Over the past dozen years, Ivy Style has been honored to digitize for the Internet the work of legendary menswear historian G. Bruce Boyer, thereby making it available to a new generation of readers. In this post Mr. Boyer ruminates on the polo coat, the so-called “aristocrat of topcoats.” Below are some words of reflection submitted by Boyer, followed by the article, which originally appeared in the July, 1981 issue of Town & Country. Pictured above is Ivy Style Facebook member Marc Chevalier.
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I’ve been reading the latest editions of the fashion mags — as a professional critic, I’m desperate for any laughs I can get — and have noticed that the in fashion places this season seem to be either Kenya or India. I can’t speak for Kenya, but the literature is full of fashion that’s come out of the British Raj.
I once actually met a grandson of the Maharajah of Jodhpur — he was wearing a diamond on a chain around neck, and the stone was about the size of a small ice cube — and I asked him about jodhpurs. “The British stole that idea from my grandfather,” he pointedly said. The conversation drifted a bit after that.
But the sartorial heritage of that Indian-invented game of polo is still very much around, even when it comes to us from the British: the buttondown collar, chukka boots, the cummerbund, the polo shirt, and of course the polo coat.
The camel hair coat has changed its style a bit over the years, yet remains a classic of the genre. Brooks Brothers has been stocking them forever, or at least since the early years of the 20th century, and Ralph Lauren’s version (see example above) with flapped chest pocket is an authentic copy [note to CC: I know this sounds contradictory, but leave it in anyway] of one worn by the Duke of Windsor himself.
It looks to be with us for many years to come, the gods and camels willing.
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The Polo Coat
By G. Bruce Boyer
“Well, you know,” I said offhandedly to the Maharajah of Jodhpur, “all male costume in the West derives either from warfare or sport.”
Not the sort of conversation I have every day, you understand, but I had had the good fortune to be introduced to the maharajah at a party, and a charming gentleman he is too. We got into a breezy discussion of one thing and another, and the subject of clothes somehow came up. I asked him if it were true, as I had read, that one of his ancestors had in fact designed the polo trousers known as jodhpurs. He confirms that it was his great-grandfather.
“And of course,” he reminded me, “not a few masculine articles of attire have come from the sport of polo.”
Whether as played first in India, or later in England and the United States, polo has provided our everyday wardrobes with a list of items unparalleled in variety and dash: the button-down collared shirt (designed to prevent the collar points from flapping into the face, and still called a polo collar by Brooks Brothers, who introduced it to this country from England in 1900); the polo sweater (alternatively now called a roll-collar in Britain and a turtleneck here); jodhpurs; chukka boots (a boot that extends slightly above the ankle and fastens with laces through two eyelets; the name derives from “chukker,” a period of play in the game); the polo belt (a wide, usually leather or coarse-woven wool surcingle, and a very popular fashion item with women at the moment); and the polo shirt (a knitted pullover with attached knit collar and placket front, in either cotton or lightweight wool; the famous Lacoste alligator shirt is the most prevalent example). All of which have been freely adopted even by those of us who don’t know a polo mallet from a sledgehammer.
And then there is the most distinguished offspring of the brood: the double-breasted, patch-pocketed, half-belted camel-hair polo coat, the aristocrat of topcoats. There have been few outercoats in this century that have had more acceptance than the polo coat. The chesterfield with its sophisticated velvet collar, the jaunty trench coat, the British warm, the truncated car coats of the 1950s, and the toggle-fronted duffel coats have all had their advocates and their day. But the classic polo coat has always been considered the best-looking topcoat a man can wear. Perhaps the associations one makes in part account for its allure: Saturday afternoon football games in crisp autumn air, tailgate picnics, early spring boat races. In part it is another fine example of the peculiarly American penchant for clothes that combine elegance with comfort, that casual dressiness that has always typified our college campuses. And in part it is the polo coat’s ability to perfectly adapt to any mood, to dress up or down and be equally at home with flannel town suit or casual sweater and slacks. Some men are even able to carry off a polo coat with evening dress, but this sense of style is a nameless grace that no method can teach.
