Campus Style: The Polo Coat


Think I’ll take it for one last spin today.

Came across this passage recently in Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.’s biography of Tommy Hitchcock, Jr.:

The polo coat — long, belted, and made of soft camel’s hair — was still for the most part used by polo players, thrown over their shoulders for warmth between chukkers, but it would soon drape every prep-school graduate, north and south, from Foxcroft to St. Paul’s.

For more on the “aristocrat of topcoats,” see this post at Gentlemen’s Gazette. — CC

20 Comments on "Campus Style: The Polo Coat"

  1. Jeff Jarmuth | March 21, 2013 at 8:28 am |

    I wonder how many American men actually threw polo coats over their shoulders for warmth between chukkers? Seems to me that it was more likely imported as a fashion statement from the beginning in the USA. Can you imagine wearing a polo coat in Palm Beach? In Chicago, where I live, the polo coat was associated more with gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s than with Ivy League-types, although it was certainly worn by legitimates, too. Photographs from summer polo matches at Ontwentsia Club in Lake Forest (the only season when the game was played here, incidentally) show players waiting it out in cardigans, which makes more sense, or with blankets wrapped around them. No polo coats–it would have looked ridiculous.

  2. There’s plenty of history on this site about the polo coat, including Bruce Boyer’s essay on it. I also quote a number of historic sources on the polo coat in the rise and fall essay, and put the item into a campus context.

    Alrich’s context for the passage above is 1924. I’m researching a piece I’ll share here soon, but bear in mind the crowd for polo matches on Long Island in the ’20s and ’30s could hit 40,000.

    So I don’t think the point is, as you ask rhetorically, “I wonder how many American men actually threw polo coats over their shoulders for warmth between chukkers?”

    Not many men did that, but thousands saw them do it…

    … and the taste for it spread from there.

  3. Jeff Jarmuth | March 21, 2013 at 8:53 am |

    Yes, your point is well taken about observers at matches. However, I think that many more American men observed British officers wearing them during their temporary duty in England and France between 1917 and 1918. The British serving officer’s version of the camel hair polo is much closer to the version worn by Americans, albeit with brass or black bakelite military buttons rather than horn, but without the godawful wrap-around belt. After the Great War ended, the officers, who’d spent a great deal of money on the coats, simply has their tailors remove the brass buttons and replace them with horn. Voila! There’s a passage in a Bulldog Drummond novel that describes this common occurence.

    I own two polo coats, both by Ralph Lauren, one in camel hair the other in navy cashmere. They are prized possessions that get better with age…

  4. J. Press carried Classic 100% Camel Hair Polo Coats made by Burberry’s of London beginning in the 1920’s.

  5. Jeff Jarmuth | March 21, 2013 at 9:41 am |

    The time frame is exactly correct. It’s difficult to prove, but I really do suspect that the military inspiration is by far the more important variable for the popularity of the camel hair coat than polo players and their matches, but the polo association makes for a more romantic story…

  6. So glad the Gazette highlighted my all time favorite by Polo RL. “The one under Camel’s Hair Fabric section.” To me, that says it all about RL’s taste.

  7. Jeff Jarmuth | March 21, 2013 at 11:33 am |

    Yes, IMO, Polo RL nails the modern polo coat. It looks great worn open with a sweater or buttoned to the third button in the “346” style. Also, I had a servant many years ago (who hailed from the Phillipines where they certainly don’t wear camel’s hair anything) who gave me a great tip. He was bringing out my cold weather clothing and said that my camel hair polo needed cleaning, which it certainly did. So I told him to go ahead and take it to the dry cleaners with other items. But he shook his head and said that he’d learned a trick from a previous employer who’d cleaned his camel hair polo in the bathtup with luke warm water and baby shampoo! I decided after some thought that I’d trust him so I watched him fill a bath tub and place my RL polo coat in the water and soap. It was amazing to see how much dirt came out of it. He then rinsed it (maybe three times), rang it out and let it sit in the tub until it could be hung to dry and shaped. Needless to say, that washing improved the coat by leaps and bounds, and it feels even softer and feels like a bathrobe when I’m wearing it. I highly recommend this cleaning method for your camel hair coats.

