At this time of year — which is to say the coldest, longest stretch of winter — I find myself relying on a lot of military-issue clothing to keep warm, dry, and in relatively good spirits as I shuffle about outdoors. It feels appropriate somehow to be wearing erstwhile battle gear when being out in negative temperatures for a few minutes at a time is about the closest I come to any real jeopardy in my cushy, key-tapping existence.
I tend to work through a rotation comprising things like fatigues, thick khakis, some old Dr. Martens, various surplus items I’ve picked up over the years, and even bits and pieces left over from my dad’s army days. Whether it be the real deal or some commercial imitation, I suppose I’m drawn to military gear from knowing it was made to withstand the harshest possible terrain and temperatures — including an early-morning coffee run in mid-January.
The one item I’ve relied on the most by far is my M-65 field jacket. It’s a garment that, even if you don’t know it by name, is likely to look familiar the second you lay eyes on it. Despite some staunch competition, the M-65 has a strong claim to being perhaps the most iconic bit of milsurp on the market.
It first made its way into civilian wardrobes in the late 1960s as returning war veterans and Vietnam war protestors gave the garment a new life as a marker of youth, resistance, and (ironically) peace. The M-65 featured prominently in mainstream press coverage of the war and its opposition and throughout the ’70s and ’80s when it continued to enjoy a good deal of airtime in such seminal films as Taxi Driver, Serpico, Rambo, and The Terminator. The jacket duly became costuming shorthand for damaged outsiders or hypermasculine badasses for decades to come (Here’s looking at you, Luke in Gilmore Girls).
While media exposure in the garment’s early years did much to cement it as a timeless masculine staple, the rest of its appeal seems rooted in the versatility of its design. As Josh Sims describes it:
‘The M-65 was a jacket stripped down to its most functional elements: long enough to offer protection, short enough to allow for movement; a nylon/cotton sateen fabric that was wind resistant and almost indestructible; four large flap pockets; a hood hidden in the collar; a nylon quilted liner; tighteners at waist and cuffs to keep in body heat; and, ominously, a triangular attachment inside each of the cuffs to which could be attached gloves designed to further protect the jacket’s wearer on a nuclear battlefield.’
It is both sturdy and comfortable, functional and elegant, highly engineered but wonderfully straightforward. Plus, it is a rare jacket type that seems to look good on anyone, regardless of body type. And while I have framed it here as a winter garment, which it morphs into with aplomb when combined with its button-in thermal lining, it is just as comfortable performing at the other end of the spectrum as a light summer jacket when worn without.
This legendary versatility was born from the jacket’s origins as a uniform made for US soldiers fighting in the unforgiving territory of Vietnam. To be sure, there had been several previous incarnations of the field jacket. In fact, perhaps the earliest recognisable predecessor dates as far back as the Boer Wars when jackets with multiple front pockets were first used by British troops. But field jacket design reached its apex with the M-65, so named for the year in which it was introduced. It came in the wake of the M-51 from 1951, which was itself a successor to the WWII-era M-43, the first field jacket to embrace a revolutionary ensemble layering principle which allowed for all-weather preparedness catered to a given set of battle conditions.
The M-65 built on the principles developed by these shorter-lived predecessors to create a jacket that remained in military use for some 44 years until officially retiring from service in 2009. While it has existed in a few slightly different iterations over the years, the best-known varieties were made from a game-changing nylon/cotton sateen material called NYCO, which proved all but indestructible and highly wind- and water-resistant. These also came in an olive green colour, officially called ‘Olive Green 107’, which was intended for jungle warfare, although camouflage versions were introduced from the 1980s onward.
Manufacture of the M-65 was handled by Alpha Industries, a Knoxville-based operation founded in 1959 by Samuel Gelber and Herman ‘Breezy’ Wynn. In their first year of operation, they secured a contract with the Department of Defense to produce such classic fighting garments as the MA-1 flight jacket and later the N-3B parka. After winning the initial contract, Alpha Industries made M-65s for the US Military for a quarter century and still make them today if you’re looking to buy one. Of course, these days if you can’t get your hands on one of the originals, you can choose from any number of modern recreations by way of The Real McCoy’s, Buzz Rickson’s, &SONS — even Amazon.
The M-65’s ubiquity nearly half a century on from its birth speaks to the jacket’s pride of place in the menswear pantheon. And, like a true classic, it has been worn by everyone from hippies to hunters to hipsters — and just about anyone else inbetween. It is also about as versatile as it is prolific, whether working as an easy-going accompaniment to T-shirts, jeans, and trainers or as a surprisingly dapper outer layer to compliment a suit and tie.
When I first moved to the UK some years ago from a context warm enough to give you sunburn in midwinter, a flea market M-65 I bought as a student was the only garment that kept me warm in my new surroundings. I reckon I must have worn it nearly every day for the first year I lived here. It proved enough that by the time I got more acclimatised, I had grown so sick of putting on the same jacket day after day that I gave it away to a friend one day on impulse. Soon enough, I came to regret parting with it and spent the next few years searching for a suitable replacement. Then, earlier this year, after many months of trying on every ill-fitting thrift store and charity shop substitute I came across, I finally found one that felt as good as the one I’d parted with. Since then, it’s been a bit like being reunited with an old friend — one I’ll be sure never to part with again.
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