Classics: The Field Jacket

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996

Classics: The Field Jacket
By Donovan Webster

In 1890, in the english seaport town of market place, south Shields, a craftsman named John Barbour began making specialized outerwear to protect local mariners from the wet and cold of the North Sea. A hundred years and a passel of high-tech waterproof/breathable laminates and coatings later, his invention-a multipocketed jacket of rugged cotton fabric made waterproof by impregnation with smelly, greasy wax-still holds an honored place in many an outdoorsperson's wardrobe. Sure, waxed cotton is too cumbersome for mountain biking or rock climbing, but it's perfect for an autumn hike, a horseback ride, or just puttering around the yard. It's warm, waterproof, thornproof, darn breathable, and it will last halfway to forever, provided you "dress" it once a year with a new smear of wax. However, if you want the look without the work, so-called barn jackets are constructed of canvas without the wax-or the price. Either style is undeniably a form of cultural shorthand. Evincing rugged aristocracy, they're the laundry equivalent of a right-side-steering Range Rover. Wear one, and you send a message: tough, but luxurious.

J. Barbour & Sons is still a family business and is still the standard bearer. Its Beaufort ($327; 800-338-3474) is perhaps the best all-round casual coat going-equally dashing on Park Avenue or a Scottish game preserve. A soft corduroy collar and plaid cotton liner add warmth, a storm flap keeps rain from breaching the zipper, and moleskin-lined pockets keep hands cozy. And should you actually go hunting grouse in Scotland, or should you just want to tote an extra sweater, there's a roomy, nylon-lined game pouch. The Beaufort's only downside lies in its bombproof construction. Thanks to the wax, the double-thick seams, and the more than 15,000 stitches common to every Barbour coat, the Beaufort, at four pounds, is the heaviest we've reviewed.

An equally sturdy alternative is the Sidelock Hunting Coat from Orvis ($195; 800-541-3541). This well-designed and understated jacket looks like a classic, but it's just celebrating its third birthday. With its canvas shell waxed the color of dark, buttered toast, the water- and wind-resistant Sidelock boasts huge bellows pockets, protected shotgun-shell loops (even nonhunters will look "sporty"), quilted recoil pads at both shoulders, zippered pockets on the inside, and an enormous yet invisible game pouch that wraps around the entire coat. It's also trimmed at collar and cuffs with green wool that seems comfortably broken-in-even when the coat is fresh from the warehouse.

From the modern purveyor of fashion comes the Polo Mohawk by Ralph Lauren ($495, 800-775-7656), which features "weathered oilcloth." Cosmetically, the Mohawk looks strictly old-line: corduroy collar, button-in lining of red-and-gray wool, and lots of practical pockets for warming hands, carrying apples, or in a pinch, toting an extra hackamore. It even has an across-the-back game pouch, just like a true hunting coat, but I wouldn't advise putting anything damp or (heaven forbid!) bloody in there, since it isn't lined with nylon. And while the Mohawk isn't as water resistant as the Barbour or Orvis coats-it will get saturated in a downpour-it's less of a load and provides perfect protection for a chilly, misty college-football Saturday or an amble through the brambles.

If you care not about wet weather, a nonwaxed barn jacket will still provide rugged yet sophisticated comfort. My favorites are the Field Coat (above) by L.L. Bean ($115 with wool lining, $120 with Primaloft insulation; 800-341-4341) and the Black Powder coat (below) from Woolrich ($150; 800-995-1299). Both are made of sturdy canvas (available in a variety of colors), have ample pockets, and are constructed with accordion shoulder pleats. Bean's version, which is modeled after the company's original 1920 hunting coat-sans the game pouch-has double-needle stitched seams, is trimmed in olive corduroy, and boasts a zippered breast pocket. Woolrich's features leather trim, riveted pocket corners, and a button-in liner of dense, wind-resistant wool. These coats won't protect as well (or as long) as their more expensive waxed-cotton cousins, but if you're looking for a knock-around jacket with slouchy, rustic style, they're tough to beat. -Donovan Webster

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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