This winter jacket was born on the high seas in the 1800s. Most sources credit the Dutch, a naval powerhouse at the time, with the pea coat’s first iteration. The “pea” in the name is believed to come from the Dutch word pij, which means a coat of coarse cloth. It was the British Navy, however, that made the double-breasted design an icon by issuing it to all of their petty officers. The US Navy followed suit, and the pea coat became the staple of ‘reefers,’ a nickname name for sailors who had to climb up the ship’s rigging to fix the sails, even in blustering winds.
What made this coat so desirable for sailors? It was an answer to the cold, damp and windy conditions at sea. The pea coat is made of wool, which can absorb 30% of its weight in water without feeling damp. The form-fitting cut traps in body heat. Moreover, pre-dating the invention of the zipper (1893), the pea coat utilizes the double-breast and buttons to seal in sailors. As two final defenses against cold weather, the collar can be popped up to protect the neck from wind and the coat contains two large pockets meant for one’s hands.
Even with the proliferation of synthetic jacket materials, the pea coat remains incredibly popular. It is, in my view, a wonderful marriage of utility and simple elegance.