"Button up your overcoat
When the wind is free
Take good care of yourself
You belong to me."

by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson
from the 1929 musical "Follow Through".
Overcoats are designed for wearing over suits and dinner jackets. Dress overcoats should be just below the knee length or 6 to 8 inches longer.
Topcoats used to describe a lighter overcoat worn in spring and fall, while overcoat depicted a winter coat, but the names now seem to be interchangeable.

GUIDE for Overcoats and Topcoats:
1. Material
Wool is best for overcoats and topcoats, and it can be from sheep, lamb, goat - cashmere, and angora (mohair), vicuna, alpaca, or camel hair.
Leather: the skin or hide of animals, cured by tanning to prevent decay and to impart flexibility and toughness. Leather has an ability to conform to your body, provide comfort, durability, and can breathe.
The word comes from Old English lether, meaning leather (as in letherhose, leather pants).
The leather should feel firm yet pliable. Large pieces are the best and of course the more expensive. The types of leather are ranked by grain, which are the markings that appear on the skins and hides when hair or feathers are removed. On cows, calf, pig, and lamb the leather comes from the sides and shoulders to maximize production.
The term hide is used to designate the skin of larger animals (e.g., cowhide or horsehide), whereas "skin" refers to that of smaller animals (e.g., calfskin or kidskin).
Check the stamp on the garment for material. The Federal trade Commission regulates to ensure what is stamped is genuine.
  • TOP or FULL GRAIN refers to the top or hair side of the hide or skin that has the epidermis (skin) layer. It has a smooth grain, is soft, and easily absorbs dyes. Look for small pores.
The hide has not been sanded, buffer or snuffed (corrected) to remove imperfections on the surface. Only the hair has been removed. The grain remains in its natural state which allows the best fiber strength and thus greater durability. It should develop a natural "patina" and change its appearance over time. Only the best raw hides are used for top and full grain products.
  • CORRECTED Leather is top or full grain, which has had its surfaces sanded, buffed, or snuffed to remove any imperfection on the surface due to insect bites, healed scars or brands.
The hides used to create corrected leather are hides of inferior quality. The imperfections are corrected, and an artificial grain applied. Most corrected-grain leather is used to make pigmented leather as the solid pigment helps hide the corrections or imperfections.
  • SPLIT leather is leather that is created from the fibrous part of the hide that remains after the top grain of the raw hide has been separated from the hide. During the splitting operation the grain and drop split are separated. The drop split can be further split (thickness allowing) into a middle split and a flesh split. In very thick hides the middle split can be separated into multiple layers until the thickness prevents further splitting.
Split leather then has an artificial layer applied to the surface of the split and is embossed with a leather grain. Splits are also used to create suede.
The strongest suede is usually made from grain splits (that have the grain completely removed) or from the flesh split that has been shaved to the correct thickness. Suede is "fuzzy" on both sides. Suede is less durable than top-grain, and cheaper because many pieces of suede can be split from a single thickness of hide, whereas only one piece of top-grain can be made.
Manufacturers use a variety of techniques to make suede appear to be full grain. For example, in one operation, glue is mixed with one side of the suede, which is then pressed through rollers; these flatten and even out one side of the material, giving it the smooth appearance of full grain. A reversed suede is a grained leather that has been designed into the leather article with the grain facing away from the visible surface. It's not a true form of suede.
BONDED Leather or "Reconstituted Leather", is the particleboard of leather. It's a man-made material composed of 90% to 100% leather fibers (often scrap from leather tanneries or leather workshops) chopped and bonded together with latex binders (glue) to create a look and feel like that of 'true' leather at a fraction of the cost. Bonded leather is not as durable as other leathers.
2. Stitching: look for secure stitches, you probably won't find much hand stitching until you hit over the $2,000 price point. Some of the fusing has reached a high-quality level.
3. Lining: Bemberg, a Rayon, which feels silky but is more durable than silk, is best. It conforms to the coat fabric and will not shrink when it's dry cleaned
4. Buttons: Horn buttons have a non-uniform coloration, and they are not shiny.

FIT:

Size: Buy a coat that's one size larger than your suit size.
Shoulders: This is the most important area of fit for an overcoat, it's important to always wear a suit and if you wear one, a vest or sweater for the fitting. The back of the shoulders should lie perfectly flat just like a suit.
  • Bi-swing means there are pleats at the back of the shoulders to allow increased freedom of movement.
Chest and Collar: These are the areas of the coat closest to and framing your face. The collar should hug your neck smoothly at the back and be high enough to cover your shirt collar.
Sleeves: The sleeves should be long enough to cover the sleeves of your suit and shirt by ½ inch, but you don't want them too long.
  • Raglan: sleeves are attached at the collar instead of at the shoulder points, so that the sleeve extends to the neckline, and slants from the underarm.

