These days, you don’t have to be in the Navy to look like you belong on the open sea. Anyone who lives in, has visited, or has even seen pictures of other people who live in a colder climate can attest to the ubiquity of the double-breasted, structured-shoulder staple of winter wear that is the classic naval-style peacoat. Now as much at home on the shoulders of a runway model as on those of a military officer, peacoats have significantly evolved in purpose while maintaining their signature style. Though the woolen outerwear has long ceased to be a trend and likely has a long, warm future ahead of it as the go-to winter coat, there are a few uncertainties still remaining about its journey into the fashion canon.
Even the Oxford English Dictionary, the foremost source for tracing origins of words and the objects they denote, is uncertain about the etymology of the word “peacoat.” Linguists have successfully traced back the natural evolution of “peacoat” from the synonymous term “pea-jacket,” but that’s where things get fuzzy. The prevailing theory suggests that pea-jacket emerged from the Dutch compound word pijjaker, which further derives from the Middle Dutch word pij, referring to coarse woolen clothing worn by sailors—sounds familiar, but there’s little concrete evidence to support it beyond logical inference.
It certainly seems logical that the term for a seaman’s coat would have originated in the Netherlands, at the time a foremost global naval power, but competing theories argue that the similarities are merely due to chance. The U.S. Navy claims that the coat came first and the name came after: Tailored from a heavy, hard-wearing blue twill fabric known as pilot cloth and abbreviated to “p-cloth,” the coats naturally came to be called p-jackets and eventually pea coats. A British clothing merchant named Edgar Camplin is also credited with the invention of a coat for petty (non-commissioned) officers of the British Navy—a “petty coat,” or “p. coat” for short; however, this claim lacks any historical evidence beyond the clothier’s own testimony.
A WWI-era peacoat button, featuring a small anchor and a perimeter of 13 stars. Image courtesy of The Fedora Lounge.
Despite the absence of a definitive origin story, the peacoat we know today nevertheless possesses distinct features that recall its military and seafaring history. Its practical qualities make it the ideal protection against icy winds on land or on sea: Its thick wool construction is augmented by the double-breasted front, which provides an extra layer of warmth, and its oversized, peaked lapels afford some dignity to collar-poppers seeking additional coverage on their exposed necks. A genuine peacoat features two vertical slash pockets, intended not for storage but to keep the wearer’s hands warm—the only coat intentionally designed to accommodate that need. All designs feature a double row of buttons down the front (originally eight, but decreased to six after WWII), though the anchor design has changed significantly since it was first borrowed from the official seal of the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain.
Classic black “fouled anchor” (surrounded by rope) button design. Image courtesy of The Gentleman’s Gazette.
Although official Navy surplus peacoats are approved for use by civilians, and there are innumerable fashionable adaptations of the design available for sale, the U.S. Navy has strict regulations in place for correct wear by its enlisted sailors:
“Button all buttons except collar button. Collar button may be buttoned in inclement weather. Wear the jumper collar inside the coat. Sleeves are to reach about three-quarters of distance from the wrist to the knuckles when arms hang naturally at the sides.”
Thankfully, everyone else is permitted to wear their peacoat as they please. I like to accessorize with a scarf.