A Reverie: The Peacoat And It’s History As The Everyperson’s Outerwear

Featured Story 2

February 9, 2023

The House Magazine

Photography courtesy of Grailed.





A mental abstraction in which aimless fancy predominates over reasoning; dreamy meditation; fanciful musing. Similar: daydreaming, fantasy, woolgathering.

Released in limitless variation each fall, its history detailed in an endless array of articles, flooding Pinterest boards with vintage photos of celebrities donning it – even arcane instructions on how to put one on – the peacoat has endured for over 200 years across generations, genders, class barriers and continents.


But for all the literature and fanfare about this humble, yet mighty, garment, I was wont (speaking of archaic) to find interesting anecdotes about how it manifests in the everyday lives of everyday people. So, I asked – friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, strangers. And over the course of many calls, comments and texts, the peacoat revealed itself also to be a storyteller, a rite of passage, a bridge across generations, and even an object of desire. Most of all, the question of the peacoat was an unexpectedly engaging conversation starter.

Here comes the aimless fancy part (see: reverie, above): Could the peacoat be the everyperson of outerwear?

Photo courtesy of International Center of Photograpbers

The origin of the peacoat as standard issue of European militaries in the 1800’s, and later the US Navy, unsurprisingly meant that many of peacoat wearers I interviewed told of coats passed down from a sibling, uncle or grandfather from a previous war or tour of duty. The heirs to these coats were eager to share the family lore around whichever relative originally possessed it, speaking with pride of multiple deployments, or even the lack of a familial peacoat in the case of ancestors who had served in warmer climates. Some lamented the elders who failed to preserve these items for future generations.  

Peacoat succession is not limited to family heirlooms. Parting with a peacoat is rarely fodder for Goodwill cast-offs, but rather a selective process of identifying just the right wearer – a friend, or a colleague whose style was admired. It matters who gets it next. Utilikilt types and those who weren’t fortunate enough to receive a coat from kith or kin, seek theirs out at military surplus stores (along with jungle boots and Air Force sleeping bags).

The peacoat seems immune from being Konmari-ed in the event of a closet-purging, even if it hasn’t been worn in years. Sentimentality, yes, but more often cited was the need to have something appropriate on hand to wear for occasions when more casual clothing just won’t do. Or as one respondent colorfully put it, “You can’t wear a puffy to a funeral, you’ll look like an a**hole.”

The words “appropriate” and “occasion” surfaced quite a bit, actually. With its woolen fabric originally woven to withstand gale-force winds and back vents allowing sailors to scale a mizzen mast with ease, it is the workwear workhorse-cum-style staple. And a superlative one at that. Written responses to my inquiry were rife with exclamation points and love emojis. “Love a pea coat!” “Love!!!” “Timeless!!” “Iconic!”. Those who delivered their feedback in person lit up with the joy of talking about a dear friend. Fashionable grandmothers are remembered to have always worn one. Specific eras are evoked – New Wave chic and the impossible cool of the Beatles. Shoutouts went to Twiggy, Robert Redford, Ali McGraw, James Dean and George Harrison, with the peacoat worn effortlessly well regardless of gender.

Photo courtesy of Ralph Lauren.

Even with its humble origins, the peacoat was aspirational for many, something working-class families could not afford. It is an item wanted in youth, but not acquired until adulthood. A milestone of being a grownup. Given as a gift, for some a first peacoat marked the occasion of the recipient’s first professional job. A luxe Burberry version purchased for thousands by one wearer to reward herself for losing 100 pounds was later replaced by a more economical one from the Gap upon regaining the weight. From the East Coast to the Wild West, and as previously mentioned, peacoats are worn to funerals (who can forget John Jr.’s heart wrenching salute to JFK), but also for a night on the town, on a fun date, thrown over pjs to dash out to the corner bodega, and for repairing buckrail fences (yes, really). 

Though peacoats elicited few complaints, pockets emerged as a recurrent shortcoming, either placed too high on the garment for hand use, forcing the wearer to walk about with arms bent out like chicken wings, or with loose change falling through holes in flimsy pocket linings. The only other detractor confessed a residual trauma from the hipster peacoat resurgence of the early aughts, when everything became bespoke and, of course, the ubiquitous red hats, skinny jeans and brown boots.

At once classic and contemporary, the peacoat carries a far-reaching appeal and holds a special place in people’s hearts, not least because of the stories they hold. I had no idea this topic would bring out a family story I hadn’t heard before. A teen in the early 60s, my mother boarded a Greyhound bus from the midwest to visit a relative in Texas. The air conditioning was on full blast to compensate for the sweltering temps, and she shivered in her seat. When a group of sailors boarded, one chivalrously offered her his coat. “Thus began my love affair with the pea coat”, she mused. In my mind’s eye, I can see her through a vintage film filter, young and beautiful with the coat draped over her shoulders, the sun glinting on the horizon as the bus rolled on.