    Ragland
    sleeves are named for the Earl of Raglan, Fitzroy James Henry Somerset (born Sept. 30, 1788, Badminton, Gloucestershire, England - died June 28, 1855, near Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia) who issued the misunderstood plan of attack that led to the disastrous charge.
At the Battle of Waterloo (1815), he was wounded in the right arm and had to undergo amputation. Ragland requested that Aquascutum design a sleeve that was easier to put on. There is also a story that Raglan devised a garment from a potato sack to keep his soldiers warm. The sack was slit for a neck opening and slashed diagonally across the corners to allow the arms to swing free.
Upon witnessing the charge, the French General Borquet made the famous comment "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." ("It is magnificent, but it is not war.").
The charge was also immortalized in Tennyson's eponymous poem.
"...Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do or die:
Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred..."
Three enduring clothing styles came from that battle: Ragland sleeves, the cardigan sweater, and the Balaclava.
The cardigan sweater is named for the Seventh Earl of Cardigan (Cardiganshire is a county in west Wales), James Thomas Brudenell (1797 - 1868). The Lieutenant General of the 93rd Highlanders, known as the Light Brigade, led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaklava (also Balaclava)in the Crimean war on October 25, 1854.
The Balaclava, which is a warm woolen hood covering the head and neck, and sometimes the shoulders, worn especially by mountain climbers, skiers, and military personnel. Balaklava is a section of the city of Sevastopol in the Crimea of southern Ukraine.
  • Set-in: sleeves are cut vertically at the shoulder points (like a suit jacket) the sleeve is sewn into the natural armhole.
Coats with set-in sleeves are designed for wearing over a suit and may look poor if worn with casual wear. Ragland sleeve coats often have a looser drape, are sportier and less fitted looking so may work with casual clothes.
Upper Body: Make certain there are no bulges or flares, pay extra attention to the back. If a coat has horizontal wrinkles or the buttons pull, you need a larger size. If the wrinkles are vertical the coat is too large, which is easier to tailor to fit.
Length: Dress coats should cover the knees. Above the knee makes you look heavier. If you like a longer style then go for 6 to 8 inches below the knee (midcalf). The length of the coat needs to balance with the bulk of the chest (overcoat with a suit jacket). Plus, you're wearing the coat for warmth so why let the wind and cold chill your knees.
Vents: The vent should be high enough to accommodate ease of movement, but too high a vent will let in the cold and wind. Usually to the bottom of your bottom is adequate.
Color for topcoats and overcoats: Navy and Black are traditional, but camel and grays and browns are equally acceptable. Style (see below) and color does not have to coordinate with your suit. The coat is usually buttoned, hiding the suit, or taken off indoors so the suit and coat are not really seen at the same time.

