How Barbour Jackets Entered The Trad Canon — And My Own Wardrobe

Some are fond of asking whether Barbour jackets are Ivy or preppy. They are certainly not collegiate in the 1960s sense, although they would later be embraced by J. Press. They were not in “The Official Preppy Handbook.” The jacket that was sanctioned there was the LL Bean Field Coat.

So what was the Barbour? It was classic. It was English Country. It was slightly fogey, but definitely Sloane Ranger. It was like the Cambrian fly fisher moleskin “rat-catcher” trousers that were imported by Orvis: part of the Anglo-American New England sportsman kit. With The Barbour, we would have to include equestrians north and south in the mix.

Some will still resist the idea of Barbour jackets being part of the prep canon today, but I would argue that lines have blurred over the years. For myself, I think back to Murray’s Toggery Shop. In December 1993 I saw an advertisement that showed their iconic Reds next to Barbour jackets. For myself, I see this advertisement as the moment that they became post-OPH preppy.

I came to appreciate Nantucket Reds and Barbour jackets about the same time, and in both cases I felt I was a little late to the party. Nantucket Reds have been sold at Murray’s since 1945, and were thrown into the limelight with the publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook” in 1981. It would be over another decade before I fully embraced both Reds and Barbours. It was in March of 1993 that I ordered my Barbour jacket. The purchase came about serendipitously. A friend of mine said we needed to get them, and the New England Water Fowling Outfitter Wingset was having a 30% off sale. I called up the bearded gentleman from their catalog, who happened to be the owner. He asked me a battery of lifestyle questions, and the next thing I know I had a Beaufort in my mailbox.

Why did I feel like a latecomer to Barbour? I think it was due to their wonderful marketing. After all, they had been in business since 1894. I had a sense that English sportsmen had worn them forever, and that my show-jumping cousins had been wearing artful copies, beating me out of the gate on this trend.

Oddly enough, my personal experience of only seeing American advertising starting in the ’80s, along with rarely seeing the Barbour worn by anyone at the time, might suggest that I might have been earlier to the trend then I first believed. I broached the Barbour question to the veteran importer George G. Graham on a visit once. He told me he was the first to import Barbour jackets in the 1970s, and they appeared as a private-label coat for Paul Stuart.

I have since found out some other interesting facts. Namely, that the first market for Barbour was the workwear market, not the gentleman sportsman. Second, that waxed cotton jacket were the new performance product of the early 20th century. As odd as it is to think of my stodgy old waxed jacket as innovative, it was as radical as fleece in its day. Next, the royal warrants came in 1974, 1982 and 1987, all within 13 years and all in my own lifetime. Finally, the Bedale, Beaufort and Border were all designed by Dame Margaret Barbour.

The purpose of this post is not to self-congratulate myself on embracing a product 20 years ago, but to suggest that at any given time our perspective might not be as clear as we think.  For instance, the Beaufort was designed in 1982. Would I have embraced the jacket back then if I had known it was only 14 years old? Or would I have demanded the Solway Zipper? I would like to believe I would have trusted my retailer, but in this case ignorance was truly bliss. I thought I was late to Barbour, but in reality they had become innovative before I discovered them, and was part of a wave of expansion that continues today. I look back and I still think the catalogs produced in 1992-1994 are among the most evocative I have ever seen.

I also want to suggest that successful companies with long histories will fortunately have new adherents. As we critique new products through our curmudgeonly jaundiced perspective, I hope we do not sour that young person eager to embrace the romance of traditional clothes. I sometime fear they come hoping for a pep talk and run into a dystopian Internet fortress guarded by sartorial draconians. As Bruce Boyer suggested, we live in a world where people know everything about clothes except how to enjoy them. So I say to my young friends, sport that bow tie and don your Reds and Barbour. Stop worrying and start wearing.

