Learn how the duffel coat made its way from the shoulders of 1850s workmen to modern haute couture runways. With its distinctive hood and toggle buttons, this heavy wool overcoat made utilitarian fashion history on the battlefields of World War II before being adopted by celebrities and designers in the second half of the 20th century.
The menswear experts at Gentleman’s Gazette trace the original duffel (or duffle) coat to British outerwear merchant John Partridge. His 1850s coat was shorter than modern duffels but had the classic large wooden toggle buttons that we still see today. His idea was to make a sturdy wool coat that was roomy enough to layer multiple garments under for extra warmth in the winter. Although modern duffel coats have a slightly sleeker silhouette than Partridge’s original jacket, in all eras the coat has boasted a loose enough fit that sweaters can be layered under for comfort in tough weather. Partridge may have been inspired by an even earlier “frock” coat, a more lightweight hooded and toggled jacket that was seen in Poland a few decades earlier, but he gave the duffel its name and his design is the origin of its modern popularity.
With its utilitarian style, Partridge’s duffel caught the eye of the British Navy. The coat’s long-wearing materials and warm, protective hood made it ideal outerwear for troops facing harsh winds at sea. From the original order in the 1880s through to both WWI and WII, the coat evolved to be as useful as possible, with a longer length that protected the men down to the knee along with a loose-fitting shape that could be made in mass quantities for all sizes of soldiers. The coats became standard issue for all ranks of British military seamen from first-time sailors up to top-ranking officers. The coats worked so well for the navy that soon all British soldiers were wearing duffle coats. When the allies won WWII and the fighting ended, the British military suddenly found itself with a huge number of extra coats. This military surplus would be the start of another chapter in the duffel’s history when the extra coats were bought in large quantities at low wholesale prices by the retail brand Gloverall.
Gloverall discovered that the distinctive coats were suddenly popular with civilians, who wanted to show their nostalgic support for the WWII-winning army and navy. Men were buying the coats so quickly that the surplus stocks ran out. Seeing the potential for more sales, Gloverall began to manufacture their own variation on the duffel with a modernized, slightly slimmer cut. Their idea was that with only a few small tweaks, the duffel coat could fit both men and women. The company chose a lighter, more luxurious lining fabric for streetwear and replaced the hard-wearing jute cord that wrapped around the toggles with softer, more comfortable cotton. High-end versions appeared finely crafted leather ties wrapped around toggles made from water buffalo horns. Soon Gloverall’s unisex jacket was seen on mid-century celebrities as diverse as avant-garde French poet Jean Cocteau and Beatles frontman Paul McCartney. The no-nonsense coat became popular with 1960s protesters who marched in the streets and held sit-ins outdoors for long periods, and soon it developed a reputation as a counterculture fashion statement. David Bowie wore an iconic duffel in the 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and Oasis kept the trend going into the 1990s with duffel-clad appearances in their music videos. As more stars wore duffel coats, top tier designers started to notice and soon reimagined duffel coats were seen on international fashion week runways. Today’s haute couture duffel coat designers like Junya Watanabe, Bottega Veneta, and Balmain have updated this classic by making duffel coats in luxury fabrics like cashmere and unexpected colors like powder blue, and by adding pricey details like fur trim.
From its functional origins in John Partridge’s shop through its history of warming soldiers, stars, rebels, and runway models, the duffel coat has shown remarkable staying power. Today, the easy-to-style duffel coat stays popular among everyday people who pair it with jeans or throw it on over classic wool suits for a timeless statement.