Style
Single Breasted: better for short or heavy men
Double Breasted: better for tall or thin men
Belted: good for tall men
Cuffs: may be banded sleeve cuffs, plain or have a button tab
Pockets: Overcoats can have many different style pockets:
  • Flap pockets, with a separate piece of material covering the opening are the dressiest.
  • Hacking are flap pockets placed on an angle.
  • Slash or Welt is an inset pocket - sometimes hidden in the coats seam
  • Patch pockets are sewn onto the front of the coat and may have a flap.
  • Breast pocket may be featured for an outside pocket square.
Types of Overcoats and Topcoats:
Balmacann: short collar, full cut, raglan sleeves single-breasted and often with a fly-front (a flap conceals the buttons). originally made of rough woolen cloth. Named for the hunting grounds near Inverness, Scotland.
British Warm: double-breasted, peaked-lapel, knee-length, with shoulder epaulets and brown leather buttons, the original color was "British pink", a gray taupe. The coat made its first appearance on the Indian frontier when the British troops faced a long cold winter during the Tirah Campaign. Officers wore a longer, belted version with a deep collar. After WWI the version worn by the troops was adapted for civilian use.
Burberry or Trench: see under raincoats.
Chesterfield: named after the sixth Earl of Chesterfield, a fashionable Victorian aristocrat. The coat was introduced in 1840, and has short lapels, the upper part of the collar is traditionally black or brown velvet, usually single-breasted, with a fly front (came into popularity in 1850) and set-in sleeves. The style is based on the Frock coat but not cut in at the waist. The velvet collar dates to the French Revolution when gentlemen in other countries wanted to show their sympathy with the executed bourgeoisie. The Chesterfield is the best choice to wear with formalwear.
Covert: Middle English, from Old French, from past participle of covrir, to cover. A single-breasted coat made of covert cloth, a medium twill and reaching as far as the knee. Its typical features are a fly front and four simple parallel decorative seams above the cuffs and along the bottom hem.
Greatcoat: A heavy, voluminous overcoat popular during the 1800s originally with a fur lining and styled like an Ulster.
Havelock: When you choose a cape instead of a coat for a white tie event. It's a sleeveless, hip-length of black woolen fabric, named after Sir Henry Havelock (1795 - 1857).
A Havelock is also the flap covering attached to the back of a cap to protect the neck from sun or bad weather, also named after Sir Henry Havelock in 1861. Think French Foreign Legion films like the 1939 Beau Geste with Gary Cooper, or Laurel and Hardy in "Sons of the Desert", 1933.
Havelock was a British soldier, born in Sunderland, Tyne, and Wear in Northeast England. He joined the army a month after Waterloo and went to India in 1823. He distinguished himself in the Afghan and Sikh wars and in 1856 commanded a division in Persia.
Inverness Cape: A long, loose overcoat with a detachable shoulder cape having a round collar. Named after Inverness, a burgh of northern Scotland on the Moray Firth at the terminus of the Caledonian Canal.
Overcoat: designed to wear over a suit jacket in cold weather, so it's heavier than a topcoat
Polo: British coat, introduced to the US by Brooks Brothers in 1910. It's cut below the knee, peaked collar, with patched, flap pockets at the hips and a half-belt in the back. Usually, double breasted with set in sleeves in vicuna, or camel hair. Polo players would wear this style coat between and after matches.
Topcoat: lightweight coat designed to wear over a suit jacket
Wrap: a loose robe like silhouette, no buttons but with a long belt (casual).
Ulster: a full cut, long, rugged overcoat made of heavy, tweed fabric with a belt and a detachable hood. Introduced in the 1860's by a Belfast company. Ulster is the northernmost of the historic provinces of Ireland and ancient kingdom of Northern Ireland. Six of its nine counties make up Northern Ireland, annexed by the English Crown during the reign of James I, the rest are in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is often referred to as Ulster.