If you live long enough, a cherished hobby, a favorite drink, or your clothing style will eventually become a mania. I recall channel surfing in a hotel room when MTV blared that cocktails, cigars and swing music were cool again. I watched the feature for a bit and then clicked it off. Then I turned on the radio, poured a drink, struck a match, and contemplated my temporary reversal of fortune. I could have nurtured a sense of a resentment or felt infringed upon, but I resisted it. I thought about the folks that I would be welcoming to the party. I knew instinctively if I was now cool it was not going to end well. It was going to be a train wreck, but I had been on board too long to get off now. My best recourse was to stand fast, be a good mentor, and let things shake out. They always do. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

34 Comments on "How Barbour Jackets Entered The Trad Canon — And My Own Wardrobe"

  1. My own Barbour discovery story: I was in London in the fall of 1985, on a temporary work permit following my college graduation. As an American, not surprisingly I had never heard of Barbour. I was walking down Piccadilly and started to window shop at a store that looked OK: Cordings. (Still around; check ’em out.) I saw a Barbour jacket, not sure if it was the Bedale or Beaufort, but I was immediately floored. I think it was Sunday, because I recall having to go back the next day to check out the jacket “in person”. I bought a Bedale on the spot. Even though the dollar was very strong in 1985, this was definitely a reach for a 21 year old without a full time job lined up.

    But it was still a wise investment. I’m only on my second Bedale in 31 years.

    I only discovered after the fact that it was the jacket of choice for the Sloane Ranger set.

    I agree that a style, even the most classic of styles, can and should evolve over time. I think being dogmatic does not serve the cause. Brooks Bros were not selling their OCBDs in 1819!

    There is a little sadness there, though. I mourn the logo-ization of almost every product available, both clothing and otherwise, and Barbour is sadly no exception. Certainly a simply stitching of the name is A LOT more subtle than most stuff these days. But it used to be that YOU KNEW. You didn’t have to have the name emblazoned anywhere on the product. You knew, and I’ll fully admit to being snobby here, but the right people knew if you were wearing something smart. No need for a logo, ever.

  2. I like the author’s suggestion of open-mindedness in welcoming newer, younger people to the fold of traditional things. That would be easier to do, though, if I didn’t perceive their interest as faddish. The chances that the frat dude posing drunk in his reds and bow tie at the steeplechase, or your local soccer mom wearing her Barbour, always with dark jeans tucked into faux riding boots, will be around in, say, 24 months is probably pretty slim.

    To be fair, the things that I now (in my 40s) perceive as gospel – Duck Head khakis, OCBDs, and yes, the Bean field coat – may have been seen as faddish when I first learned to love them in the 1980s. Just probably not by anybody who reads this blog.

  3. PS – if you ever see me wearing a pair of old-timey driving goggles like the guy in the first picture (who is wearing regular eyeglasses, no less), please run me off the road or shoot me. Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is not a good look for anybody.

  4. It’s a good look for Frances O’Connor in “The Importance Of Being Earnest,” but I can’t seem to find a shot of it.

  5. Frances O’Connor could wear a burlap bag and make it look good…

  6. The Barbour is just the best! I am on my second; I cannot remember the name but it is the one that is a couple inches longer. From the store in Newport, you save $50-$100 over NYC price.

  7. Great post. I love Barbour. I was introduced to Barbour in the late 1980s via fly fishing. The Barbour was an excellent short jacket to keep out the wet. Since we fished a lot waste-deep in rivers in the rain (best time for fishing), they got a real test and passed with flying colors. I’ve owned a few Barbours over the years. The Bedale is my favorite and my go-to jacket for just about anything outdoors.

  8. Don’t have a waxed field coat but the merino-cashmere version of Barbour plaid scarves (in most of the photos) are absolutely fabulous. Feel almost as soft as cashmere but listed for a (relatively) reasonable $79.95 last time I checked.

  9. Paul, the goggles might be legit if the roof on the old convertible behind him were not up. Tsk, tsk to the art director.

