Fashion history – the exciting origins of pea coats
LeatherCoatsEtc peacoat with scarf, hat, LeatherCoatsEtc gloves, unbranded structured bag, and tall boots(all own)

Origins of the pea coat

The pea coat is a perennial fashion favorite and eternal style classic.

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

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.

Peacoats (or pea jacket) were originally worn by sailors in the European and later American Navy. They have been 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.

Willem van de Velde the Elder (Dutch, 1611 - 1693), Figures on Board Small Merchant Vessels
Willem van de Velde the Elder (Dutch, 1611 – 1693), Figures on Board Small Merchant Vessels, Dutch, about 1650–1655, Pen and brown ink and blue-grey wash over leadpoint, incised for transfer, 21 × 32.2 cm (8 1/4 × 12 11/16 in.), 87.GG.80. Courtesy to the J. Paul Getty Museum. The sailors in the lower right and standing in the middle of the foreground wear versions of the reefer

The material

This double-breasted coat was typically made from navy-colored heavy wool. Historically, until the 1970s, in the US Navy, peacoats 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.

Characteristic details

Beside its material, what to look for when buying one, is the cut. The 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.

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

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.

The non-military versions

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.

over 50 years old blogger in blue burgundy autumn style with jacket and pill box
Pea jacket c/o London Traditions, vintage pill box hat, Pendleton plaid wool skirt, twigg’s pantyhose, Ivanka Trump heels (all own)

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 and is a Must-have for a awesome coat wardrobe. 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. #agelessstyle Click To Tweet

Have you found your perfect pea coat already? Not sure what typw of body shape you have. Take this free online quiz on body shape to find out.

Get a subscription to High Latitude Style so you never miss a post.

Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders

© 2013-2019 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved