Sew Over/Under: A short history of (some) coats and jackets

I do love a good coat. It’s a real weakness of mine — I have them dotted across two continents and multiple storage locations! So when I found out the Sewcialists Theme Month was going to be Sewing Over/Under I was very excited.

I loved the previous little glimpses into the rich history of what we choose to put on our bodies and jumped at the chance to do the same for my much-loved outerwear. Researching outerwear was tricky; it’s necessary for protection from the weather, but because it’s also the first part of an outfit you see, outerwear has always had symbolic meaning in the history of human clothing. Coats and jackets have been used to signify political allegiances, class, and profession; have prompted legislation and been symbols of protest. There is so much to say about these garments, so I decided to briefly look at some of the influences on current popular styles.

After I identified some classic styles, I delved into the rabbit hole of internet research and was surprised to learn that a significant number of these were popularized through military association. Here are a few:

Duffle Coat

The distinctive Duffle or Duffel Coat may stem from the Polish Military Frock Coat of the 1800s but gained widespread popularity following World War II. A staple piece of kit for the British military, after the war ended surplus coats were sold at reduced prices. Bought by cash-strapped students and artists in the 1950s and 1960s, the military history of the coat was almost entirely left behind when it became the uniform for the Ban the Bomb protesters in the United Kingdom.

Two women in a war office in Britain, 1944. One woman is seated and on the telephone; another woman, standing, brings an armful of documents. The seated woman is in uniform, while the standing woman is in a duffel coat and carries her gloves.

Two Women’s Royal Naval Service personnel on duty, one wearing a duffel coat, the other on the telephone – Imperial War Museum archives, England, UK, 1944

Haori

The Haori jacket was popularized for the opposite reason. Rather than being a cheap, widely available garment it was originally worn only by the ruling warriors of Japan in the Edo period. The ornate Haori soon became a must-have item for the wealthy middle classes. Keen to preserve the elite nature of the jacket, laws were passed banning decorated Haori for those who were neither noblemen nor warriors. To get around the laws, the middle classes championed “hidden beauty,” using stunning lining inside subdued Haori. These jackets, along with Kimono and other significant cultural items were often passed down through generations. Today, the Haori jacket continues to hold an important place in Japanese culture.

Two people in traditional Japanese dress, stand looking at the camera. One is holding a large umbrella.

Two people in traditional Japanese dress, stand looking at the camera. One is holding a large umbrella. Kashio Family, 1858-1868

Leather Jacket

The leather jacket still hasn’t quite left its military history behind. Created for early aviators and motorcyclists, and rechristened the “bomber jacket” after World War II, for many the leather jacket was a symbol of daring and unconventionality. Into the 1960s and the leather jacket was a key part of the iconic, militaristic uniform of the Black Panther Party; a symbol of unity, of power and of rebellion. The ubiquity of the leather jacket in fashion over the next 50 years has softened its power to subvert but you only have to consider the reaction to Jenny Beavan wearing her own leather jacket to the Oscars to see it may not have entirely lost its edge.

A male Black Panther member addresses the crowd at a rally, speaking from a podium in front of a banner showing an upraised fist, and the slogan “Black Panther Party: All power to the people/De macht aan het volk”. The speaker wears a dark leather jacket and a scarf, along with dark sunglasses.

Black Panther Party member gives speech in front of a poster in the 1960s. Dutch Archive photograph, R Mieromat.

Poncho

The traditional South American poncho was originally made and worn by the indigenous people of the Andes. The Mapuche people in particular, living in what is now Chile and Argentina, were renowned for their mastery of exquisite weaving to create blankets and poncho of the highest quality. Variations existed for agriculture, celebrations and travel while beautiful, decorative weaving signified the status and occupation of the wearer. European colonists brought elements of European design and materials to this traditional garment. Soon (you guessed it) the military took note of this practical cloak, and the United States military still have a cloak they call a “poncho” as standard issue kit to this day, although it’s a million miles from its original design.

The man on horseback wears a striped poncho. The woman leading the horse carries a large bundle of wheat, which obscures her brightly patterned skirt and her blouse.

A huaso wearing a poncho and riding a horse is lead through a field of wheat by a woman. Available through the United States Library of Congress archives.

Denim Jacket

Not all coats and jackets have military connections. The classic denim jacket was first designed as a durable and practical work jacket for labourers in the West in the U.S.A. by Levi Strauss. The denim jacket has had so many resurgences through the decades, it was banned by some U.S. schools in the 1950s because of its perceived link to juvenile delinquency. It was ripped and emblazoned by British punks in the 1970s, while also worn with tassels and rhinestones by country music stars. It was embraced by grunge culture in the 1990s but also by the Spice Girls, and worn with fabulous double denim aplomb by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake in the 2000s. The denim jacket has been both establishment and anti-establishment, a real jacket for everyone! 

A crowd shot of the audience at a punk concert, from behind, focused on a pair of concert-goers with bleached and dyed spiked hair. The one closest to the camera wears a cut-off denim jacket covered in an anti-nuclear slogan and tightly-packed metal spikes.

Two punks with large mohicans are seen at a music festival. The nearest is wearing a studded, armless denim jacket. Achird, 2010.

Thobe

The Thobe or Thawb or Tobe is an ankle length (although this does vary) robe worn by people in the Arabian peninsula, throughout the Middle East, and some North and East African countries (although the name can vary). In Sudan, in the run-up to independence from the British Empire, the previously expensive tobes were more available and started to take on symbolic status for Sudanese women. They were given names like “Freedom” and “The Republic” and represented national and personal pride. The fabric itself has often not survived but the pride in and stories of the clothes have lived on. Similarly highly decorative thobes have become symbolic of Palestinian nationalism and are highly prized heirlooms for those living within the country and in the diaspora. Recently, newly appointed Member of Congress for the United States of America Rashida Tlaib wore her mother’s thobe to her swearing in ceremony and started a viral hashtag (#TweetYourThobe).

A man stands on a dirt street in Somaliland, wearing a loose white thobe, hands in his pockets. He has more white fabric twisted around his head. Two women pass behind him, wearing more brightly coloured garments, and two goats look on.


A man, photographed in Somaliland, wears a long, white thobe and head scarf. There are goats and two women behind him. B. Dell, 2011.


I hope you enjoyed this little journey round the world in some of the wonderful and varied coats and jackets and are feeling inspired to make some new outerwear in Sew Over/Under in August.

There are so many more styles and stories I couldn’t fit them all in! Which is your favourite coat or jacket? Let us know if we missed out one of your favourite styles in the comments. What are you planning to make in Sew Over/Under month?


If you are interested in reading more about the coats and jackets featured here, I got inspiration and information from:

Duffel Coat: https://www.makemagazine.co.uk/issue/issue-8-the-secret-issue/icons-the-duffle-coat/

Haori Jacket: https://wafuku.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/2974/

Leather Jacket: https://www.jacketsociety.com/history-leather-jacket/ https://www.cbsnews.com/news/power-to-the-people-the-rise-of-the-black-panthers/

Poncho: http://www.clothestellstories.com/index.php/telling-stories-with-clothes/ponchos#roots

Denim Jacket: https://www.glamour.com/story/fall-fashion-essentials-jacket-denim-c

Thobe: https://history.ku.edu/cherry-picked-‘khartoum-night’-looks-sudanese-history-through-fashion

All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are in the Public Domain.

Sophy is from England but currently lives and sews in Hong Kong. She is a Sewcialists Editor and can be found online at @sophy_sews_hk.


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