Winston Chesterfield: Thoughts on a Proper Coat

mens coats

Ask any man what he prioritises big ticket clothing spend on and the answer, though likely to vary somewhat, will probably center on one of the following: suits and shoes (we’ll come to the ‘proper coat’ shortly).

Many of the leading menswear commentators recommend that a man looking to ‘invest’ in clothing that will last and outlive transient fashions should focus on these two categories – spending less on shirts, ties and other accessories.

When budgets are particularly tight, many menswear writers recommend focusing the spend purely on one category – footwear, in which a hefty spend of £1000 can acquire one or perhaps two pairs of shoes that will last at least a decade or more with proper care.

The above commandments appear to have finally trickled down from these great heights to the concerns of ordinary citizens, whose feet have never before turned into Savile Row.

A friend who had always previously acquired cheap high street shoes recently asked me for an opinion on the ‘merits of a Crockett & Jones shoe vs a Church shoe.’

Another, now racing through his very grown-up mid-thirties (which he describes as his Blue Period), had previously giggled at my suit wardrobe but now required a reliable recommendation for ‘3-4 very good suits that will last me until my fortieth birthday.’

Whilst this is all very encouraging – and long overdue – it does seem to me a shame that men can become so blinkered in their approach to improving their wardrobe.

Despite the fact that they are armed with advice from great prophets of menswear, they can often overlook the fact that all categories need attention to some degree and that a pair of Gaziano & Girling shoes, paired with an ill-fitting suit, does not an acceptable ensemble make.

One category that is frequently neglected is that of smart outerwear. Having endured a relatively chilly and surprisingly dry London winter thus far, I have had many opportunities to see how the sartorially determined everyman is dressing for the cold weather.

Generally, it is safe to say that in matters of outerwear for the metropolis, the London gentleman still lacks a good deal of knowledge – and ambition.

The majority of men, particularly the young, wear waterproof;  North Face jackets, down-filled parkas from Canada Goose or cheap-looking topcoats.

This is in spite the fact that they are also wearing what looks like a three piece from the likes of Suit Supply or shoes from Loake.

I know someone who possesses four very good suits from a City tailor, 3 pairs of Northampton-made shoes. Yet he wanders around in the cold wearing a black, poly-wool abomination of a belted coat from H&M. See him without a coat, with correctly cut trousers and a sculpted jacket, and the effect is striking; put the coat on and he may as well not be wearing the suit at all.

Winston Chesterfield wears a classic Guards coat. A guards coat is a proper coat.
The author wearing his vintage Guards coat.

Well-made overcoats are not common. The majority of menswear stores, even those classified as ‘luxury’, do not sell coats in the kind of weighty, bulletproof wool that will last.

They are in thinner, cheaper fabrics (low-grade wools and man-made fibres) that are not only less warm and durable, but also have less structure and drape to them.

The days of Studd & Millington’s ‘Studington’ coats (‘…made by people who only make overcoats’) are sadly over. One of their famous advertisements from 1921 shows how much the specialists of the past focused on the durability of their products:

“When buying an overcoat, you should take into consideration the same points as if you were buying a car, when you would demand comfort, appearance and, above all, long service…”

All this for six and a half guineas, which in today’s money is just shy of £300. To get this level of coat now requires a more significant investment; made to measure or bespoke tailors.

Getting a bespoke coat will cost from £1500 for a decent cloth, but the heavy, military-weight wool cloths that proper overcoats should be made of will probably cost a bit more.

Proper Coat Fabric

Wool is the only game in town. Forget cashmere. You’re not a girl, you don’t need baby-skin-smooth outerwear. It will cost you a lot more, won’t be as durable and is no warmer than a decent wool.

If anything, even the wool you choose shouldn’t be too soft, as these tend to wear more easily. Harder wools, such as those used in old Guards coats, are also so stiff that they maintain their shape even when worn open in hard London winds. Moths also love soft, young wools – as they do cashmere – so in the interests of your coat lasting longer than you wear it (I inherited an early 1980s great coat from my father), go for a stiff, thick wool.

Proper Coat Style

Most men who actually buy proper coats seem to favour topcoats, which are lighter and shorter than proper overcoats.

They fall to just above the knee and the trend currently is to choose a single-breasted, notch lapel Chesterfield or Covert design. Many of the latter are also adorned with a velvet rear collar.

My own view is that a Paletot or Guards style coat is a better solution if you want a proper coat. Peak lapelled and double-breasted with six buttons, it can also be worn open, weather permitting.

It is a more fitted coat and in the right fabric, can be given a very pronounced waist. The pinch at the waist then creates a slightly flared silhouette, which is considerably elegant.

Paletot designs of this kind were popular in the interwar years through to the mid 1940s. They were briefly revived in the 1980s. Given the return to the traditional early 20th century aesthetic that defines so much of formal menswear now, I think they are due another renaissance.

Proper Coat Colour

In order for a coat to have the maximum utility and longevity, thought must be given to what it is being used for and when it will be used.

Unsurprisingly, darker colours will fare better over the years, with the exception of black which fades to grey with use.

Brown coats are attractive, but they are deemed less formal and they will show age sooner.

Instead, for an investment coat worn primarily over suits, I would choose navy. It will work with both grey and blue suits – the most popular colours – and is smart enough to wear with evening clothes. ML