The History of the Pea Coat

Set sail on an exploration of the oceangoing history and functional nautical style of menswear essential, the pea coat.

Gregory Peck on the set of The Guns of Navarone, 1961. Photograph by Alamy.

The Spartans may have been renowned as brutal warriors, but in fact they were a pragmatic bunch, wearing a cloak and tunic (known as a chitōn) in deep crimson to disguise bloody injuries in battle. In the millennia since the time of King Leonidas and his fellow heroes of Thermopylae, military garments have continued to be designed with practical concerns in mind, which explains why so many menswear staples are derived from martial attire. Form following function is, after all, the essence of good design.

Chinos, T-shirts, trench coats, the necktie (descended from the red scarves worn, for much the same viscera-obscuring reason the Spartans wore crimson, by mercenary Croats — hence the moniker ‘cravat’), cargo pants, desert boots, bomber jackets, aviator sunglasses, even the suit… The list of fundamental men’s garments born on the battlefield goes on and on. Add to that tally, our focus today is the pea coat.

Sharing DNA with another style essential of naval origin, the blazer, the modern-day pea coat is based on outerwear initially worn by sailors from the Netherlands, Great Britain and the US in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Dutch are generally credited as inventors and can almost certainly claim naming rights: it’s broadly held that pea coat is derived from the word ‘pijjakker’ — ‘pij’ (pronounced ‘pee’) describing the robust blue woollen cloth used and ‘jakker’ being a man’s short, heavy coat. Some argue that the American description of the garment as a pilot’s coat provides the pea’s provenance. All observers agree that the green vegetal type found in pods (or causing princesses sleeping difficulties) have nothing to do with it.

A pea coat may look stylish as all get out, but its lines are purely functional. The coat was cut shorter to give greater freedom of leg movement to the sailors who first wore it, men known as ‘reefers’, tasked with unfurling sails and climbing in a ship’s vertiginous mast rigging, who would’ve found a long coat cumbersome — potentially, life-threateningly so. These hardy seamen lend the garment its alternative epithet, reefer jacket.


November 2021


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