  10. The gentleman in the aforementioned picture easily pulls off goggles-on-forehead as a legit look. Why? He is shown with a car featuring not just a folding top, but a fold-down windscreen; the adjusting wing nut is visible in the photo.

    In January of 1999, I competed in the Monte-Carlo Challenge vintage rally which included an overnight crossing of the Alps on snow-covered back roads in below-freezing temperatures.

    I was nice and toasty in a Volvo 122 Amazon, but some of the hardier gents competed in open sports cars with windshields down wearing nothing but WW2-era fur-collared bomber jackets, hats and goggles.

  11. Follow-up questions for CC to possibly address:

    Are Seattle-made CC Filson “patented in 1914” woolen Mackinaw Cruiser coats considered trad by anyone other than me?

    Ditto Filson’s original style Mackinaw wool vests.

    Ditto Pendleton woolen shirts which, despite being made in Mexico of Pendleton’s American-sourced/loomed wool, still have essentially the same 10.3 oz 100% wool fabric and several shirt styles consistent with 1950s originals.

    In recent years Filson products have been badly bast-rdized to suit the taste of the barbaric hipsters – is there nothing they can’t ruin? – who daily wreak havoc on the fading remnants of American civilization.

    The second to last straw for me was reducing the Mackinaw wool from 26 oz to 24 oz but the last straw fir me was dropping American (Pendleton) loomed wool in favor of foreign loomed wool of unspecified “imported” provenance, which no doubt means China. And the last, last straw was dropping whipcord trousers sometime 1-2 years back which I only learned up when I went to buy replacements.

    Fortunately I have an assortment of older Filson garments – Mackinaw Cruiser, Mackinaw Coat (no longer made), Mackinaw vests (6) and Jack-Shirts (2, in discontinued colors) – accumulated and often and lovingly worn since 1974.

  12. @ Mazama – the Barbour plaid scarf is wonderful. I have one like the top photo. It is longer than most scarves, so it’s a good option on really cold days for a couple of wraps around the neck. Also have an older, merino Burberry in a dark olive which goes well with the Barbour. Another good option is Locharron of Scotland. These are lambswool, so not as soft, but not scratchy, either. They have a wide variety of plaids, very nicely made, and are priced about $40 per scarf, which is reasonable, I think.

  13. I thought about a Barbour for quite some time, but due to my OCD issues, I decided a jacket that benefited from the occasional re-waxing to keep in tip-top shape would not be a good fit (pardon the pun).

    In the end I decided to go with a period-correct (barely) U.S. Military M-65 Field Jacket in olive green. They are still available from Alpha Industries (one of the original suppliers) at a relatively modest $180 with an optional removable liner for an extra $65. Quality is very good, and I alway enjoy glancing at the “mil-speak” on the inner label as I ease into the jacket: COAT, COLD WEATHER, MAN’S FIELD.

    I say barely in-period because it was introduced in 1965. Like the Barbour, it is quite versatile and I have even seen men in Italy layering them over a sport coat.

  14. Being a city man, I prefer the quilted version, as do most of the older gentlemen I see on the Upper East Side.

  15. I learned and fell in love with Barbour waxed jackets in 1995. One of my older colleagues wore one; a Beaufort with the old dress Gordon tartan lining. I finally bought mine in 2000. I got a good deal on a Moorland. It’s heavier than the Beaufort, a couple of inches longer, and now discontinued. The store where I purchased my Barbour gave me two Barbour catalogs. One from 1999 and one for 2000. Those catalogs could have been no more different and indeed signaled that Barbour was about to change dramatically as a company with many more offerings and ones marketed to a different clientele. Filson has gone the same way, but it took them a few years longer to get there.

  16. Wear any green Barbour in London and you look like you’ve got badly lost on the way to a pheasant shoot or Point-To-Point race meeting or that you don’t care who knows you are just visiting from the country. Navy Barbour is different gravy and I wear a quilted jacket for work in the winter and a wax-proof for our very occasional bouts of snow. Thank you to all at Ivy Style for the tasteful diversions in 2016. T.

