. Probably, like with many things that people independently of each other have the same idea or at least quite similar ideas to solve a problem. In the case of the pea coat, the problem to solve was how to protect a sailor/person from wind and rain.

Pea coats were originally worn by sailors in the European and later American Navys. The pea coat (or pea jacket) is used for at least more than 300 years. The word pea most likely stems from the Dutch or West Frisian word pijjekker. Herein pij referred to the coarse kind of twilled blue fabric with a nap on one side, and jekker is associated with jacket. The fabric goes back to the 16th century. At that time, the Dutch commerce had a strong naval component. In the British language, the pea coat is often called reefer coat. The reefer jacket may also have a sporting origin. American newspapers mention the pea coat as early as the 1720s.

#fashionhistory what to look for in a pea coat
Modern version of a pea coat from the Camel Collection

This double-breasted coat was typically made from navy-colored heavy wool. Historically until the 1970s, in the US Navy, pea coats were made from 30oz (approx. 850g) dark blue wool, most often heavy melton cloth. Modern pea coats are made from 22–32oz (620–910g) wool in a variety of colors. The heavy melton wool is durable, and tight. The latter makes it a great insulator to keep out cold and wind, and even some sea spray or rain.

What to look for in a great pea-coat beside its material, is the cut. A pea coat should be cut narrow at the waist and flare out to accommodate the hip movement during climbing. This “skirt” of a pea coat should reach over the hip. This original cut makes the pea coat very attractive for women. The pea coat in the photo above barely has that flare out.

The oversized collar can be worn up to protect the sailor or today’s wearer from the elements at sea and land alike. Left open it helps to regulate the body heat when climbing or walking fast. In the front, the two overlapping layers increase insulation and protect the wearer from heat loss due to wind. The lower front lapels are cut at rectangular angles for maximum overlap.

In the back, the pea coat has a center dart that is sewn flat to avoid cold gaps. The pea coat is the only coat for which the designer had pockets for cold hands in mind. The front has vertical pockets for easy access or slash pockets. The right outside pocket has a small change pocket. Some high-end pea coats and the US Navy pea coat have two inside pockets. This feature is not the original design.

Most likely the first pea coats had short side vents or no vents at all. Today, the US Navy, pea coats have a center vent. Be aware that every vent means a cold bridge which you want to avoid in cold climate regions. Furthermore, the location of vents and its length easily date your coat. Ladies with a womanly derriere should avoid a center or double vent. In the first case, the vent might split and look like two large tail feathers. In the other case, the vent may look like a sheet of a pad calendar.

#camelcollection #highlatitudestyle #fashionhistory
Zoom in on the buttons. Here the easy to sew on four whole version is shown

The front has six or eight large wooden or metal outside buttons. In addition, the pea coat has one button to close the collar at the neck, and one inside button to anchor the double-breasted front. The metal buttons used to display a so-called fouled anchor. This emblem goes back to the personal seal of Lord Howard of Effingham.

In the 1920s, pea coats got the buttons we know today. In the 1970s, on the order of Admiral Elmo Zumwait these buttons were substituted by 40-ligne one inch in diameter pewter colored metal buttons for sailors. These buttons were otherwise identical to the golden buttons on the officers’ pea coats. The Zumwait buttons were worn until 1984. Today again the foul anchor is the standard.

Many Navys use a variation of the pea coat. The US Navy adopted it from the British Navy. Interestingly, most Navys use buttons that are a variation of the fouled anchor design. Kingdoms often have a crown added. Today the Navys and civil world use many different materials for the buttons of pea coats. In the Navys, brass, gold plated and anodized aluminum are the most common buttons.

In the fashion world, these materials are typically used on the high-end of the price scale. Horn, mother-of-pearl and wood are expensive looking too. Cheap versions have plastic buttons with four holes for easy machine sewing – sometimes even with the seal.

When you go for a cheap coat, replace the buttons to up your style. #styletip #budgetfashion Click To Tweet

Today the pea coat is an element of any classic wardrobe, probably more often worn by women than men. The pea-coat cut for women differs from that for men just by the side to which the coat is buttoned. A women pea coat from a high-end brand may even have some adjustments to the female body.

Why a pea coat is a must-have for women over 50

Why would you want to invest into a pea-coat? When you live in the Pacific Northwest, or western middle Europe, this coat is worth the investment. A pea coat in high quality wool provides reasonable body insulation in these temperate maritime winter climates. The cut of the pea coat gives the illusion that the wearer is taller, and stronger than they really are. When you pop the collar up, it seemingly elongates the body and frames the face. Thus, never pop up the collar of a pea coat when you do not wear makeup. Pushing the color up, shifts the focus to your face. When your body shape is straight up and down, a pea coat in the original cut can give the illusion of curves.

A pea coat is menswear that gives curves to the female body. Click To Tweet

I still have not found my perfect pea coat. I want it to look as original as possible, and in high quality wool. Thus, here only a photo of a man’s Camel pea-coat was shown. Have you found your perfect pea coat already?

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Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders

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