Well over a century old and practically lined with menswear heritage, the duffle coat is fashion at its most historic and most practical. Forget Paddington Bear (who admittedly wore it well). The duffle is synonymous with sailors and protesting students and, this year, it’s the coat that designers are returning to in droves.
In a lot of ways, it’s the consummate winter coat. Casual and tactile, it’s usually spotted in warm winter colours that make it an inviting cocoon in cold and wet weather. And while the duffle coat isn’t made from modern fabrics with taped seams or hidden pockets, it has serious outdoors pedigree.
Like trench coats, bomber jackets and a lot of menswear besides, this wardrobe staple is a decorated military veteran. Adopted by the British Navy in the late 19th century, it became standard issue on the decks of freezing frigates and remained in service throughout World War II (Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, not history’s most obvious fashion influencer, was a big fan).
After the war ended, the military released a huge number of surplus coats to the public. The low cost and hardy construction attracted students and artists among others, and even now, the duffle coat carries a touch of the preppy British scholar about it.
The back-to-school vibe, mixed with its utilitarian roots, means it slots seamlessly into modern menswear. It was spotted on the runways for labels as diverse as Valentino and Kent & Curwen. Which means there’s consensus: you need one.
What Is A Duffle Coat?
The duffle is a lot of coat, and that’s putting in mildly. Traditionally cut boxy from heavy, coarse wool, it also features a much larger hood than other coats with this kind of heritage – think monk habit or Jedi cloak and you’re on the right lines.
Because it was originally designed to keep sailors warm on deck, almost every design element has practicality behind it. There’s a button-up collar bar to shield your neck, big patch pockets and distinctive buffalo-horn toggles, which are supposedly easier to fasten when you’re wearing gloves. Traditional designs extend as far as the knees but modern cuts that stop around the waist are also common.
This practicality is why the design has endured as a winter coat, says Marianne Tse-Laurence, head of design at Gloverall, the British heritage brand that continued making duffle coats after military surplus styles ran out.
“The thick boiled wool means it’s weather resistant, it will also keep its shape for years and is really hard wearing,” says Tse-Laurence. “The wool has lanolin, which is a natural oil from sheep which helps wick water away from the body helping insulation.”
How To Wear A Duffle Coat
“The duffle coat is perhaps the most casual of coat styles to adopt for the winter season,” says Olie Arnold, style director at Mr Porter. “They traditionally finish just above the knee and are not supposed to be a tailored style, so when shopping for one, ensure it’s not too fitted so that layers can be worn underneath.
“The duffle is very flexible with its colour options; camel and navy are popular choices but shades of lighter blue and green work well too.”
You can wear a duffle coat over tailoring to create a high-low vibe, but such hardy outerwear plays best with other pieces that are just as tough. Think raw denim or corduroy trousers, chunky boots or commando-soled shoes. These styles walk a nice line between military and preppy, which is exactly where a duffle coat should sit.
“It is a great piece that can incorporate layering underneath. For a contemporary look try layering it with a denim jacket underneath, with chinos and sneakers. In cold weather, add a knitted beanie hat or chunky scarf.”
Assuming you don’t want to attract Paddington Bear comments, avoid wearing with a red bucket hat, he adds.
The Best Brands For Duffle Coats
Probably the brand with the closest association to the duffle coat today, Gloverall ties with the style stretch back to the 1950s, when it received a huge consignment of surplus styles from the military. When these sold out, the brand made a more civilian-friendly version, a little trimmer in the body, and followed up with cropped versions.
The duffle is still Gloverall’s signature piece today, modernised with different fits, interesting colours and occasional collaborations.
Gloverall is arguably the better known brand, but Original Montgomery has been in the game for longer. It claims to be the oldest surviving company to have supplied the military with duffle coats way back in the 1890s. Today, its coats – which are still made in England – retain the traditional styling points, but they also come in a more modern, slimmer fit.
One of the few designer labels to have consistently made duffle coats over the years, Burberry does, of course, have its own rich history in military outerwear. It may be more famous for its trench coats but the duffles are also impeccably made.
Go traditional or look for runway-friendly touches like bold pattens or shearling-lined hoods. And the famous Burberry tartan adorning the lining, of course.
Japanese fast fashion maestros Uniqlo have a preoccupation with utilitarian design, so it’s no surprise that it makes versions of the duffle coat. Unsurprisingly, they’re cut a little slimmer than the most traditional styles but other details like the hood, toggles and collar bar are faithfully reproduced.
The lower price point means you can expect a higher percentage of polyester in the mix.
A label with two centuries of expertise in making outerwear, Mackintosh may be better known for its military-grade raincoats, but it’s duffles are also exceptionally good. Made from 100 per cent wool, they’re more tailored than many duffles, slimmer through the body and featuring more subtle toggles and other details.
Spanish high street brand Mango can be trusted to make faithful yet modern interpretations of many classic items and so it is with its duffle coat. Traditional features and colours come in a more modern cut and you can also expect updates like internal zipped pockets for phones and other everyday cargo.
United Colors Of Benetton
Storied fashion Benetton had a social conscience long before it became fashionable to have one. So it’s nice to see that the brand makes versions of one of the hardest-wearing (and therefore sustainable) types of coat you can own.
True to its name, you can also pick up a duffle coat in a broader spectrum of colours here than in most other places.
British designer Jonathan Anderson has plenty of reinterpreted back-to-school classics in his collections, from V-neck jumpers to Harry Potter-esque scarves. Duffle coats are, then, a natural inclusion. Slim cuts, cropped hems and statement toggles feature in his Italian-made designs.
Trusty stalwart of the British high street, River Island has been making fashion accessible to everyone since 1948. No, you won’t be getting 100 per cent wool for this kind of money but what you will get is trend-led takes on the classic with flattering modern fits and staple colourways.
The duffle coat may be better associated with British academia than American colleges, but that’s not stopped preppy brands in the US from adopting the design. Grandaddy of them all is Ralph Lauren, whose takes can skew traditional, but you can also trust him to try bold colours or patterns, if you want more of a statement coat.