  17. I would have bought a Barbour coat years ago if it weren’t for the logo stitching on the pocket.

  18. Nice write-up. I love my Beaufort, and am forever thankful that I had the foresight to purchase one sized a little larger than I might have otherwise preferred. I wear it over a sports coat or suit, which I happen to think looks great in the most dishabille of ways — others will disagree. If there is a knock against Barbours, it’s that they aren’t particularly warm; a liner is a needed addition to any waxed model for East Coast winters.

  19. In my boarding school days, Barbour jackets provided a convenience to their wearers: one could skip the blazer and throw on the jacket instead. Usually teachers wouldn’t ask you to remove your top layer to inspect your blazer or lack thereof. But that was for the lazy ones.

  20. @ Cameron
    Years ago the pocket didn’t have the Barbour logo. That went on during the great Barbour change of 2000.

  21. These were introduced for farmers and gamekeepers, later motorcyclist.

  22. Don’t forget to re-wax your classic Barbour annually (as recommended by the manufacturer) to maintain its rain-shedding ability. This can be done at home though it is a bit messy and Barbour recommends that you not be “under the age of 16” to attempt the procedure.

    Also “Ensure you keep the wax away from the corduroy collar, the inside of the jacket and inside of the pockets” and “Take care not to get your newly waxed jacket near leather or upholstery.”

  23. James Kraus
    Don’t do it close to an open fire either. 😉

  24. Great article and lovely images, remind me of some old Polo ads but these feel more authentic. I was introduced to Barbour after seeing their coats at Lord & Taylor and was attracted by their traditional look. I researched the brand and was intrigued by the history, I knew I had to have one. Luckily for me, my grandmother’s brother wore Barbour coats and she understood the history and value behind such a coat. For my prep school graduation, she gifted me a Beaufort from Orvis and this was my first fall wearing the coat. It’s better than I imagined and I hope that it lasts for the rest of my days. Just as Paul said earlier in the comments, getting something because it’s a fad and sticking to it justifies the fad-related purchase. It turned me off a little to know that now the jackets are “in style,” a term which I loathe, and I contemplated buying a vintage one. However, the fad will fade and so will my Beaufort, but I can always get re-proofed.

  25. As for Mackinaws, I too had wondered whether they are trad or not. I just inherited a Woolrich Buffalo Plaid mackinaw from the 60’s and it’s incredibly warm. I see these types of coats as just traditional American garb, they were made as hunting coats and have a history of use here. They may not be Ivy, per se, but I’d say they are traditional American.

  26. The OPH expressly endorsed Anglophilia in clothing. Barbour holds royal warrants from the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales. I think that’s enough.

  27. I suspect collusion considering the timing of the royals’ warrants and OPH. 😉

  28. Also, I’ve read that the quality on the new Barbour coats is not the same as the old ones. I hope I can just chalk that up to people decrying the brand for becoming trendy, the ones that are made in England should still be of fine quality.

  29. Minimalist Trad | December 20, 2016 at 12:06 am |

    The unpretentious navy Barbour is to be preferred.

  30. I am the proud owner of a Border, a Cowen Commando, and an International. The Border has a longer body and works well for anyone over 6′. The Cowen is my favorite, but I wear the Border most because it works well over a suit or jacket and is socially acceptable in any environment without ever being too flashy.

    And you cannot beat Barbour’s customer service!

  31. The wax gives such a nice depth to the color, but it’s not practical everywhere, for example, in climates that get very little rain. Even NYC doesn’t seem wet enough to warrant a waxed coat.

  32. if you were paying attention in the 60’s, the King of Cool was sporting Barbour back in the day

  33. I’ve got a few Barbour coats both quilted and waxed but man are the sleeves awkwardly short. For the wax I actually had to pay $75 to have them lengthened (They add material giving it an almost cuffed look).

  34. Vern Trotter | October 31, 2017 at 4:03 am |

    A pleasure to re-read this from almost a year ago.

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