A Brief History of the Pea Coat
Your winter wardrobe is not complete without the pea coat. The utilitarian look that was once an exclusive outerwear garment designed for the British navy has been championed by international fashion houses and is now a must-have winter fashion piece that we all love.
The Origin — A Brief History
Have you ever wondered where the pea coat originated? Or how it got its name?
The pea coat most likely started in great seafaring nation of Holland in the 18th century, before proliferating to the rest of Europe and Great Britain where it reached its utilitarian fashion peak in the great British Navy. From there it propagated across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
There is dispute over origin the name “pea coat.” One school of thought states it derives from the Dutch/West Frisian word “pij” which referred to a coarse kind of thick twilled blue cloth, hence a “pijjekker” or “pijjakker” was a “jacket made of thick fabric. Another theory states that it comes from the a similar cut of cloth known as “pilot-cloth” worn by the lower ranks and aptly nicknamed “petty-officer cloth” which was shortened to “P-cloth” so consequently called “P-Coat.”
What is not disputed is it’s military background. The pea coat is a work jacket, so it’s short and slim cut provided personnel with ease of movement and reduced the chances of being lassoed by sailing ropes or snagged by pulleys on the ship.
It was not worn by high-ranked personnel, for whom the more formal knee-length version, known as a “Bridge-coat” was reserved.
During the American Revolutionary Period (1764–1789) and the Napoleon Period (1799–1815), British Naval Officers wore heavy dark wool coat as part of their standard uniform. That British coat was copied by its American devotees and became the prototype for the future peacoat designs for navies the world-over.
The traditional design is based on the slim fitted double-breasted jacket with vertical welt pockets and buttons commonly arranged 3x2. The lapels were high and generous and the oversized collar offered excellent wind resistance.Being a double-breasted outerwear piece, the peacoat can add extra bulk to your midsection. So if want to avoid looking like a box, find the appropriate fit that suits you well.
Tip: The shoulder seams should hit the middle of the bend of your shoulder.
The Colour (Navy-Blue is the new Black)
There was confusion between “Pea Coat Black” and “Navy-Blue Pea Coat” which stemmed from the history of the British Navy. Navy-blue was the only acceptable colour, however the British navy-blue was so dark that is was ‘black’!
Due to the ‘on-board’ colloquialisms of the shipmen the floor of the ship become a ‘deck’, the a ‘wall’ a ‘bulkhead’ and a ‘doorway’ a ‘hatchway’. In a similar vein, this ‘black’ colour became ‘black-blue, or navy blue’.Although black is still the traditional and official contracted colour of military navy pea coats, today, fashion peacoats can be found in grey, khaki and army green. Colours for women stretch into blues, purples and reds.
Traditionally the material was 100% wool. The fabric was Melton carded wool, which is strong, coarse fibred wool. Midshipmen favoured the robust wool blend coat for its versatility and practical features. It’s thick, heavy felted properties provided the warmth of the pea coat.You are unlikely to find 100% wool coats today. Contemporary fabrics for the pea coat tend to blend a percentage of wool, nylon and cotton.
A functional feature of the pea coat is the oversized collar which was ideal for sailors exposed to the open windy weather of the high seas. It could be worn up without impairing the peripheral vision of the seamen.This functionality also gives your coat a modern dressy style allowing to be worn up for a casual winters night at the pub or worn down when attending a formal theatrical performance on Broadway.
The classic style for the pea coat was a wide and generous “notched” lapel. Contemporary pea coats have adaptations of the three basic types of lapels. Peaked, Notched and Shawl.
Variations of width, length, size of the notch or height of the peak allow wearers to establish their own style and look.
The pragmatic length of the pea coat allowed sailors to stay warm while having the full range of movement to perform their tough ship duties. For us today, unless you are a midshipman, clothing is about balancing the aesthetics of you body shape and exploiting your features.
Modern pea coats can now be found shorter or cropped. Some are longer to thigh length. When choosing the length of your coat, stick with the classic length which would be right below your waist. This classic look will never go out of style.
Since the pea coat is outerwear the length of your sleeves needs to be right. There’s a little trick I found that can help you. Have your arms naturally hang down your sides. Bend your wrists so the back of your hand comes up. If the end of the cuff creeps no more than half-way along the back of your hand, then you have the correct sleeve length for your coat.
The number of buttons have changed throughout history. Most common were the six buttons in 3x2 arrangement. During World War I they had up to ten buttons, arranged 5x2. There were usually another two buttons higher up for decoration.
The placement of the buttons was pragmatic and designed so that the peacoat could be worn completely closed. They were large and metallic, made of gold or pewter, and displayed the relevant naval emblem usually the anchor and rope (or chain).
The anchor with a rope entwined around it is known as the “fouled” or “foul anchor.” The symbolism is that an anchor being tangled up in this way is very difficult to raise. The first recorded use of this image was in 1402 by the Lord High Admiral of Scotland. Pea coat buttons today are usually plain, although you can purchase replica “fouled anchor” buttons, and arranged in the classic six-button (3x2) closure design.
In a case of (understandable) mistaken identity the pea coat is sometimes referred to as a “Reefer” coat or jacket. Although it has the same lineage, reefers were worn by the naval officer class as an inner coat. As such its body was made of lighter weight fabric, usually of doeskin or barathea (fine woollen cloth, sometimes mixed with silk or cotton). The colour was similarly dark blue, the cut was double-breasted with two vertical vents (pockets) and fashioned with six working buttons and two buttons for show. The lapel, like a birth-mark on one twin child, was a the give away, it was peaked rather than notched.
Traditional Reefer Jacket. Note the lighter weight material allowing it to be worn under a bridge coat.
On land, the seafaring reefer coat adopted a more gentlemen pursuit of sports such as tennis, hunting, horse riding or rambling (walking the countryside for pleasure). It matured to be a challenger to the lounge jacket but always maintained it’s outdoor demeanour, to the point where some firms went so far as to preclude the wearing of reefers to work by their employees.
The reefer rose to prominence and high fashion in the early 20th century when it was championed by the King Edward VIII.
Today the pea coat is a fashion statement that transcends the classes. Worn from the working class to the professional stock broker to the Hollywood star. It is a piece of clothing that is at home in local pub or the fashion catwalks of Europe.
How do you wear your pea coat? What do you love about it?
Author: TuiSiong Hie