Style / May 2017

Style 101: The Safari Jacket

From the bush to the boulevard, the safari jacket has upended its roots and become a genuine style staple, and one of the most versatile pieces of clothing you can own.

It’s a little bit disconcerting how many staple menswear garments were born from the human being’s desire to kill. It’s no secret that many of the most widely worn men’s clothes first originated in the military: the pea coat, the bomber jacket (the A-1, A-2, G-1, MA-1 and the rest), the chino trouser, the parka, the list goes on. Yet it’s not surprising this is the case when you think about it. Clothing worn in combat needs to be useful. It needs to help the wearer and support them in their quest for survival in the field. It’s a matter of life or death, which is one of the reasons why the military, particularly the US and British Armies, have developed some of the most purposeful clothing of the 20th century - in order to avoid the latter and prolong the former. It is killing of another kind though - specifically the hunting of big game throughout the early 20th century - that gave rise to one of the most adaptable pieces of clothing: the safari jacket.

Origins

As its name suggests, the safari jacket was intended for use on safari in the African bush, with the term first cropping up in the mid 1930s. It can be traced back further than this however, to the Khaki Drill uniforms of the British Army, first introduced in 1900 when troops were stationed in South Africa during the Second Boer War. These soldiers required lightweight, breathable clothing that wouldn’t weigh them down in the heat, so their uniforms were made from khaki cotton drill and generally featured four large bellows pockets on the chest and waist, a large shirt collar, shoulder epaulettes and a belted waist. Although not exclusive to the Khaki Drill uniform of this period, after all, these features are emblematic of the US Army’s M-1943 field jacket that came along later, the Khaki Drills marked the first time this specific pocket/epaulette/belt combination was utilised, and it was wildly effective.

It’s not hard to see why. For one, the bellows pockets increased carrying capacity tenfold, the wide collar sat happily spread across the chest, helping with cooling, and the belt around the waist ensured everything stay put, which came in handy when trekking across unruly terrain. All of these attributes were benefits of the safari jacket too, when it first started appearing a few decades later. It’s unknown who made the first jacket, but the style was a clear evolution of the British Khaki Drill uniform. Some early safari jackets altered the design slightly: the shoulder epaulettes were removed, offering a cleaner, more civilian approach, and the belt was crafted from the same cotton drill as the body of the jacket, as opposed to the stiff leather belts tied around the waist previously. Comfort was of as much importance as practicality. The jacket was first adopted by well-to do men and women from western Europe who were seduced by the idea of gallivanting across Africa and subsequently contributing to the endangered species list. The jacket’s cavernous pockets were useful for carrying bullets and knives, but there was also plenty of room for binoculars, maps, rollable wide-brimmed safari hats as well as a cigar or two.

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Charlie Thomas

Charlie Thomas is a former staffer at The Rake.