G. Bruce Boyer on the Raglan Coat
I hadn’t seen a nice overcoat for a while. Actually, overcoats had fallen out of style with the hyper-casualisation of the wardrobe in favour of shorter parkas and field-type coats. But with the resurgence of an interest in tailored clothing, they’re being seen again. And a good thing too. First there was the martingale model, making its presence known a few seasons ago, with its structured square shoulders, body tracing, and half-belted back with multi-buttoned vent. A very dressy city coat.
But what about the more casual and comfortable balmacaan, I wondered? And then Drake’s showed me their interpretation. It’s got a slightly narrower body and shorter length than the older version for a more contemporary silhouette, but without losing any of its comfort and panache.
The name is derived from the Scottish estate near Inverness where it is said to have been first seen in the 19th century, most likely designed by refashioning the ancient plaid wrapped garments worn by Highlanders for centuries. The traditional coat was made for comfort and warmth in the mists and damp of a Scottish winter. More like a blanket with sleeves.
Basically, the balmacaan is an unstructured overcoat usually made up in hearty tweeds and practical design details. A serviceable collar that can be turned up against the elements, and fly-front closure to prevent the horn buttons from snagging on branches and brambles; buttoned sleeve straps to keep out wind and rain; a split raglan two-piece shoulder (rather than a set-in shoulder) for ease of movement. An eminently practical coat to wear over tailoring or chunky knitwear.
Worn in the Scottish Highlands since the mid-19th century, it didn’t come into popularity generally until 1929, when the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, and Duke of Windsor), a clothes horse and fashion maverick if there ever was one, arrived at the Epsom Derby wearing this stout country coat, instantly making it a popular alternative to more structured coats. He preferred his in bold tweed checks and plaids. The style came to be particularly favoured in the USA by college students, who appreciated the versatility and natural swagger of the garment, and by the mid-1930s only shared its popularity on campus with the camel hair polo coat.
Since then, the overcoat has been considered a classic, seemingly immune to the whims of fashion and winds of change. It might be a bit longer or shorter, a tad fuller or narrower in silhouette, but the basic design has remained the same for over 150 years because the combined balance of handsome tailoring, good cloth, and practical styling are virtually unrivalled in the history of the gentleman’s wardrobe.
Just for the record, Drake’s has added a few nice touches to theirs for a bit of urban élan, but still in keeping with the Highland utility of the garment. For all but very dressy occasions, this is a perfect overcoat for town, country, and travel. Always has been.