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