Long before there was The North Face or Marmot or Patagonia, there was another outdoor outfitter innovating with materials, fit and construction to provide peak performance under the most adverse of conditions. The United States military. No matter what you think of what they do or where they do (or have done) it, it’s impossible to ignore its clothing design achievements, and not just in the technical sense. Considering how Uncle Sam’s influence has trickled down into the most civilian of fashions, he should rightly get the credit he deserves as one of modern civilization’s most influential haberdashers.
The Development of the N-1 Deck Coat
With needs at the outside edge of the “workwear” spectrum, military clothing has a long history of letting form follow function (the large slit up the back of a duster made it a whole lot easier for the Calvary to ride horses in jackets…not that the horses were wearing jackets…you know what I mean). And while this entire site could be devoted to military clothing and its influence on contemporary fashion, today let’s focus on one specific garment, one that will make as much sense in the fall and winter of 2017 as it did onboard a Navy destroyer in 1944: the N-1 Deck Coat (N1DC).
The N1DC is the successor to the Peacoat, and while that classic design served the Navy well (not to mention every retailer on earth from L.L. Bean to J.Crew to Georgio Armani), its practicality as a garment for braving the high seas was more 1840s than 1940s. After all, there was WWII to win! (I never cease to be amazed that companies like Buzz Rickson make such a painstakingly detailed reproduction of the N1DC–as they do of so many WWII-era items–in Japan. Man, talk about forgive and forget.) Initially, the Navy was using a design similar to the Army’s Winter Combat/Tanker Jacket, but by late 1943 a brand spanking new 100% Navy-designed model was proudly on the backs of American sailors–the N1DC. All of the innovations in the new and improved N1DC were brilliant in their simplicity, and 100% of them have found their way into garments from that day forward. In fact, the design elements are so pervasive that most who have assimilated them likely have no idea that they once held a “gee whiz” appeal.
Features of the N-1 Deck Coat
For the exterior, we’re talking a heavy corded cotton grosgrain (often referred to jungle cloth, though not while sailing the North Atlantic), a slightly-longer-than-waist-length shell to protect from the weather (initially in dark blue, then khaki–the most classic–and finally olive drab), an alpaca (rounded) collar and lining, a knit cuff hidden up in the sleeve to keep warmth in and prevent snags (this was apparently a big problem), gusseted underarms for extended range of motion with eyelets added to aid in ventilation, a drawstring at the waist to keep out the draft (the only one you could avoid at the time), roomy slash pockets, and a buttoned flap as an added layer of security over the zippered front. If you have three or four warm weather coats in your closet, you likely have this full menu of features spread amongst them.
The N-1 Deck Coat Today
Like so many of the vintage-inspired items that have become “mainstream” fashion, it’s hard to imagine a sailor returning home from WWII and lovingly packing away his N1DC for posterity (though thankfully some did, and if you feel like applying for a second mortgage, you can buy one of them tomorrow). This was his old uniform, just as old Levi’s and Red Wings, etc. were workwear, what you wore to keep your “good clothes” clean.
(Imagine the post-war days when these could be had for a song as “surplus.”) Today, this jacket would be your “good clothes”, and heaven help the waiter who spills an artisanal cocktail or roasted brussels sprout on it. Modern interpretations don’t come cheap, and depending how deep you want to go down the rabbit hole (greater adherence to original Navy “specs” = a great adherence to your credit card’s spending limit), you can choose your own adventure.
Poking around the internet, you can certainly find super-cheapo knockoffs that kinda’ sorta’ look like the originals, but those are all made overseas (think China and India, not Japan), and at $90-$150, are surely made under dubious circumstances. Below are the leading contenders for space in our closet, most of them Japanese brands, and you have to love the poetic irony of a once-Axis power selling our own history back to us at a huge premium.
Modern N-1 Reproductions
My favorite is made by the aforementioned Buzz Rickson who have been so exacting in their reproduction (“Vintage-style 1943 brass CONMATIC zipper”) that, even if you had no intention of wearing the jacket, you kind of want to buy one just to insure that a company like them keeps making clothes like this.
Available for $400 at History Preservation.
Mister Freedom makes a nice version, less faithful than Buzz Rickson’s (metal closures instead of buttons), but more fashion forward in black.
Available for $800 at Mister Freedom.
Pike Brothers (a German company…really, you can’t make this stuff up) makes a version in khaki for 299 Euros.
Available for 299 EUR at Pike Brothers.
And lastly, for my money (and believe me, I’m speaking entirely figuratively here), the nicest of the lot and most appropriate for everyday wear…that is, every day that mouton fur feels appropriate…is Portland, Oregon’s own Dehen, their waxed cotton version fetching a hefty $1250. That may seem steep, but remember–the N-1 Deck Jacket gave our boys in Navy Blue (or Khaki or Olive Drab) the protection from the elements necessary for them to protect the world from tyranny. This coat is having “a moment,” so maybe think about picking one up. The world is still a scary place–you don’t need me to tell you that the frozen food section of Whole Foods can be some mean streets.
Available for $1,250 at Dehen.