Outside magazine, September 1997
Chaucer's humble clerk, who made the scene in the fourteenth century, wore one. Then it disappeared until the 1700s, when Dutch fishermen started wearing a coat they called a pijjekker to brave ravaging weather while working their nets. Soon after, the pea jacket appeared on the backs of American sailors — who apparently misheard the Dutch — and the U.S. Navy adopted it circa 1720. "My pea coat was issued 30 years ago, and it's as good now as it was then," says U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Rex Miller, adding that since he's become "abdominally enhanced" the coat fits that much better. "It's the most useful piece of clothing I've ever owned."
The pea coat made by the 84-year-old Schott Bros. Inc. ($150; 800-257-2468) can be taken as a military-spec prototype. It feels X-ray-apron heavy, thanks to 32-ounce melton wool, meaning the woven wool is pressed to create a hard, water-repellent finish. The cut is functional: A wide collar flips up around the ears, a high-thigh length allows mobility, a double-breasted front scotches wind, and big slit pockets keep your hands warm. At least that's true of the traditional coats. This season, however, designers such as these five have adopted the workaday pea coat as their own, rendering it in a host of new fabrics — and attitudes. Alas, the standard color is no longer navy.
The Protective Clothing Company pea coat ($80; 212-684-1410), with its slosh-proof PVC-coated cotton shell, may seem perfect for weathering squalls, but in an urban environment it doubles as a don't-worry-about-getting-anything-on-me jacket. It's really a raincoat in a pea coat's clothing. Protective has installed grommets under each arm for some breathability. But one of the nicer aspects of the Protective is the cut, which unlike some hip raincoats, doesn't leave you feeling as if you're sloshing along with your head poking through a Hefty sack: It hangs nicely and doesn't bind at the shoulders.
Brooding Kerouac types may find it a drag to have to pay $535 for DKNY's Windstopper pea coat (800-231-0884), yet the high-tech design is exceedingly utilitarian. Ounce for ounce, the windproof polyester fleece provides at least twice the warmth of anything natural, in sharp contrast to weightier wool (especially when wet). Donna Karan recast several other features as well: big patch pockets instead of diagonal slits, a relatively trim collar and lapels, and buttons stamped with "DKNY," not anchors. The silhouette is slightly slim, and they say it's black, but I could swear it's...navy.
You've got to love a jacket whose fabric originally covered the seats of the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville. Now I. Spiewak and Sons, proud purveyor of high-end industrial uniforms for workers the world over, uses so-called Titan cloth, albeit in a more supple incarnation. Spiewak calls its boxy pea coat ($150; 800-223-6850) abrasion resistant. Might it mean bulletproof? A dense weave combined with Holofil insulation will keep you warm when the rest of Fifth Avenue is paralyzed. Even as Bloomies clamors for more, Spiewak is fulfilling an order to upholster 18,000 of NYC's Finest. The coat is fairly stiff at first, but if you have trouble breaking it in, just sit on it for a few thousand miles.
The pea coat from Nautica ($425; 212-496-0933) is the kind of seafaring garb you'd want if the Forbeses invited you out on the Highlander. Just drop the name of the designer, David Chu, who took his cue from the silhouettes of turn-of-the-century officers' coats rather than those of ordinary seamen. A slightly fitted waist, shaved lapels, and fine 18-ounce Italian melton wool the color of a nice merlot separate the Nautica from more common fare. Inside you'll find somewhat luxurious faux satin. Elegance aside, the Nautica has every bit of functionality you'd expect from any good pea coat.
With its matte charcoal-gray finish and no-nonsense styling, the Polo Jeans Co. Ralph Lauren women's pea coat ($195; 212-935-0088) is purposefully subtle. A lightweight polyurethane-coated cotton shell provides waterproof protection, while a sheer fleece lining offers just enough warmth for in-between months. The coat is cut trim at the waist and wide at the shoulders, and Polo Jeans streamlined the features, giving it a narrowish collar and lapels. An extra button lets you fasten the neck without standing up the collar.
Photographs by Clay Ellis