In The Navy– The Pea coat/Reefer Jacket and Bridge Coat

Written by Jason Disley
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When you do some research on the Pea coat you find some different origins. Probably, like with many things that people independently of each other, they have had the same idea or at least quite similar ideas to solve a problem.

In the case of the Pea coat, the problem to solve was how to protect a sailor/person from wind and rain. Before the invention of rubberised fabrics and the types of waterproofing we are used to today, the options were limited to what was available. As we have seen, the popularity of woolen clothing goes back a long way, and its practical application for many garments is very clear. The Pea coat was no exception.

the pea coat 1

Pea coats (or pea jackets ) were originally worn by sailors in the European and later American Navy. They have been used for well over 300 years, and have achieved almost legendary status.

The word pea most likely stems from the Dutch or West Frisian word pijjekker. The pij referred to the coarse kind of twilled blue fabric with a nap on one side, and jekker is associated with a jacket. The fabric goes back to the 16th century.

At that time, the Dutch were very big in world trade, and had a very strong naval component, as did of course Britain. In the British language, the Pea coat was often called a Reefer.

In America, the earliest mention of the Pea coat is during the 1720s. The reason it seems, that the coat became known as a Reefer Jacket, is because a “Reefer” was referring to the sailors who would climb the rigging of a ship, and would wear such a coat that was reasonably short, it’s length just sitting below the hips, it also had a slight flare to the skirt allowing for ease of movement. Officers, who would not be seen doing such tasks had longer coats, coats which of course helped keep them warmer – these were often referred to as Bridge Coats.

Originally, the collar on the Pea coat was designed, to serve sailors exposed to the inevitable cold and open winds at sea. The collar can be worn up, almost like a half hood, without impairing the sailor's sight. Although not applicable to most who wear a Pea coat now regarding the open winds at sea, but with winter coming it could be a great contingency plan responding to a winter cold snap when without key accessories. Turning the collar up would at least keep you both a bit more sheltered and warmer.

The other standardised feature of the coat is the double-breasted front. It gives a real feeling of integrity and class to the coat, even though the far side buttons will never be used, and are there for show. (Although I do suppose, if you lost a button, you would have spares to choose from!)

Aside from these two main features, there is often the inclusion of two slanted pockets reasonably high up on the jacket for the purpose of keeping the sailor’s hands warm and dry when not carrying out important tasks.

The material

This double-breasted coat was typically made from navy-colored heavy wool. Historically, until the 1970s, in the US Navy, Pea coats were made from 30oz (approx. 850g) dark blue wool, most often heavy Melton cloth. Modern pea coats are made from 22–32oz (620–910g) wool in a variety of colours. The heavy Melton wool is durable and tight. The latter makes it a great insulator to keep out cold and wind, and even some sea spray or rain.

While enjoying steady popularity among civilians since their introduction, Pea Coats saw a sharp increase in demand during the 1960s, as military surplus fashion became chic in the midst of the anti-war movement protesting against conflicts such as the one that was happening in Vietnam. As second-hand military attire became a key element in Hippie fashion, pea coats became the preferred winter coat for the flower children. While green Army jackets fell in-and-out of style in subsequent decades due to an intimate association with the anti-war movement. The Pea coat drifted into mainstream tastes and has never really left.

In part, the Pea coat’s staying power is a result of never being merely a counterculture symbol. From hip college students to high society, the Pea coat was ubiquitous. The jacket was just as prevalent with hippies and the anti-establishment as it was with the establishment.

Robert Redford made the pea coat a staple of his look. His style in Three Days of the Condor, was anchored by a black Pea coat, and remains iconic to this day and helped establish the jacket’s hard masculine edge. Many other celebrities from Music and Film have worn a Pea coat, firmly establishing it as a staple of a stylish wardrobe.

I remember seeing a photo of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones that was taken in 1965 by Pierre Fournier where he is looking typically Mod in jeans, Cuban heeled boots, a short jacket, and then a Pea coat resting on his shoulders, all topped with a little cap, and thinking, wow that’s a cool look, and since then I have always liked the style of such a coat.

Its style has changed very little over the years, and these days you can see many coats use the style of the Pea coat as a template. It can come in different fabrics, including Leather, and has spawned many variations thanks to its double-breasted fastening, and large collar.

It really is a smart and practical style, that has really made itself one of the most popular coat styles we have today. The reason for this is because it’s aforementioned double-breasted fastening, has echoes of smart tailoring, and when a Pea coat is worn during the second half of the year, it not only makes the wearer warm but looks extremely smart also. As with so many popular items of clothing, there is not only its original purpose but its ability to please the eye and last for a long time. A decent Pea coat can last for years, and really never goes out of fashion.


Read 1133 times Last modified on Saturday, 07 November 2020 16:41
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Jason Disley

Jason Disley

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