Essays Style

The Special Relationship: How Britain Shaped American Style

By G. Bruce Boyer

Feb 15, 2024

The Special Relationship: How Britain Shaped American Style

Today the British waxed cotton field jacket is ubiquitous, seen on Italian businessmen in Milan and on couples in the hamlets of Connecticut, on French vintners among the vines of Burgundy, university students in Tokyo, film stars in Mumbai and fishermen off the coast of Maine, and commuters from Stockholm to Toronto. We wear it in the fields and on the boulevards because it has both the functionality we need and the style that adapts to any mood. I remember years ago I first saw businessmen in Milan wearing the jacket over their flannel suits and thought it a marvellous display of sprezzatura.

But until roughly the middle of the 20th Century, the stalwart rain-resistant coat was worn mainly by the Brits, who of course invented the garment. Out of necessity no doubt, wanting the protection from inclement weather while hunting, fishing, sailing, riding, or merely taking a stroll in the countryside. The waxed cotton coat provided warmth, repelled water like an otter, and cleaned up easily. And function is so often the mother of style.

King Charles, to my mind, should get a great deal of credit for popularising this redoubtable jacket, he seems to be wearing one in every other photo I’ve ever seen of him. Over the years I’ve watched the patches on his coat grow and grow until it now looks like it’s more patches than coat as he saunters along with his blackthorn walking stick and rubber Wellies. Good for him, he’s a public advert and advocate for sustainability.

But getting back to the history for a moment, the influence of British style on the most American approach to dress – Ivy or preppy style, whichever nomenclature you prefer – is both long and deep. The early 20th Century was awash here in the States with British-influenced gear, via Oxford, Cambridge, and London’s Savile Row.

Thanks in part to another British king, the then Prince of Wales who was known as “the Empire’s best salesman” and later the uncrowned Edward VIII who was the preeminent style-setter of his age. But even before that, New York’s best-known clothing emporium Brooks Brothers (that oldest and most renowned clothing store in the States) was importing Scottish tweed and English rainwear, Fair Isle and Shetland knits, repp silk neckwear, and polo coats, not to mention the famous “polo-collared shirt” we think of as the button-down.

All these items became instant essential elements of the campus Ivy wardrobe. In the first half of the 20th Century, the Oxford-Princeton connection was an influential and creative sartorial nexus created by university students to fit their lives on campus. Inevitably the casual and comfortable tweed jackets, Shetland pullovers, flannel trousers and the rest of it trickled then flowed into everyday wear.

In addition to these devoted and sublimely stylish British items – and we should include Argyle hose, chukka boots, Highland and Island tweeds here as well -- we must now add the waxed cotton jacket, whose British history goes back not only to country field and stream sports but to the military because its special protective properties were seen to be useful in the designing of uniforms for both sailors and soldiers on the battlefield as well as above it and on the high seas. While both before and after WWII, many clothing manufacturers interested in producing active sportswear and uniforms experimented with nylon, vinyl, and other artificial fabrics and finishes for rainwear and other outdoor gear, but the waxed cotton garments continued to be championed by sportsmen in growing numbers in the UK.

There is this modern historical truth about clothes, since the end of the 17th century at least, that wherever functionality goes – as with sportsmen and the military – fashion will eventually follow.  The point in all this is simply to say that that the British waxed cotton field coat, in its variety of designs, has the heritage and functionality to make it a classic many times over. I’m not one much for predictions, but I would hazard to say it will continue to be one. And a damned stylish one at that.

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