TOAST Magazine

A Brief History of the Duffle Coat

STYLE & STORIES

The duffle coat has long been part of the TOAST Autumn/Winter Collection. This season, we have worked with London Tradition to create a rust coloured, contemporary and oversized iteration of this classic style. To celebrate, we asked Amy Bradford to delve into the history of the duffle coat and explore its enduring appeal.

You can wear a duffle coat over almost anything. Suits, school uniforms, kilts… all have been foils, over the years, for this most versatile of garments. Loved by establishment figures and counter-culture icons alike, it’s probably one of the most democratic designs in our wardrobes.

The duffle’s enduring appeal is surely thanks to its simplicity and practicality, largely unchanged for over a century. But its origins are more obscure than its unfussy appearance suggests. It’s named after the Flanders clothmaking town of Duffel, where a coarse, thick, waterproof black woollen fabric was once used to make protective clothing (today, both spellings – duffle and duffel – are accepted).

Like the duffle bag, the coat was so-called because it was made from woollen fabric, but neither was ever actually produced in Duffel; instead, the first coats were made by an Englishman, outerwear manufacturer John Partridge, who developed them in the 1850s. It’s believed he was influenced by the Polish frock coats that were then fashionable in Europe. 

Although these were more fitted in shape and rather more embellished, they do share the duffle’s most distinctive features: its capacious hood and unusual toggle fastenings.

The hood and toggles give the duffle coat an air of childlike simplicity that’s quite unlike any other traditional civilian garment (especially one that’s often worn by men). This quality’s also at odds with its earliest role, as a stalwart of British navy life. Both details, though, were what prompted the Admiralty to seek out versions of Partridge’s coat in the 1880s, when the Anglo-German naval arms race was in full swing and demand for weatherproof sailors’ clothing was high. 

The duffle’s roomy hood fitted easily over naval caps; its widely spaced toggles were less fiddly than buttons, especially in cold, wet weather or when wearing gloves. The roomy patch pockets came in handy for binoculars. And the coat’s almost comically oversized proportions allowed for easy climbing of rigging (some early versions, apparently, featured straps inside so it could be fastened to the thighs, preventing the front from flapping open).

The first duffles, known as “convoy coats”, had humble hessian and wood toggles and were made from wool twice as heavy as modern versions. Camel was the default colour, but later there were khaki, brown and navy, too. The military ones were unlined; in short, they were about as utilitarian as a coat can get. This didn’t hinder their popularity, which spread rapidly from the Royal Navy to other branches of the armed services. 

By the time of World War II, the duffle was not only being worn on the high seas, but by regiments in Africa, including those commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery and Sir David Stirling, founder of the SAS. Both were habitual wearers, to the extent that the duffle’s still known by some as a “Montgomery” or “Monty coat”. Stirling’s bronze memorial statue in Doune, Scotland, has him wearing his trusty duffle.

Thanks to men like these, the duffle coat became synonymous with British wartime valour. Watch any of the naval-themed movies made in the postwar period – The Guns of Navarone, The Cruel Sea – and you’ll see actors like David Niven and Jack Hawkins wearing them. Such films pitched Allied heroes against the decidedly non-duffle-wearing German army; you could say the duffle coat was an early form of virtue signalling. 

But even as these stories were being filmed, the design’s identity was evolving. In the 1950s and 60s, as vast surpluses of army clothing were sold off cheaply to civilians, it became a uniform for students and beatniks. Many, ironically, were peace protesters, wearing their duffles over beads and bell bottoms on demonstrations against the Vietnam war and nuclear proliferation. Others were Beatles fans. Photos of the countless schoolgirls who idolised the group show swathes of duffle coats; suddenly, they were cultural capital for Youthquakers as well as the establishment. 

The first company to make classic army duffles for the civilian market was Gloverall, which started out as a maker of workers’ gloves and overalls. It had bought up large quantities of surplus army stock after the war, but when this began to run out, it started making its own, adapting the style in new colours and materials. In so doing, it helped to cement the duffle’s fashion status. 

Its most elegant wearer was perhaps the French artist Jean Cocteau, who was photographed wearing a short, boxy white duffle jacket in the company of Coco Chanel in 1958. One can only speculate how Cocteau felt when, later that same year, Michael Bond published A Bear Called Paddington, the first of a series of stories about a Peruvian bear abroad who’s given his bright blue duffle coat by a kindly English family.

Paddington taps into the duffle coat’s most childlike aspects – the big hood, the giant toggles even small hands could work – which have been endlessly reinvented in popular culture. When Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor Who sports a duffle coat with a zany jumper in the late 1980s, it helps to convey the character’s playful eccentricity. 

When David Bowie’s alien seeks to blend in with the human race in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), it’s a duffle coat that does the trick. 

For today’s wearers, the duffle transcends all such interpretations. Its cosy fabric and easy looseness – so practical for winter layering – mean that it continues to sell in all its modern variations.

Shop the TOAST Shearling Duffle Coat, made using shearling from British sheep, and the oversized Boiled Wool Duffle Coat, made and finished by hand in East London by London Tradition.

All of the images were taken on a recent trip to London Tradition, where we explored the traditional techniques and skills involved in the making of a duffle coat, from the precision pattern cutting to the neatest of seam binding and patch pocket making. 

Words by Amy Bradford. Images by Kendal Noctor.

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