Duffle coats are for kids and Peter Pan? It’s time you had a history lesson
In 2011, a writer for the British newspaper, The Guardian, called the duffle coat the ‘Peter Pan of coats’, adding that it was for ‘boys and girls who don’t want to grow up’. Then, as now, that description of a duffle coat confused us. It suggests that duffle coats are only for school children and that, sooner or later, the discerning adult will mature and buy a ‘proper’ Winter coat.
But after some hard thinking, we’ve worked out how the writer got it so wrong; she just didn’t know the rich history of the traditional duffle coat. And in case you’re also unaware of the origins of the duffle coat, allow us to enlighten you…
The royal navy and the duffle coat
In 1860, the British Royal Navy issued a design template for a ‘universal utility garment’ for all ranks of the Navy to wear at sea. The Ideal Clothing Company undertook the commission and made duffle coats for the first time. The original duffle coats were made from a thick, woollen material produced in the Belgian town of Duffel, although the name has become anglicised over the years. Nowadays ‘duffel’ and ‘duffle’ are used interchangeably.
30 years later, in 1890, the Royal Navy marines wore duffle coats as part of their official uniform on an expedition to Antarctica. The hard-wearing coat was deemed to be ideal for withstanding sub-zero temperatures and the marines could fasten the wooden toggles without removing their gloves. The early duffle coats were mid-thigh length with thigh straps to secure the coat in high winds.
Field Marshal Montgomery adopts the duffle coat
With the advent of World War I, the duffle coat became increasingly popular with the British armed forces. Army officers abandoned their formal great coats in favour of the more practical duffle coat with its roomy cut and large pockets.
World War II saw the duffle coat used by seamen on motor torpedo boats as well as destroyers. Yet it was when Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery adopted the duffle coat that its popularity became firmly established. The 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein wore his duffel coat so regularly that it became known as the ‘Monty’. And when the SAS was formed in 1944, the duffle coat was part of the standard issue kit.
From the SAS to the high street – post war Britain adopts the duffle coat
After the War, the surplus military duffle coats were sold cheaply to the public and in the 1950s and 1960s, the duffle coat became the coat of choice for those looking for style and durability. It was during the 1950s that manufacturers of new duffle coats replaced the wooden and rope toggles with the leather and buffalo horn fastenings of the modern day duffle coat.
The duffle coat – popular with politicians (and Paddington)
By the 1970s, the duffle coat was firmly established as a coat combining warmth with style; a reputation that continues to the present day. The duffle coat has been worn by politicians, pop stars and Paddington Bear, as well as by generations of British school children.
So what of Peter Pan and the coat that won’t grow up? Far from being a coat for children, the history of the duffle shows that it’s very much for adults requiring a garment that combines form and function. And when it comes to Peter Pan, we think J M Barrie missed a trick. Pan would have cut a dash in the London and a long duffle coat would have been toasty for his flight to Never land.