The Maritime Cool of the Pea Coat

Man wearing a hat and pea coat
Image credit: Pxhere / Public domain

The world of menswear is awash with examples of martial clothing that has entered our everyday dress. But surely nothing else holds the romantic appeal of the pea coat. Its only rival is perhaps the trench coat, whose upturned collar might equally offer you some brief respite from the elements — not to mention the slings and arrows of existence — allowing you to cast out a troubled stare through a haze of cigarette smoke…

But a trench coat ultimately belongs to the officer class. The pea coat, on the other hand, has its rightful place on the back of a working sailor, lending it the anti-establishment edge.

Pea coats have been in service since the 18th and 19th centuries, popular in the British, US, and Dutch navies. The latter gets to claim naming rights with the anglicised ‘pea’ likely deriving from pijjakker. Pij refers to coarse, woollen cloth, while a jakker is a short, heavy jacket.

Vintage portrait of an old man wearing a pea coat
Image credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives / No copyright
Flat lay of pea coat
Image is my own / All rights reserved

The pea coat evolved from another naval staple known as a reefer jacket, named for the sailors who handled reefing (that’s taking in sails for any landlubbers out there). It was among the first bits of standard-issue uniform, introduced by the Royal Navy in 1857 to spruce up dress regulations (previously only officers had to abide by a dress code while crew members could wear their own clothes, inauspiciously referred to as ‘slop’).

Albert Camus smoking and wearing a coat
Famed existentialist Albert Camus
Image credit: DietrichLiao / CC BY-SA 2.0

While the pea coat might seem styled primarily to make you look as cool as Camus, all aspects of its design follow strictly from function. It was originally cut from coarse, 30-ounce (850-gram) woollen cloth, which, as noted by Bruce Boyer, tailors claimed you needed pliers to pull a needle through. Its thickness offered some much-needed warmth and protection from rigging ropes, but it was cut short to allow for active movement. The double-breasted closure, the wide lapels, and tall, Ulster collar with throat latch similarly offered shelter from wind and water. The buttons — traditionally stamped with a fouled anchor (i.e. one wrapped in rope) — were set off to one side to stop them being caught on any rigging and deliberately outsized to accommodate fridged seafaring fingers. As for the colour, Josh Sims writes:

‘It was coloured indigo navy, to hide dirt and also because at a time when there were no colourfast dyes it was the shade most resistant to being faded by sunlight and repeated drenchings by rain and by seawater.’

Josh Sims
Douglass Montgomery wearing a pea coat
American actor Douglass Montgomery
Image credit: Rossano aka Bud Care / CC BY 2.0

Pea coats have long been associated with rebels and heartthrobs, perhaps best epitomised by Serge Gainsbourg, who was often photographed wearing one with enviable insouciance. On the silver screen it’s been donned by such heavy hitters as James Cagney in Frisco Kid (1935), Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles (1966), Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973), Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Daniel Craig in Skyfall (2016). 

The Rolling Stones wearing pea coats
The Rolling Stones rocking pea coats
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

By the 1940s the heavy pea coat was no longer standard issue in the US navy, but, like so much of military wear, it entered the civilian wardrobe via beatniks and hippies picking them up cheap in surplus shops in the ’50s and ’60s. This added a hip sheen to the garment and, thankfully, has kept it in our closets since.

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