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Duffel Coats

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Don't mind Peter, most people think he's boring - he's a real Duffel Coat.
- The Geektionary

Paraded by fashion guru Alexander McQueen on his 2002 autumn catwalk, the chameleon-like qualities of the Duffel coat have enabled it to cross social, political and cultural boundaries with gay and geeky abandon. Sporting a Duffel coat seems paradoxically to convey eccentricity, left-wing liberalism and geekiness at the same time as conservatism, traditionalism and wealth.

The Essence of a Good Duffel Coat

Duffel (variant spelling 'duffle') is a coarse heavy woollen fabric with a thick nap, taking its name from the Belgian town of Duffel, where it originated in the 17th Century. In 1890, John Partridge, a British designer of outdoor clothing, started to market the Duffel coat as a proprietary item. The Duffel coat as we know it today, with the hood and wooden toggles, owes its popularity to the British Navy, which used it during World War II.

The key to a good Duffel coat is as follows:

  • The coat should be made of genuine Duffel, and arguably should be in one of the traditional colours: black, camel or grey.
  • It should be tartan-lined (usually Royal Stewart) and certainly woolly, not smooth.
  • Preferably, it should be equipped with a hood.
  • Front fastenings should be by toggle, a sort of wooden (not plastic!) peg and rope-loop arrangement.
  • The coat should be knee-length.
  • A buttonable neck strap is useful for keeping out chilly winds.
  • It should have deep square pockets, preferably with flaps.

After rain, a good Duffel coat ought to smell smoky or charred.

The Duffel coat should not be confused with:

  • The Donkey Jacket - a tartan-lined, usually black, single breasted, pelvis-length, collared jacket which is fastened with two buttons the size of an old British Penny1. The donkey jacket is most commonly observed on building sites.
  • The Pea Coat - a thigh-length, double breasted, collared jacket, otherwise very similar to the shapeless donkey jacket, but with a sartorial edge, especially for sailors.

Torville & Dean, and Bo Derek - What's The Common Denominator?

A perfect 10? Maybe, but pristine skating only scores six. Ravel's 'Bolero'2? Correct, but there is yet another answer - the Duffel coat. Both Dudley Moore3 and Britain's Olympic figure-skating champs agreed that Duffel coats were the outer attire for them.

Other famous 'Dufflers' include:

  • Paddington Bear - probably the most famous of all Duffel coats (albeit a red one) is sported by the Peruvian ursine creation of Michael Bond.

  • Michael Foot - a British politician of sorts from the late 1970s who was pilloried in the press for turning up at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day wearing a donkey jacket. The Builders' Association made him an honorary member of their organisation, and sent him a donkey jacket, but the Rt Hon Mr Foot responded that it was a hoodless Duffel coat that he had worn, and he could see nothing wrong with that.

  • Jonathan Creek - this character from a light-hearted BBC TV detective series is defined at least in part by his Duffel coat. Reportedly, while the BBC were in talks with Alan Davies to play the role of Jonathan Creek, he clinched the part by turning up at a BBC Christmas party in his own, now-famous Duffel coat.

  • Oasis - Brit-Poppers and Manchester City Fans, Oasis have been seen in Duffel coats, following in the footsteps of Rock'n'Roll legends and fellow Duffel-wearers Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Whether this is anti-establishment, anti-style or mere antipasti remains to be seen.

Moreover, Duffel coats have been made 'By Royal Appointment' for both the family of HRH Princess Anne, and HRH Prince Charles himself. Who ever said that the monarchy was sartorially challenged? The fact that many associate Duffel coats with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) marches on the British nuclear establishment at Aldermaston during the late 1950s shows the universal appeal of this garment.

The Modern Duffel

Modern fabrics, fastenings and styles have given rise to a new generation of Duffel coats. Clothes designer Ann Storey says,

I always wanted to do a Duffel, and it seemed the perfect time to put one in the collection.

But she uses boiled wool instead of genuine Duffel,

... to make it fresher.

Traditionalists and Duffel snobs are equally appalled to see Duffel coats made out of artificial fabrics such as 'Gore-Tex', and zipped or buttoned instead of toggled.

Designers have now helped reinvent the Duffel by giving it new glamour,

says London fashion critic Jackie Modlinger.

For example, Gwyneth Paltrow wears a red 'Paddington'-style Duffel in Ted and Sylvia, a film based on the lives of the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

And Max, the senior Tweeny from the BBC children's TV show The Tweenies, wears a sort of 'Gore-Tex' Duffel coat when The Tweenies go alfresco.

1About the same size as a Moi Kenyan Shilling.2Ravel's 'Bolero' is the signature theme from Blake Edwards' film 103British comedian and the male lead in Blake Edwards' film 10.

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