CARE

FABRIC:
The less you dry clean a coat, the better. Once a season is plenty or if you do get a spot on your coat take to the dry cleaner immediately.
In 1855, on a chilly night in Paris, Jean Baptist Jolly accidentally upset an unlit oil lamp. He removed the soiled tablecloth and left it for several hours. When he got around to cleaning up the mess, he was amazed that not only was the spill gone, but the tablecloth was cleaner where the oil had spilled. The first commercial dry cleaner is in business. Dry means without water although the process uses liquid.
Brush your coat with a clothing brush after each wearing and hang it on a wooden or plastic contour hanger to retain the shape. Always empty the pockets and leave it unbuttoned when you hang it up. Cloth covers protect your coats from dust and allow the fabric to breath while better than the plastic covers that usually come with the coat. Make sure they have room in your closet so that there is adequate air circulation.
LEATHER:
Leather protective spray provides water and stain protection but doesn't alter the color. Use the protective spray when you first get the leather coat and repeat every few months.
A conditioner is recommended to keep leather soft and supple, and to moisturize it, which keeps the leather from cracking.
There are a lot of good leather conditions on the market, sometimes known as balms. Many conditioners come combined with cleaners.
Don't use any cleaner on leather than contains an acid or a detergent. You can use saddle soap, Murphy's Oil Soap, Ivory soap, or a cleaner made for shoe leather. Apply with a damp cloth, wipe off and let dry. Then you can apply conditioner as needed.
If you get any major stain on the leather take it to a dry cleaner that specializes in leather!
HISTORY:
The words coat and cloak both come from Medieval Latin clocca which developed into the Old North French cloque, and then Middle English cloke, all meaning "bell" (from the shape of a cloak or cape). Capes were the outerwear of choice until the end of the 18th century.
The Roman toga was as much as 6 by 16 feet. Senators needed help to properly drape the garment.
The common people went for outerwear based on the chasuble, an early Christian vestment, a long sleeveless vestment worn by priests celebrating Mass and in the form of a poncho. The word is from the Late Latin "casubla", meaning hooded garment from "casupula" which is diminutive of casa meaning house. They must have been large [French, from Old French, from Late Latin casubla, hooded garment, from *casupula, diminutive of casa, house.]
The Mantle, along, loose cape like cloak original cut square, oblong or as part of a circle was worn from the 12th through the 16th century. It was fastened by a pin or clasp on one shoulder or tied at the neck.
Ancient Britons made do with one piece of cloth, which doubled as a mantle by day and a blanket at night. The fabric pattern was usually tartan or plaid.
By the 14th century it had developed into a ceremonial cape. When lined it was called a double mantle, and by 19th cent a mantle meant a cape without sleeves. The name is from Latin "mantellum" meaning "cloak".
Most civilizations prior to the 14th century were outfitted in long flowing mantles. In Europe plate armor was replacing chain mail. Since plate armor is closely fitted with sharp points the "pourpoint" develops as a sleek, tight jacket, padded to protect the body. (It also gives definition to a guy's chest!) Then came the shorter "journade" and "courtepy" with a pinched waist and padded shoulders (called "mahoitres"). This clothing evolution led to the doublet in the 14th century.
Cloaks with sleeves appeared in the 16th century.
The Doublet was thechief upper garment worn by men from the late 14th century until 1670. It was a close-fitting, waisted, padded jacket worn over a shirt. Its ancestor, the gipon, was a tunic worn under armor, and at first came down almost to the knees. The civilian doublet originally had skirts but gradually lost them. It had no collar until 1540, allowing the shirt to be seen at the neck; the shirt was also visible through slashes or "pinking" in the material. The word "pinking" means "to decorate with a perforated pattern". or "to cut with pinking shears" from the Latin "pungere" and the Old and Middle English words"pingen", "pinken," and "pyngan".
The sleeves, which at first were plain and close-fitting, became wide, padded, and slashed with complex designs. Detachable sleeves were worn after 1540. The doublet fastened down the front with buttons, hooks, or laces in the 16th century, though earlier it was hooked out of sight at the side.
The height and narrowness of the waist varied from country to country, as did the materials, which included rich fabrics such as velvet, satin, and cloth of gold. An extreme fashion, the peascod, or goose-bellied doublet, came to England from Holland in the 1570s; it was padded to a point at the waist and swelled out over the girdle. It survives in the traditional costume of Punch.
When the French Revolution 1789 made it politically incorrect to be seen in rich folks' attire, the doublet shortened to a jacket like coat.
Jerkin: A close-fitting, hip-length, collarless and having no sleeves but often extended shoulders, belted, usually made of leather and worn over a doublet by men in the 16th century.
A gown or cloak might be worn over the doublet by the elderly or in cold weather. In the 16th century it could be worn partly open, requiring a stomacher or placard underneath. But in England in Elizabethan times a man was fully suited in doublet and hose. Points, ties threaded through opposing eyelets in each garment, joined the two parts of the suiting.
On February 3, 1661, Samuel Pepys stepped out for the first time in his "coate" which was "… the manner now among gentlemen". Pepys' coate was a knee length adaptation of a loose riding garment that in this new form replaced the padded doublet, which came from the tunic.
The Justaucorps a slender, knee-length coat with short sleeves to show the elaborate cuffs of shirts, became popular in the mid 1600's. By the end of the 17th century, it acquires a nipped-in waist, full-length sleeves and massive cuffs and becomes everyday men swear. The Justaucorps developed into a close-fitting knee-length coat, which made the body appear smooth and round, thus determining the stylish silhouette of gentlemen in the 18th century. The slightly rounded front hem showed parts of the vest and the breeches. The sword was worn under the flared skirts.
Great coats, such as the surtout,were popular during the early 19th century. It had a pinched waist, full bottom, puffed chest, velvet lapels in black, blue, or olive. The Paletot, an abbreviated great coat, replaced the surtout. In the 1830s it was a short overcoat without a swaisline seam with or without a short back vent and sometimes pleated at the side seams. The word is from the Dutch "paltrok" ("pals" meaning "palace" and "rok" meaning "garment").
Overcoats were part of military uniforms since the late 18th century, including the Napoleonic era, it was more common for military officers than soldiers. Overcoats were more popular for troops in military fashion during World War One. Most military overcoats were double breasted.
The overcoat became more popular for civilian wear during the reign of English Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and started looking more like current styles. Modern suits and outerwear developed in the 19th century from these early garments.
Photo credit: alexgo.photography/Shutterstock; Tony Marturano/Shutterstock