Actually, the origin of this most American of coats is, funnily enough, not American at all. About the fin of the last siecle English polo players began to devise a casual robe-like coat to throw over their shoulders between periods of play (chukkers) in a match, to keep themselves warm while they waited for play to resume. At first any old coat was pressed into service, but then gentlemen began to develop ideas about how this coat should function, and their ideas were translated into what came to be called “wait coats” by English tailors. In the 1920s, when polo began to be popular in this country, and international matches held on tong Island, the English wait coats did not go unnoticed. There was a long definite swagger and cavalier deshabille about them, combining as they did the comfort of a robe, the warmth of a topcoat, and the aura of an expensive and elegant sport. They were mighty appealing to undergraduates on summer leave, and as fall terms arrived “polo” coats were soon seen on Princeton’s Nassau Street, in New Haven, and in Cambridge. By 1930, the polo coat outnumbered the raccoon at the Yale-Princeton football game, which was as sure a sartorial barometer as could be found!
In the past decade or two, however, there has been not only a tremendous proliferation in outerwear particularly of the parka variety, which more and more men seem to be wearing even with business attire but a steady decline of quality, which in tandem make it very difficult to find a true polo coat. I don’t mean some bilious polyester and-wool belted horror that passes itself off as a polo coat, I mean The Real Thing. And the requirements of the genre are explicit and strict: an authentic polo coat is double-breasted, full-length, and full-cut camelhair cloth; it has patch pockets, set-in sleeves, cuffs, and a half-belt. You could always have one done for you by a tailor whose skill is worthy of the cloth and cut. One thinks of Anderson & Sheppard, Poole, or Huntsman in London, or Fioravanti in New York perhaps; for ready-made Chipp or Brooks in New York, Louis in Boston, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco, those stores. Regardless of the source, the price will not be cheap. Top quality 100 percent camel-hair cloth probably costs considerably more than a real camel these days: anywhere from $150 to $200 a yard, with a minimum of four yards needed to make a coat. Hand-tailored, with real horn buttons and top quality lining, and you begin to see where this kind of thing can lead. It can lead to over $2,000 easily for custom-made, and close to half that off-the-rack.
While we are on this matter of camel-hair, by the way, you will want to know that the cloth cannot be woven from the hair of just any old camel. The beast we are here concerned with is the rather special Bactrian camel, which is actually a cross-breed of the dromedary (or Arabian) and the Asian (he of the two humps). The coat of the former possesses great heat resistance, and the coat of the latter great cold resistance, and ideally enough, of the coat of the cross-bred Bactrian combines both qualities (and the animal has two, not just one and a half humps). Not just a special camel, but special hair on that special camel. Hair on a camel (or any animal, for that matter: including humans) is not of uniform quality with respect to strength, thickness, color, and coarseness. There are basically three grades of camel hair, distinguished by fineness: the best is obtained from the thick, soft undercoat, and it is this that is used for quality cloth in quality clothing. The other grades each from the outer coat are used for less expensive fabrics and yarns: carpet yarns, pack blankets, interlinings, that sort of thing.
The reason that first-grade camel hair produces one of the true luxury cloths is that it perfectly combines warmth, lightness, and beauty. Any other cloth of natural fiber would have to be several times as heavy to produce the equivalent warmth of camel hair. Its other quality one it shares with cashmere and vicuna is its incredible softness, which in fact presents something of a problem. Pure top-quality camel hair is so soft that, like all delicate cloths, it wears rather badly and is not all that durable. Polo coats of 100 percent first-quality camel-hair cloth tend to wear out at the collar and cuffs, and lapels and buttonholes, rather quickly. This upsetting feature has led cloth and clothing manufacturers to experiment with blended cloths to overcome the delicacy of camel hair. A blend of roughly 50 percent camel hair and 50 per cent good lambswool achieves a perfect fabric for the polo coat: it combines maximum warmth with minimum weight and is durable enough to last for years of wear. Blending the camel hair with wool to make it a bit tougher also ameliorates the other problem of luxury fabrics: garments made from delicate and soft cloths tend to bag and lose their shape. In a coat, shoulders sag, the front may lose its line, lapels can droop, and wrinkles become a problem; if a person sits in the coat a great deal, the seat will wear away or become shiny. And since the polo coat in particular has set-in sleeves (rather than raglan ones, in which droop is not such a problem), shape retention is rather more difficult to achieve than in other topcoats.
So ironically here, reducing the amount of first-quality cloth improves the quality of the garment — not to mention reducing the price.