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The History of the Duffle Coat

An iconic overcoat with a true European heritage, the duffle coat has remained a staple of cold-weather wear for well over a century. After making its mark as a utilitarian garment in the military, the duffle coat has navigated its way into all corners of popular culture, worn by everyone from Paul McCartney to Paddington Bear.

We’re taking a moment to explore the history of the duffle coat and just how this timeless piece of outerwear toggled itself into our wardrobes.

What is a Duffle Coat?

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A duffle coat is a hooded overcoat constructed from a thick, heavyweight woolen material with large toggle fastenings. A representative characteristic of the duffle coat, these toggles are often horn-shaped and traditionally thread through a leather or rope loop fastening. Because duffle coats are built for cold weather, they typically come in a loose fitting to allow room for winter-ready layering.

History

The exact origins of the duffle coat are unconfirmed. However, it is generally accepted that the contemporary ‘British’ duffle coat was designed in the 1850s by John Partridge, a British purveyor of outerwear. Partridge’s original duffle coats were shorter and even roomier than modern duffle coats, and it is theorized that he was inspired by Polish ‘frock coats’ of the early nineteenth century. The Polish frock coat featured wide toggle closures and a large ‘bucket’ hood, two archetypal duffle coat hallmarks.

The duffle coat is thought to be named after the Belgian town of Duffel, known for producing a thick woolen cloth known as ‘Duffel Cloth’. This heavyweight cloth was similar to that used for the British duffle coats made by John Partridge.

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Navy officers in duffle coats via Gloverall

The Navy purchased large quantities of the duffle coat in the late nineteenth century. Referred to by servicemen as the ‘convoy coat’, the first military-issue duffle coats came in a camel-brown colorway. The duffle coat was engineered to meet the needs of Naval officers embarking on long voyages in frozen conditions. As well as being a roomy outer layer that could easily fit over a military uniform, the duffle coat’s large toggles allowed seamen to easily fasten the coat while wearing thick gloves and the oversized hood could fit over a naval cap. The densely woven woolen cloth was naturally water-resistant and the spacious patch pockets could easily hold binoculars and other naval equipment. After its success in the navy, the duffle coat soon became standard issue to all military services and was famously sported by the esteemed General Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery who served in both World Wars.

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General Bernard Montgomery (right) in a Military-issue Duffle Coat via De Toujours

Just like many other utilitarian garments, the duffle coat worked its way into civilian fashion through military surplus stock. Vast quantities of duffle coats were left over from World War II and offered to many western clothing distributors, including British outerwear brand, Gloverall. Gloverall acquired a large number of duffle coats in the early 1950s, which saw the military overcoat rocket in popularity. The duffle coat became so popular that when stocks began to dwindle in 1953, Gloverall introduced the first fully civilian duffle coat.

Gloverall’s duffle coat was equipped with forward-thinking updates that set it apart from its military-issued counterparts. As well as scaling down the pockets and hood, a lighter-weight cloth was chosen, making for a more nimble overcoat that would attract a male and female audience. The new Gloverall duffle even featured a smooth satin lining for added comfort and class.

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Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel wearing duffle coats on the set of the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge via Voxsartoria

By the late 1950s, the duffle coat had become a fashion phenomenon. The now-iconic overcoat was donned by young free-thinking intellectuals and celebrities alike. The duffle coat was also adopted by beatniks in the US, and Mods in the UK. David Bowie famously sported a chocolate brown duffle coat in his 1976 movie, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’.

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Beatles fans in Melbourne, 1964, via Pinterest

One of the most famous appearances of the duffle coat is on Paddington Bear, a fictional character created by writer Michael Bond in 1958. In Bond’s first Paddington story, Paddington Bear is found in a London train station with a label attached to his navy duffle coat that reads “Please look after this bear. Thank you” – a subtle reference to the brown labels worn around the necks of British child evacuees in World War II. Paddington Bear’s lost-and-found story captured the hearts of the post-war generation and the character has since become a much-loved part of British culture.

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An illustration of Paddington Bear via R.W. Alley

Duffle Coats on the Market Today

Buzz Rickson’s BR13590 Duffle Coat

Buzz Rickson's BR13590 Duffle Coat Navy

Military-repro specialists Buzz Rickson’s pay homage to the duffle coat with this full-length rendition that features all the hallmarks of an authentic military issue duffle. Built from 32 oz. Melton Wool, this duffle coat features a three toggle closure with fastenings made from natural wood and linen rope. Each piece is made in Japan and comes complete with two large open patch pockets, buttoned sleeve adjusters, and a throat latch.

Available from Clutch Cafe for £659 (~$845USD)

Gloverall Original Monty Duffle Coat

Camel Montgomery Duffle Coat

Gloverall is still making their original duffle coats to this day and their Original Monty Coat is about as authentic as it gets. Named after the aforementioned General Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery, this piece is seen here in the archetypal camel colorway that featured on the military-issue duffle coats of WWI. Gloverall has constructed this duffle from a fine Italian wool blend with a cotton herringbone webbing interior. It also features reinforced shoulders, dual open patch pockets, and of course, wooden toggles with jute rope fastenings.

Available at Gloverall for £337.50 (~$432USD).