Duffle is a coarse, heavy woolen fabric with a thick nap, traditionally worn by fishermen. Its name derives from the town in Belgium where it was originally manufactured beginning in the seventeenth century. The fabric is most commonly associated with a box-cut, loose-fitting, three-quarter-length coat with patch pockets and a square shoulder yoke, fastened with wooden or buffalo horn toggles and hemp loops. Sharing the name of its fabric, the duffle coat is the only classic overcoat to have a hood.
Although hoods of a similar shape to that of the modern duffle coat were indeed used as far back as the Bronze Age (some think a monk’s habit was the forerunner of the duffle coat), the actual design of the duffle coat originated in Poland (known as the Polish-coat) in the first half of the nineteenth century. John Partridge, a British purveyor of outdoor clothing, began to design and sell the duffle in 1890.
The duffle actually came into its own when the Royal Navy adopted it early in the twentieth century. Sailors wore the coat, sometimes with a pair of matching drawstring trousers, as protection from the elements when assigned to deck watch. It was further popularized by Army Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery during World War II, and indeed the beige desert version he sported at that time became known, in Europe at least, as the “Monty.” Huge quantities of army surplus duffles flooded the market after the war ended and it soon become a warm winter favorite with British and American consumers alike. Mothers would dress their young children in them due to their warmth, but duffle coats also achieved cult status among college students and intellectuals, worn with an former naval sweater, college scarf, and corduroy trousers.
The Duffle in the Twenty-first Century
Little has changed with the duffle since its Polish origins. The classic version is generally tartan lined and has a hood and an extra layer of cloth around the shoulders for added protection against the elements. Genuine horn toggles and hemp-fiber loops add an element of authenticity.
Modern fabrication, fastenings, and styling have led to a new generation of duffle coats featuring zippers, reflective safety tape, Gore-Tex linings, and printed designs on the outer fabric.
The British designer Alexander McQueen produced a version of the duffle coat for his autumn 2002 collection. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac showed a duffle coat in 1990, cut in wool with leather trim. More interestingly, the Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson is the first tailor on the Row to create a bespoke option. Instead of the original classic beige and deep blue hues, consumers have a wide variety of colors to choose from, such as dark brown, yellow, red, racing green, and burgundy.
With fans spanning a spectrum from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, to the rock band Oasis, the duffle continues to maintain a following that transcends class, wealth, or creed.
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