The Duffle Coat
A detailed history of our iconic duffle coats.
The British Royal Navy designed the first duffle coat in the late 1880's in response to request from active service sailors for a weatherproof outer garment that would protect against the worst weathers that the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans could throw at the British Fleet. The initial design was a very different affair to today’s classic duffle. It is not clear when it was first introduced but here is a picture from the mid 1890's that we believe shows British sailors wearing this initial design. It was short, very loose, and had a front closure that angled up from the hem to the neck. This design allowed for lots of movement when climbing steps and ease of manoeuvre when attending to the use of guns etc but proved to be not great at keeping the weather out, and was very heavy.
Also the hood - similar to a monk’s habit- was hard to secure in gale force winds. Sailors would often use rope to pull in the waist and secure the rope to the inside of the hood to reduce the area around the face.
A second version added adjustable studs around the hood that allowed the hood to be tightened right around the face - thus keeping more weather away from the sailors face.
At the turn of the century the British developed a second version of the duffle that is very close to today’s classic duffle - this was a straight up and down design that is effectively almost double breasted and had the addition of the saddle shoulder as used on the donkey jacket. This feature increased the usability of the duffle for carrying heavy items across the shoulders and made the coat much more waterproof across the shoulders - the first part that catches rain.
The name duffle comes from the Belgian town of Duffle or Duffel - dependent on your spelling being either French or Flemish - where the initial fabric came from. It was a heavy boiled serge type of wool and the name of the town was woven into the selvage - the edge of the fabric that was discarded in make as it was used to protect the fabric in transit - and so the coat was called a Duffle. Since the British Royal Navy had invented the duffle - and almost all were made in Britain, politicians decided that the fabric should be British, not Belgian, so British wool was used from the turn of the century. By now there were lots of examples of both types of duffle in use across the British Royal Navy. Fabric was all sorts of colours from camel to khaki and even brown, but surprisingly no navy. This was to keep costs low as the colour of the duffle was defined by the colour of the sheep. Those sheep that had more natural lanolin – a waxy material that naturally creates waterproofing - were better weatherproofing wool for duffles.
As well as the British Royal Navy, other navies were ordering British made duffles and these were used across all types of armed services. In Britain the officers of the Army were soon to be seen wearing duffles that they had traded with naval types.
It had become clear to the few forward looking military commanders that the future of warfare would depend on belief of men serving that there cause was just and true would need to replace the 'do what I say' methods still prevalent at the outbreak of the Great War. The duffle was popular with some officers because it said that they were the same as the poor foot soldier in that the duffle was becoming the universal weatherproof garment. This was frowned on in the Army and official pictures rarely show officers wearing duffles - the Army believed in separating the classes.
However in the British Royal Navy if you were serving on ship you would grab the nearest duffle when time to go up top. It did not matter if you were an Officer or an Admiral - you wore the same duffle.
Duffles were even supplied to the first submarine crews but these were either cut down in length or replaced with motor cycle messenger type jackets as space was at a premium.
Throughout the 1930's as Britain prepared for war duffles were produced in millions, again in all colours but now Navy was available as well as camel - usually for the British Royal Navy and khaki for the Army. Colonel David Stirling created the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa in 1941 which later became the famous SAS regiment. This group was tasked with creating havoc behind enemy lines and did so in spectacular style. The group ran Chrysler trucks converted to fighting machines with no roofs and the fitting of heavy machine guns on the back. The team were all issued with duffles, using them to sit on during the day as their convoys sped across the desert and as sleeping bags in the bitterly cold desert nights. Stirling believed that the SAS had no commanders, only self motivated individuals of exceptional bravery. To this end all men in the SAS wore duffles. A mark of true egalitarianism.
After the War the hundreds of thousands of duffles not used by the services were sold off cheaply or given as part of aid to the war ravaged areas of Europe. Thus the humble duffle took on its second political phase as it became the choice of poor intellectuals everywhere- a sure sign of the impact of the duffle as the 'coat of the people'. This flood of duffles, recycled if you like, continued into the 1960's. Duffles really do last a very long time if made properly.
Today, the duffle is a much loved - and copied - original British icon. British duffle captures not only the spirit of the original duffle but also takes the art of duffle making to a whole new level.
Having been around for more than 100 years we are sure we will be around for at least another 100 years.