The Ever-Shrinking Overcoat

It's getting cold right now in many parts of the world, less than two weeks away from winter in the northern hemisphere, so it's time to bundle up and keep warm. You may see people in business suits wearing parkas or other unsuitable (no pun intended) outerwear. Worse, they may be wearing nothing at all while outside in the freezing cold! However, those who know better have always gone to overcoats and topcoats to stay toasty, since they look and fit better over a jacket and tie. The look is complete with a set of leather gloves (I use this fleece-lined, touchscreen-compatible pair from Elma and highly recommend them) and a scarf if it's particularly cold and/or windy.

As suits have shrunk, so too has tailored outerwear. (Thom Browne)

I've noticed an interesting trend going on for the last few years though. It seems as if tailored outerwear is not only getting lighter, but much shorter too. Rather than 3/4 length, a lot of these are becoming more like 1/2 length -- barely a few inches longer than one's jacket! Why is this, exactly? It seems like just a few years ago we had our pick of full length, heavyweight overcoats. The only ones left now are pretty hard to find even from specialty makers, expensive, or rather low quality.

Okay, let's take a step back. What is full length? What is 3/4 length? Full length is basically any coat that hits below the knees, while 3/4 length stops just above the knees up to mid-thigh. Both have their uses, but this point is generally lost on modern manufacturers.

My friend Matt (The Suits of James Bond) theorizes that many people are now more concerned with mobility and versatility than how the outerwear piece will perform in their climate. Part of the reason could also be that not as many people are wearing coats over a tailored jacket anymore. He has noticed people in a lightweight, short topcoat with just a shirt and trousers underneath... even on the coldest days. They may be emulating what they see in fashion shoots instead of bundling up the way they should. Arguably, one doesn't need a heavyweight, full length overcoat in a place like New Mexico as badly. But those who live in colder climates than I do should probably prioritize better than just having one light and short piece. A couple years ago I had a rude awakening while visiting Canada. My lightweight wool and cashmere blend, 3/4 length topcoat didn't have the dense fabric or coverage to counter freezing winds and snow. My torso was cold, my knees were in pain, it was simply miserable. Now, it's worth noting that pure camelhair or cashmere will give the same light feel as those lightweight fabrics except with more warmth. But against freezing winds a heavyweight wool overcoating, such as the Melton fabric also used on pea coats, is still the best option due to its dense weave. Speaking of fabric, that may be another element to this trend. Wool and cashmere can get pretty costly, especially as an overcoating. So it may be in the interest of designer brands, especially middle-of-the-road ones like Express or Banana Republic, to make them as short and thin as possible while still referring to them as "overcoats".

People may be more influenced by fashion images such as this one than traditional use of overcoats. (Moss Bros.)

The other factor, as mentioned above, is fashion. Fashion currently dictates that one wear a short and tight suit with light fabrics and light construction. Similarly, overcoats are getting short, tight, and light. Even classic outerwear providers can't be counted upon. Crombie is one of the last to still carry full length coats, such as their King Coat and Greatcoat. Even so, most of their styles are 3/4 length -- somewhat understandable given the coat they are most known for is. On the other hand, the simple-but-stylish Westbury Cashmere Overcoat Presidents Trump and Obama have both worn is not even available at Brooks Brothers anymore. Well, it sort of is. In 3/4 length. Wouldn't be an issue if we could actually pick between the two or if they'd actually update the website to reflect the change. (According to a review in the above link, it was nearly a year ago the change was made but they still have not removed this listing.) It looked great at full length, plus more... presidential. Knowing this, is Trump the last "POTUS" we're going to see in a full length overcoat for a long time? I sure hope not.
President Obama's full length overcoat gives him more of a stately appearance, and warmth, than Vice President Biden's cropped variant. (Getty Images)

The same thing is being seen in rainwear, with trench coats from Burberry and Aquascutum similarly lacking the historical length that made them useful for storming trenches, as they got their name from, in the first world war. I have a raincoat from Banana Republic that is fairly authentic in style, but I hesitate actually calling it a "trench" coat due to the reduced length. We don't have the frequent downpours that other states such as Washington or Florida do, but I can't imagine wearing tailored clothing in a place like Seattle and not getting the full coverage needed along with an umbrella and overshoes. A hat would also come in handy, I'm sure. A 3/4 length Mackintosh-type rain coat is suitable for lighter rains, just as a 3/4 length topcoat is suitable for cool, but not downright freezing temperatures. However, when those are all that's available, these companies not only sell out part of what made them iconic, but prioritize short-term fashion over substance.

Modern cotton/nylon raincoat from Banana Republic compared to a vintage cotton/polyester trench coat from Brooks Brothers. Which one do you think Bogie would have worn?

