The Return of the Balmacaan Coat

Albert Einstein wearing a balmacaan coat
Image credit: / Public domain

While my calendar insists that autumn lasts until December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s no question that meteorologically speaking things generally ramp up from sweater season to coat weather well before the week of Christmas.

Around the time that coats start coming out of closets is generally when I first begin to feel bummed about the cold weather. While there can be a welcome sense of excitement in being reunited with a favourite pea coat or parka after a season or two of separation, I find the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Specifically, the problem for me lies not so much in wearing coats (which I like doing plenty), but rather in seeing them around. 

Back when I still had an office-bound job, I was working in the kind of creative organisation where people were generally pretty interested in clothing. It meant that idle chat while waiting for a kettle to boil would turn onto the subject of clothes with surprisingly frequently and colleagues would often compliment each other’s outfits in a good-natured way. When winter rolled around, however, the chatter inevitably died down, since just about everyone would walk into work looking the same way every day for months on end. The depths of winter inevitably reduced most of us to down-stuffed shells of our warm-weather selves.

Out on the streets, the situation is inevitably even worse. To look at a wintertime city street is to cast your eyes over a sea of dark, uninspiring puffers, all bracing against the elements. While individually any one of these outfits might look good, their combined effect induces a kind of L. S. Lowry-like drudgery (although in truth even his matchstick men paintings tend to contain more colour than the scenes I have in mind).

It’s the sheer sameness that starts bringing you down after a while. Like a snowfall that outstays its welcome and turns to slush, the monochrome mass of the majority of winter coats is what gets to me most about the average cold-weather wardrobe.

Man at a car window wearing a balmacaan coat
Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

All of which is why I’ve been so thrilled by the return of the balmacaan. Now, you might argue that such a simple, unstructured overcoat by rights shouldn’t inspire all that much excitement. But for me, watching balmacaans in great numbers re-enter our winter wardrobes has been heartening. It’s great to see a long-neglected style get the props it deserves and particularly, given the dour nature of my dose of winter blues, one whose tweedy exterior adds some much-needed colour and texture into the mix.

What’s more, the balmacaan allows its wearer to add interest and distinction to their outerwear without sacrificing on coverage and comfort. For practicality, it offers a collar that can be turned up and sometimes buttoned when the weather takes a turn (named a bal collar in honour of the coat itself). A set of buttoned straps on the sleeves of most models serve the same purpose, while fly-front closure along the front of the coat can stop its buttons from getting snagged on anything. The coat also has a loose fit, slash pockets, and raglan sleeves for ease of movement and unbeatable comfort.

It’s in these features that the secret to the balmacaan’s resurgence seems to lie. It is, after all, a truism at this point that considerations of comfort have reigned supreme during the pandemic. While confined to our homes, most of us took to wearing sweatpants and other soft clothes with such gusto that when things started opening up again we brought these same preferences back with us out into the world. Hence the wider trousers, the looser-fitting jackets, and the generally slouchier disposition animating so much of menswear and clothing in general at the moment.

At which point, enter the oversized and unstructured balmacaan. It is, as Bruce Boyer puts it, ‘like a blanket with sleeves’, which goes to the heart of the coat’s appeal with a single cosy clause. It might also be historically accurate since some speculate that the coat was born when an enterprising Highlander simply sewed some sleeves onto a blanket or plaid wrap. The coat’s name comes from a Scottish estate near Inverness from which it is said to have emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. It got a boost in popularity in the next century when the then Prince of Wales (and later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) wore one to the Epsom Derby in 1929. Always a consummate and iconoclastic dresser, the Prince’s style choices regularly sparked the adoption of new clothing trends and the widespread adoption of the balmacaan was no different. It particularly took off among the American collegiate set, where less than a decade later it would become cemented as a staple of Ivy style alongside such classics as the polo- and duffle coat, although it has remained a classic (if not always mainstream) coat option on both sides of the pond since.

Dave Brubeck wearing a balmacaan coat
Dave Brubeck in a balmacaan
Image credit: IISG / CC BY-SA 2.0

And now, thankfully, it has made a triumphant return, which is why you may have noticed it showing up on your streets and screens again in recent times. Balmacaans have been steadily creeping back into fall/winter collections for a while now, but they have ramped up to full force over the last year or so thanks to places like Ralph Lauren, Drakes, Aimé Leon Dore, and Beams, as well as further down the scale at Uniqlo and a range of high street brands.

For the winter-weary coat-spotter, it’s a welcome sight. The only challenge, as ever, is deciding which one to pick for yourself. Should you have any difficulty in that department, do spare me a thought and consider getting the cheeriest one you can find. 

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