What does a good coat do for you? The coat in the Gordon Conway 1929 illustration above ticks most of the boxes: the wool fabric delivers warmth, weatherproofing and comfort; the lavish collar looks glamourous and wonderfully cocooning; the colour gives an instant shot of pzzazz to cheer up the dreariest winter day; and the silhouette is svelte and elegant. For an expensive purchase like a coat it is essential to know what suits your shape and your needs – long and voluminous can be great on the tall but overwhelming on the petite; the camel coat is a classic but there are thousands of colour variations that will flatter (or not) different skin tones; luxury fabrics can be delicious to wear but may not withstand the worst winter conditions. Choose wisely and you’ll have a friend for life: in my own case it’s an ancient single-breasted Burberry heavy tweed overcoat, so old even the tweed is wearing thin, but it still keeps me warm and dry and still attracts compliments. I won’t ditch it until it actually falls into shreds.
The development of the overcoat has been strongly influenced by military uniforms, so its no conincidence that around this time of year the fashion magazines will be running their annual features showing military-style greatcoats against dramatic landscapes. We can all conjure the image of Napoleon on campaign in Russia, or more recent images from Grace Coddington’s stunning work for Vogue setting rugged tweeds against highland heathers. Masculine styles worn with a feminine touch are a perennial classic and most of the masculine styles referenced by designers today have evolved from nineteenth and early twentieth century military and sports tailoring. Most famously of all, Burberry and Aquascutum developed trenchcoats to protect soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War. The style evolved from the nineteenth century military greatcoat but with additional, practical details – shoulder straps to hold epaulettes and D-rings to attach maps.
Country sports also played their part, giving us the shooting jacket, a multi-pocketed, belted tweed; the redingote – a long fitted coat deriving from “riding coat”; the frock coat – a waisted and flared-skirted coat, deriving from the frock coat with tails used in dressage or without tails as used in show jumping and hunting; and the polo coat is a double-breasted over coat with a half belt at the back, popularised in Jazz Age America and since then by classic labels like Ralph Lauren. There were also variations on the basic styles: the Ulster coat has a short cape over the shoulders for extra rain protection (think Sherlock Holmes); the Chesterfield is a Victorian double breasted style that has become a modern classic of city-wear.
The twentieth century has seen much greater diversity of design in women’s coats. As fashion design emerged as an industry in its own right, coat design became more trend-led, designed to complement the entire outfit. So in the 1920s coats became low-waisted and bat-winged to sit comfortably over low-waisted dresses with fringing or draping.
In the 1930s Jean Patou introduced a more womanly, curvaceous line closer to the body. It is a silhouette that is already emerging in the 1929 Gordon Conway illustration at the top of this post and is highly reminiscent of the look adopted by Hollywood screen sirens.
The 1940s brought rationing and Utility. In response to shortages, the government commissioned fashion designers to produce clothing designs for mass production that used fabric with maximum efficiency. People were encouraged to re-use and re-purpose existing clothing and so female coats became more fitted to the body, shorter and in some cases closely referencing masculine styles – especially when an absent husband’s wardrobe was available to be raided.
Was this where the fashion pendulum started to swing, as each succeeding trend reacts violently against its predecessor? Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ turned the tables on 40s austerity with circle skirts and a tiny-waisted profile that brought back some longed-for glamour. So as the 1940s became the 1950s, coats had to accommodate this return to volume with swing styles, flaring out from a narrow shoulder.
It was only a matter of time before fashion reacted again and the 1960s brought minimalist, space-age designs. Balenciaga, star couturier of the 1950s led the way with rounded, cocoon-style coats and Paris picked up the baton as Paco Rabanne, Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent delivered neat coats in the high-waisted princess line. Think YSL’s iconic designs for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Givenchy’s beautiful orange coat for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Oleg Cassini’s neat ivory coloured coat for Jackie Kennedy to wear at her husband’s Presidential inauguration. These coats were the perfect complement to the pared down miniskirts and slim trousers of the decade.
The 1970s brought a certain nostalgia to coat design, from YSL’s 40s-style fox fur chubbies from the notorious 1971 collection to full length capes and great coats to balance bell-bottoms or maxi dresses that emerged in the middle of the decade. Perhaps in reaction to the ‘soft-focus’ style of the 70s, the 1980s came in with a harder edge and a sharp shoulder as designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana worked on an inverted triangle profile
Where do you go to escape the constant cycle of trend reversal? The 1990s brought us deconstruction and the rise of the avant garde Belgian designers* and the Japanese designers, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. In Martin Marigela’s hands the classic camel coat was subverted, the collar attached inside out. The result is a piece that looks as if it should be familiar but unsettles the eye (see above).
Today? Globalisation has brought an “anything goes” attitude. So draw from the best of the past, work out what suits you but beware of adopting any look too literally. Find your style and personalise it, have fun and experiment.
*NOTE: The ‘Antwerp Six’ were Walter van Beirendonck; Anne Demeulemeester; Dries van Noten; Dirk van Saene; Dirk Bikkembergs; and Marina Yee. Though not strictly speaking one of the Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela had graduated from the same fashion school but, rather than show under his own name in London as the Six did, he instead moved to Paris to work for Jean Paul Gaultier.