Articles abound claiming that full length coats "can look outdated and stuffy" or something to that effect, but I'm not certain why. They're generally more elegant in appearance and have the side benefit of working on more body types than something that hits mid-thigh. I've been told full length coats are harder to get into a car with, but that doesn't really hold up if you simply remember not to catch the skirt in the door. Besides, is that slight inconvenience worth sacrificing other function when it's 20 degrees Fahrenheit and windy? I'm especially speaking for those who commute to work on foot daily.

Modern, light wool/cashmere topcoat from S. Cohen versus vintage, heavy pure wool Chesterfield overcoat from Brooks Brothers. One of these feels much more regal than the other.

Every time I've worn a full length overcoat it gets tons of compliments, perhaps because it stands out in a sea of short coats over here. I've also illustrated the difference in perception they can create above. However, anecdotal evidence isn't really the best to present and not everyone is going to listen to some little old blogger on the internet, let alone follow their example. So here are a couple examples of well-dressed people wearing full length overcoats for you to peruse. Would they look as dramatic in an overcoat that's barely longer than their jacket?

Cary Grant in 1956 wearing a double breasted overcoat by Crombie. Complete with wide lapels, built up shoulders, and a full length.

The full cut of Cary Grant's overcoat above, which is still sold today, goes along with the full cut suits worn back then. But there's no rule against getting something that fits a bit closer for today's trends in a full length. In fact, Daniel Craig wore just such a double breasted bridge coat, complete with ulster collar and half-belt, a few years ago in Spectre. The waist, helped by the adjustable half-belt, and sleeves are just fitted enough to look modern, yet pretty timeless since it's based on a naval overcoat that's been around for over a century. This is made of a far lighter fabric than the example above, but you get the idea.

Daniel Craig looks powerful in a funeral-appropriate, black bridge coat that falls just below the knee.

There's one aspect I haven't touched on yet, however. Height in relation to coat length. Just as with tailored jackets, tailored outerwear should ideally have a length proportionate to the wearer's height. The Modest Man posits that short men should not wear coats that go past the top of the knee, but I politely disagree. I may not have a "modest" height in comparison to Brock, being 6'2, but I think proportion is still key to pulling off whatever one chooses to wear. If one wants to look taller or more balanced out, it's acceptable to have a coat that goes just below the knees rather than middle of the shin. This will give the advantage of looking more elegant and feeling warmer without needing to resort to a 3/4 coat for the coldest, windiest weather. One bonus feature of overcoats is that they can be easily altered in length, since they have a straight bottom rather than curved as on a tailored single breasted jacket. Conversely, tall people can still wear 3/4 coats effectively by having them hit immediately above the knee, such as Roger Moore's Chesterfield overcoat below.

From Live and Let Die, 1973. Skimming the top of the knee harmonizes well with Moore's height and long legs. (ladymanson.com)

But what is one to do if full length overcoats are not easily found? Well, investing in made-to-measure or bespoke is one option. It can get pricey, of course, so money should be no object here. There are online tailors which you may save some cash with, but you really need a solid idea of the quality before buying and to get your measurements precise. Even then, it can be off, so at least make sure there is a good return and alterations reimbursement policy. There are a few affordable full length coats being made in the $250 range, such as those from Jean Paul Germain. Keep in mind the quality can get questionable at that price point and many of them are only available in black. Black overcoats are not terrible, but not as flexible as navy and charcoal. Heck, even this 100% cashmere overcoat is suspicious at $600.

If you know your sizes, you can also look for secondhand deals on eBay, Etsy, Poshmark, and specialty vintage stores. The charcoal herringbone Chesterfield I'm wearing above in this article came from someone I knew on a clothing forum, as did the trench coat. Consider vintage/surplus military outerwear as well, such as army greatcoats (very heavy, full length) or navy bridge coats (lighter, but also full length). Many of these will have brass or other metal buttons, but they can be exchanged with nice horn or corozo buttons of the same size for a more civilian-compatible appearance. I got a bridge coat for only $85 recently.

Other than that, I can only encourage both budding and seasoned menswear enthusiasts to keep buying the full length overcoats that are being sold. A quality overcoat will last decades if cared for properly. One can hope designers will reverse course at some point and give us the selection we had a decade ago.

Comments

  1. Can't help but think that another consideration is the lack of any place to put the bloody thing once you arrive at your destination. Ditto for hats and umbrellas. Cloakrooms have gone the way of the dodo, and few places even have coathooks any more. The shorter overcoat can just be draped over a chair back

    NCJack

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great point. The only place I've gone to in the last decade that has coat hooks is 1950s-style diner built in 1986. Before that, there was a cloakroom at a 1950s-themed, two-tiered diner in New York City. I think there's a reason for this recurring theme! Can't remember the name of it, but this was in 2004 when I was still rocking a puffer jacket.

      It is definitely more of a hassle to find a place for my full length coats now.

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