The Homespun Luxury of Barbour

Close-up of Barbour Beaufort jacket label
Image is my own / All rights reserved

It’s a truism in fashion that trends move from the top downward. We all remember Meryl Streep’s famous speech from The Devil Wears Prada in which she acerbically details how a certain shade of blue originated in a collection of cerulean gowns by Oscar de la Renta only to trickle down via the various cogs of the clothing industry to land, several years later, in the bargain bin where a ‘blithely unaware’ Anne Hathaway would eventually find her own ‘lumpy blue sweater’. Fashion, as Meryl so memorably pointed out, is by its nature an aspirational business in which we look above our respective stations for inspiration on how to dress, whether consciously or otherwise.

More often than not, the things we want to wear are desirable precisely because they are tantalisingly out of our reach or feel that way for being worn by people who seem cooler, richer, or more glamorous than we feel ourselves to be. There are some anomalies, of course. Jeans are an obvious example. Flannel shirts and work boots are two more that spring to mind. But these tend to be the exceptions.  

What is rarer still is for a brand to invert this established trajectory — to move from prole to posh, in other words, rather than the reverse. Luxury and aspirational brands tend to enter the market at the high end rather than working their way up over time. Hermès started out making equestrian gear for the nobility. Breguet designed watches for the court of Versailles. Yves Saint Laurent broke out while working for Christian Dior and Ralph Lauren did the same at Brooks Brothers. Barbour, on the other hand, is a notable exception to this otherwise well-established rule. 

Before the Sloane Rangers and Royal Warrants and the Pitti peacocks, Barbour was a dry goods business founded by John Barbour (1849-1918), a Scotsman from rainy Galloway. In 1894 he set up shop in the port town of South Shields on the northeast coast of England where he sold all-weather gear to sailors, fishermen, and dockworkers — a thoroughly working class beginning, in other words. 

By 1908 Barbour was selling his signature oilskins — garments made of a kind of waxed cotton fabric that Barbour may not have invented but did perfect with a signature paraffin-infused formula — via a mail order catalogue shipped as far off as Chile, South Africa, and Hong Kong. Within less than a decade, this catalogue accounted for nearly 75 percent of Barbour’s business. 

Lt Cdr George Phillips wearing a Barbour Ursula suit
Lieutenant Commander George Phillips wearing a Barbour Ursula suit
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

In time, the company expanded its purview from mariners to include farmers, hunters, soldiers, motorcyclists, and anyone else in need of heavy-duty outdoor clothing. In 1936, for example, Barbour introduced a line of so-called International motorcycle products including a one-piece suit specifically developed to hold up under the gruelling conditions of the 1936 International Six Days Trial riding event. The suit duly became the market leader for motorcycling gear after several riders adopted it, including Steve McQueen who wore an International jacket with its distinctive slanted breast pocket in the 1964 Six Days Trial. The International suit was also instrumental in Barbour entering the war effort during WWII after Lieutenant Commander George Phillips, himself a keen motorcyclist, was dissatisfied with military issue oilskins and so approached Barbour to develop something more fit for purpose. The result was the Ursula suit (named for the U-class submarine of the same name captained by Phillips) which became standard issue for British submariners thereafter.

Barbour’s ascent into a more rarified market occurred a few decades later thanks in no small part to a series of Royal Warrants, the first of which was issued by Prince Philip in 1974, followed by Queen Elizabeth in 1982, and Prince Charles in 1987. Consequently, the brand got taken up by the city-dwelling country-bound set of Sloane Ranger aristos in the 1980s — an association that has been revived in the present day due to the success of The Crown on Netflix. 

The ’80s also saw the birth of some of Barbour’s most famous designs. The Bedale, launched in 1980, is a short, lightweight, thornproof equestrian jacket designed by Dame Margaret Barbour, who has been at the head of the company for over five decades. The Bedale showed off many of the details that became Barbour’s trademarks: the signature waxed cotton, of course, but also a studded corduroy collar, large bellows pockets, and the brand’s distinctive brass, ring-pull, two-way zipper. The Beaufort arrived two years later, also developed by Margaret Barbour, this time as a shooting jacket inspired by the ones she had seen on visits to France, hence the Francophonic name. It’s longer than the Bedale, has an extra set of pockets, and a full-width hunting pouch at the rear for carrying game (known as a ‘carnier’ in French) and is lined with nylon to allow blood to wash away more easily. 

After Princess Diana was photographed wearing a Beaufort, sales of the jacket skyrocketed. The same would happen again in 2006 when Helen Mirren sported one in costume as Elizabeth II in The Queen and once more thanks to a recent Peter Morgan property in the form of The Crown. The Royals, both real and fictionalised, have certainly been great for Barbour’s bottom line over the years, but the brand’s immersion in popular culture doesn’t stop there. They were the jacket of choice at a particularly rainy edition of Glastonbury in 2007 where Barbours were worn by the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, and Rufus Wainwright. In 2012, Daniel Craig as James Bond dons a Barbour jacket made in collaboration with Japanese designer Tokihito Yoshida, which inevitably sent Bond fans and hypebeasts scampering across the internet in search of the same garment. Many such savvy collabs have defined the brand’s approach in recent years, including partnerships with the likes of Rowing Blazers, Engineered Garments, Noah, Moncler, and even Paddington Bear. 

Despite all of the press and glamour, however, Barbour remains a family business, now in its fifth generation, still operating out of South Shields where it was founded nearly 130 years ago. In this way, they embody any number of apparent contradictions. Today they have demonstrated the ambition to expand into more than 55 countries, yet they still offer a service whereby old jackets can be returned, repaired, and rewaxed. This is a bygone world meeting the new; it’s glamorous globetrotting incongruously wed with down-home principles. It represents what Esquire a few years back called in reference to both the brand and its royal adherents ‘a unified theory of casually contradictory Western elegance’ in seeming somehow ‘ordinary and ordained’. This is the unlikely trajectory Barbour has traced over its long existence: The working man’s get-up adopted by stars and nobles only to be fancied once more by the everyday person as a result. A remarkable tale to be sure and, if you’re a brand hoping to make it big, it’s certainly nice work if you can get it.