  8. Jeff
    If you spend much time on the web looking you can find a WWI enlisted man’s “polo” coat. The coat is OD wool, double breasted eight button, usually warn buttoned up to the neck. It’s belted in the back with kick pleat.
    Just my guess, but if any officer was waking around in a polo coat as nice as Ralph’s, it was their own kit or they were general officers. Regardless, you got great taste in outerwear, cheers.

  9. Here in the UK, an officer’s coat was called a British Warm.

    Beige camel hair coats have unfortunate associations with East End gangster types or wartime black marketeers (spivs).



  10. i say this without the slightest bit of sarcasm, i learn so much from you guys…
    this is really a cool place to hang out for a couple of minutes each day…

  11. Jeff Jarmuth | March 21, 2013 at 8:48 pm |

    Only officers pay for their own uniforms; enlisted men have their uniforms provided for them at no cost. I can’t imagine any nation, not even Prussia, providing an enlisted man with a camel hair coat. But I certainly think that a British Warm, as it’s called, is a predecessor, if not the only predecessor, to the modern camel hair polo coat. Picture the military version shown in the site with horn buttons instead of the bakelite military ones, and I think you’re pretty much looking at a polo coat.

    Kudos to MAC and Herts for chiming in with the details. And, Herts, it’s funny that in Chicago, too, camel hair polo coats are associated with gangsters and other dispreputable sharpies, like flamboyant trial lawyers a la Billy Flynn from the musical “Chicago.”

  12. Richard Meyer | March 22, 2013 at 3:21 am |

    I have a British Warm, bespoke from Chipp. It is shorter than the Polo, and classically has epaulets. i have seen pics of polo players in Florida with polo coats as wraps.

  13. Richard Meyer | March 22, 2013 at 3:22 am |

    Also, polos classically are back-belted, unlike Warms.

  14. Forgive me if I have shared this before. In the mid 1980’s, I purchased a navy cashmere polo coat from a traditional local mens’ store. No sales or discounts at that store, until they went out of business a few years later, I paid $ 245 full price for the coat. I recall that the coat had been altered to be close fitting. Anyhow, I wore the coat on many occasions, sometimes with a Homburg or Fedora, but mostly with a black wool british style cap. Very, very classy with a white scarf.

    Years went by, and it seemed that the coat seemed to disintegrate just from sitting in the closet. The navy lining turned a purple shade, along with unexplainable tears. I decided it was time to use it as an everyday winter coat, already past its prime and snug fitting due to my advancing middle age.. Some time later, the lining was in tatters, and being thrifty, I decided to just remove it. One day, while wearing it at a local Kmart, I was horrified to see the right sleeve coming off, just like in a Three Stooges short.

    When I got to the car, I drove home minus one sleeve. The garbage can was the ultimate destination for the coat. I’ll leave polo coats to the young fellows. I’ll stick to shapeless all weather coats with zip out linings.

  15. Jeff Jarmuth | March 22, 2013 at 10:35 am |

    Sorry to hear that your navy cashmere polo was a bust, Wriggles. It sounds like the old adage “You get what you pay for” is apt. I bought mine at the old RL store on Madison Avenue in NYC before he opened the Rhinelander mansion store. So we’re talking some years ago. I waited for the coat to go on sale in the late-winter or early-spring, checking to see how fast they left the store. I got it at perhaps the second or third mark-down and it was reasonable, although I can’t remember exactly what I paid for it.

    I’ve never subjected the coat to cleaning as I wear it mostly for funerals, black tie events and such. I will certainly never require another one.

  16. AJ Garceau | March 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm |

    Where does one get a Polo Coat?

  17. Ralph, Press, sometimes Brooks…or like these guys:

  18. @ Single Windsor
    @ Jeff Jarmuth

    I agree!

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